Lives well lived. The legacy of anti-nuclear campaigning in Tahiti

Three men campaigned for decades to raise awareness of the health and environmental consequences of France’s nuclear testing program in the Pacific

By Nic Maclellan

But the deaths of John Doom, Bruno Barrillot and Roland Oldham mean others must pick up their work, to support the thousands of Maohi workers who staffed the nuclear test sites.

Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll in the Pacific territory of French Polynesia. From the 1980s, Arakino worked for 17 years with the French military unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the French nuclear test site, to determine the spread of radioactive particles. Working as a scuba diver, he plunged into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been detonated deep in the atoll.

Arakino reported: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ to gather samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls. It is likely that while diving to gather plankton above ground zero, I swallowed or breathed in radioactive particles. In no case did my senior officers inform me of the risks I might incur.”

Arakino later died of cancer. He was just one of thousands of workers who laboured in support of the French nuclear testing program, with Algerians and Pacific islanders often allocated the most dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs.

Licorne 3

A scan of a (digitally restored) hardcopy of a French army picture of the Licorne thermonuclear test in French Polynesia. (Photo: Pierre J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/7969902@N07/511287693)

Starting in the Sahara Desert in 1960, France conducted four atmospheric nuclear tests at Reggane in French Algeria. There were 13 further underground tests at In Eker between 1961 and 1965, with testing even continuing after Algerian independence in 1962. The testing program was then relocated to French Polynesia, where 46 atmospheric and 147 underground nuclear tests were held at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.

Thousands of Maohi (Polynesian) workers staffed the test sites during the thirty years of French nuclear testing in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. Five years after the last French test, the association Moruroa e Tatou (Moruroa and Us) took up their cause. John Taroanui Doom, Bruno Barrillot and Roland Oldham co-founded the association on 4 July 2001, eventually uniting a membership of thousands of former workers. They spent years challenging successive French governments and local Tahitian leaders who refused to address the health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing.

Sadly, all three men have died in recent years – but their work lives on, with a younger generation picking up the torch.

MeT John Doom and Bruno Barrillot

John Doom (left) with Bruno Barrillot. (Photo: Nic Maclellan)

The Pacific region lost one of its greats on Christmas Day 2016, with the death in Tahiti of John Taroanui Doom, at age 80.

From across the political spectrum, Tahitians mourned the loss of the scholar, religious leader and anti-nuclear activist. The conservative government of French Polynesia paid its condolences, stating: “With passion, but with great tolerance and respect for the views of others, John Doom gave his life to defend the Polynesian people. He was a man of deep humanity, who loved the Polynesian people, their culture and languages.”

For independence leader Oscar Manutahi Temaru, “John was a man of letters but also a man of the divine word, above all a humanist and curious about everything. It was this curiosity that led him to witness France’s first atmospheric nuclear test – a monstrosity he immediately recognised. The anti-nuclear movement found in him a peaceful but committed warrior.”

Fortunately, John’s memoirs “A he’e noa i te tau – Mémoires d’une vie partagée” were published in October 2016, just months before his death. They document a life well lived.

One of 12 children, Taroanui Doom was born on 6 May 1936, in Papeete, French Polynesia. He grew up on the island of Tubuai, in the Austral archipelago.

As a young journalist with the Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française (ORTF), John witnessed the first French nuclear test, codename Aldebaran, which exploded into the atmosphere above Moruroa Atoll on 2 July 1966. Working as an interpreter for the visiting French delegation, the experience transformed John’s life, which he spent campaigning for a nuclear free and independent Pacific.

On the day of the test, John was on Mangareva, acting as interpreter for the visiting Overseas Minister Pierre Billotte. Some years later, John told me he was shocked when he saw that French personnel were better protected than the islanders. As radioactive fallout enveloped the island, the French delegation fled without informing the locals. Three days after the Aldebaran test, a French naval vessel was sent to Mangareva to monitor the fallout. Technicians found that unwashed lettuce from gardens on the island had levels of contamination 185 times greater than normal background radioactivity.

On the 40th anniversary of this first French test, John organised the inauguration of a park in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, named Place du 2 Juillet 1966. This green oasis commemorates the first of 193 French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

In 2001, working with Roland Oldham and Bruno Barrillot, John co-founded Moruroa e Tatou– the association of former Maohi workers from Moruroa and Fangataufa. His calm counsel but driving passion slowly forced the French State to acknowledge the need for clean-up of the nuclear test sites. France is still resisting however full compensation for the civilian and military personnel who staffed the military bases.

John was deeply committed to the Protestant church, appointed as a deacon in 1962 and then, after 1972, serving for five years as principal of the Hermon Theological School. He was appointed as Secretary General of the Eglise Evangélique de la Polynésie française (EEPF) in 1971 – later renamed the Eglise Protestante Maohi (EPM) at the time of the election of the first pro-independence government in French Polynesia in 2004.

John’s faith led him across the region and the globe. After leading the largest denomination in French Polynesia and working on the executive committee of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), he took up an appointment with the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. From 1989 until his retirement in 2000, Doom served as the WCC’s executive secretary for the Pacific, carrying the voice of Pacific peoples into the wider ecumenical debate. As his memoirs proclaim: “The goal is to help those who are oppressed and give a voice to those that have none. We all have the capacity to intervene in world affairs.”

John was also a man of culture and a learned scholar of the Tahitian language reo Maohi. With Maco Tavane, he was one of the co-founders of the Académie Tahitienne – Fare Vana’ain August 1972, which promoted Tahitian language, literature and culture. Forty years later, he briefly returned as Director of the Académie from 2 June 2012, until ill health led to his retirement. He was buried at Papeari on 27 December 2016, alongside his beloved wife Tetua.

Met Bruno Barrillot

Bruno Barrillot. (Photo: Marie-Helene Villierme)

The death of Bruno Barrillot on 25 March 2017 robbed Moruroa e Tatouof another key supporter.

Bruno was born in Lyon, France on 9 April 1940 and spent his life committed to anti-militarism, disarmament and social action as an active member of the Catholic Church. During the 1970s, he served as chaplain for the Mouvement rural de la jeunesse chrétienne (MRJC), a Catholic youth network in the rural Loire region of France. He supported young men who refused to undertake their national service, participating in the mass return of draft papers in 1978.

In 1984, Bruno joined two colleagues to establish a new peace research centre in Lyon, the Centre de documentation et de recherche sur la paix et les conflits (CDRPC). For the next 15 years, Bruno served as Director of the Centre and wrote numerous books on the French armaments industry, French military interventionism and the threat of nuclear weapons.

In 1990, he made a visit to French Polynesia, which served as a turning point for the remaining decades of his life. Visiting the island of Mangareva and hearing the testimonies of nuclear survivors, he began to document the health and environmental damage of French nuclear testing. Through a series of meticulously researched books – including Les essais nucléaires français 1960-1996and L’héritage de la bombe – he documented the impact of French testing on the health of nomadic communities of the Sahara Desert and the Maohi people of the atolls of French Polynesia  – two supposedly “empty” regions that hosted 210 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests.

After the 2004 election of long-time independence campaigner Oscar Temaru as President of French Polynesia, Bruno relocated from France to Tahiti. From 2009-2013, he served as a special counsellor to the new government on nuclear matters (dismissed from his post when Gaston Flosse returned to the presidency). As counsellor, Bruno played a crucial role in the investigation of French nuclear testing initiated by the Assembly of French Polynesia in 2006, led by independence activist Tea Hirshon. The commission of inquiry recommended better compensation measures for Maohi workers and the creation of a centre in Papeete, with archives on the nuclear era and a memorial to nuclear survivors.

Throughout this period, he was a crucial collaborator and adviser for both Moruroa e Tatou and the Association des Veterans des Essais Nucléaires (AVEN) in France, which brought together former French military personnel who had witnessed nuclear testing in Algeria or French Polynesia. Their work culminated in French legislation passed in January 2010 known as the Loi Morin, which established a commission to determine compensation for civilian and military survivors of the nuclear testing program.

Bruno’s death in Tahiti in March 2017, just months after the death of John Doom, was a major blow to this community of nuclear survivors.

Met Roland Oldham and victims

Roland Oldham (center) with victims of the Tahitian atomic tests. (Photo: Nic Maclellan)

The third champion of nuclear survivors was Roland Oldham, who served as President of Moruroa e Tatou. Unlike the two men of God who were his closest collaborators, Roland was a man of the Left, a bluntly spoken trade union militant (In 1995, Roland and I were translating from Tahitian to French to English, during a church service for a regional NGO meeting. As the sermon passed through two translators and three languages, some of the Biblical homilies got a bit mangled! The pastor later glared at Roland, chastising: “Some people need to spend more time in church!”).

A former member of the trade union A Tia I Mua, Roland played a key role in the establishment of a breakaway, militant union confederation in 1992, the Confedération syndicale indépendante et démocratique (CSID). Both unions engaged in bold industrial actions, such as the 1993 general strike against a wage freeze and the 1994 general strike against new taxes proposed by the conservative Flosse government

His long commitment to workers’ rights was also expressed through his support for the thousands of Maohi workers who had laboured on the French military bases at Hao, Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.

Trade unionist, political campaigner, blues guitarist with the band ‘Atomic Blues’ – he was a man of many parts and a true Pacific warrior. Roland was a driving force in the campaign for reparations for those workers who suffered adverse health effects, finally leading to the passage of France’s compensation law.

However, he later argued that the 2010 Morin legislation ignored a number of key concerns that have been central to Moruroa e Tatou’slobbying. In an interview, he noted: “The draft law covers workers and military personnel who staffed the test sites, but not the local indigenous communities on islands near Moruroa that received radioactive fallout. As well, the law makes no provision for ongoing clean-up of contamination at the test sites.”

Above all, the law contains a provision which states that there was “negligible risk” of radiation exposure, effectively reversing the burden of proof for Maohi workers. Over le last decade, few Maohi workers have been granted compensation, often struggling to find the official documents required to prove that their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation in the course of their work at the test sites. Following the passage of the Morin law, Roland continued to lobby the French government and the government of French Polynesia to amend the legislation and remove this provision. He bluntly challenged every attempt to use the law as an excuse to avoid further action.

Alongside his work in French Polynesia, Roland was a crucial ally for other nuclear survivors around the region. In 2017, he travelled to the United Nations in New York alongside Fijian activist Vanessa Griffen and Aboriginal campaigner Karina Lester, to lobby governments who were negotiating the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). To great applause, Karina Lester presented a petition from indigenous groups around Oceania, calling for the treaty to address the health and environmental legacies of testing in the Pacific. The TPNW preamble now recognises “the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapon activities on indigenous peoples.”

Pacific government delegations lobbied hard for specific provisions to support nuclear survivors. This is now reflected in the final TPNW, which was adopted by a vote of 122-1 on 7 July 2017. The final treaty requires state parties to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as environmental remediation of contaminated areas.

After a long struggle with cancer, Roland died on 16 March 2019 in Tahiti, aged 68. In a final interview, he stated simply: “In spite of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, I’ve tried to learn from them. I think that in all I’ve done, I’ve tried to bring a bit of happiness to others.”

For decades, successive governments in Paris and Papeete denied that the French nuclear tests had led to adverse health and environmental impacts. The work of John, Bruno and Roland, alongside hundreds of other Maohi campaigners, smashed open this facade of lies.

In November 2018, the President of French Polynesia Edouard Fritch – a member of successive conservative governments in Papeete – surprised the Assembly of French Polynesia with a frank admission, as representatives debated changes to French Polynesia’s 2004 autonomy statute.

“For 30 years, we lied to the people that these tests were clean. It was us who lied and I was a member of this gang! And for what reason did we lie? Because our own leader had seen a bomb explode,” Fritch said.

In June 2019, the French National Assembly and Senate finally passed changes to the autonomy statute, including the first official recognition of the legacies of France’s nuclear testing. The revised legislation now states:

“The French Republic recognises that French Polynesia was called upon to assist the construction of the nuclear deterrent capacity and the defence of the nation. The requirements to compensate people suffering from illnesses resulting from exposure to ionising radiation from the French nuclear tests will be resolved conforming to the law. The French state will guarantee the maintenance and monitoring of the affected sites on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. The state will support the economic and structural conversion of French Polynesia following the end of nuclear testing.”

A new generation must now hold France to its commitments.

Nic Maclellan is a correspondent for Islands Business magazine in Fiji and a contributor to other media in the Pacific islands. He is co-author of ‘La France dans le Pacifique’ (Editions la Decouverte, Paris) and ‘After Moruroa – France in the South Pacific’ (Ocean Press, New York and Melbourne). His latest book ‘Grappling with the Bomb’ – a history of British nuclear testing in Kiribati – is published by ANU Press.

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One Comment on “Lives well lived. The legacy of anti-nuclear campaigning in Tahiti

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