Moorea:  French Influence and Changes in the Human Environment

The South Pacific volcanic island of Moorea was first inhabited over a thousand years ago by peoples from South East Asia (Oliver, 11). It is the second largest and one of the most highly populated islands in the Society archipelago of French Polynesia. Moorea is known as the sister island of Tahiti, the economic hub of French Polynesia ( Additionally, beautiful coral reefs, white sandy beaches, and luscious vegetation surround the island, creating an exotic tourism locale.

However, the tourism environment and the Moorea that we know today have been developed by several important historical transgressions, most notably the political influence of France in Polynesia. Moorea’s relationship with France has shaped the human environment of the island, altering its government, economy, and demographics, and ultimately leading to a potentially unsustainable future for the island.

Before European contact and the subsequent annexation of Tahiti to the French Government, French Polynesia relied on a multi-chief system without any centralized power (Maamaatuaiahutapu). There was a mutual agreement between tribes among the different islands, including Moorea, that their would be no “king” of all of Polynesia, and a stability was “founded upon that agreement” (Maamaatuaiahutapu). If the tribes did not respect this agreement, tribal warfare would ensue.

There was a stratified social system within the different tribes, with the ruling Arii, or chiefs, Toofa, deputy chiefs, Iatoai, officers, Raatira, landowners, Manahune, commoners, Teuteu, servants, and Titi, slaves or prisoners of war (Maamaatuaiahutapu). The fact that each clan had its own Arii and Toofa, and therefore self sovereignty, implies that Moorea probably had just as much political power as tribes in Tahiti, and vice versa.

This political balance between clans and islands ended in the early 1800s, when European influence, most notably the Protestant London Missionary Society, “perverted the internal hegemony of the Pomare clan,” (Maamaatuaiahutapu) which was formerly one of the numerous tribes of Tahiti. In short, the Missionary Society helped the Pomare clan gain power over the island in return for their conversion to Christianity. Although other clans of Moorea and Tahiti tried to protest this centralization of power in the 1820’s, they were overpowered by the French implementation of a protectorate in 1842 (Britannica). This caused a brief rebellion by Moorea and Tahiti against the French, which ended in French victory, the compliance of Queen Pomare IV, and the reestablishment of the protectorate. With the abdication of Pomare V in 1880, both Moorea and Tahiti became colonies of France (Maamaatuaiahutapu).

The Colonial Era lasted until 1945, when a new protectorate was established, giving the power of land management to the queen, although a French governor was still the highest political figure. Over the next sixty years, France made changes to French Polynesia’s title, along with small governmental adjustments, but the general power remained with France (Maamaatuaiahutapu). Currently, French Polynesia is considered an Overseas Community, led by a president elected by the Polynesian people, but still ultimately under the jurisdiction of the French legal system and president Nicolas Sarkozy (CIA World Factbook).

Moorea, along with the other 121 islands of French Polynesia, share Papeete as a capital (Poirine, 24). Together with its neighboring island Maioa, Moorea is a commune of Tahiti. A commune is the lowest administrative unit in French government, similar to a town or small city. The mayor of the Moorea-Maioa commune, elected in 2008, is Raymond Van-Banstolaer, a member of the Union for Democracy party (UPLD) (Tunui). The UPLD is a coalition established by the current president of French Polynesia’s Territorial Assembly , Oscar Temaru. The coalition calls for “taui,” or change, which implies “a new cultural orientation, away from the French influence and back to the country's Maohi (Indigenous Polynesian) roots, as well as toward a more pan-Pacific perspective” (Gonschor). It does not seek total independence from France, most likely because the Polynesian economy relies on French aid.

The way the government is set up gives almost no power to Moorea, simply because it is less populated and less industrialized than Tahiti. However, one might argue that Moorea should have more political power because of the pristine environment that it is in charge of protecting. Oftentimes, tourists who visit the island may not be concerned about the detrimental impact that they have on the island. Therefore, without the jurisdiction or federal funds to make proper restrictions against pollution and general apathy towards the environment, the reputation of the island’s historically untarnished environment will suffer. While Moorea, and on a larger scale French Polynesia, have a relatively stable European-instituted government system, it is arguable whether this system is beneficial—or sustainable—to the islands in the long term.

Before Europeans arrived, Mooreans exercised a subsistence-based economy (Duane, 2). Small-scale farming and gardening was used to provide food for islanders, which supplemented their diet of fish and other seafood. While the agriculture was small scale, it relied on a highly developed system. Archaeological records from the Opunohu valley on the Northern side of Moorea have noted the remnants of many “agricultural terraces,” which were enclosed plots of land for farming (Green, 171). Some of the terraces have walls to prevent flooding in valleys, others have irrigation systems, and several are adapted to only receive rainwater (Green, 171). While the terraces were mostly likely used to grow taro, which arrived in Polynesia around 450 A.D, the same study also found remnants of coconut graters, suggesting that coconut groves were also cultivated (Encyclopedia of the Nations). In addition, the islanders might have cultivated breadfruit and manioc, which are also traditional foods of French Polynesia.

Before European contact, Moorean society was governed by tabu, a set of rules chosen by the Ari’i, one of which determined who could live where on the island. Because the Ari’i were said to come from the Gods, the sky and the sea were very important to Polynesian society. Archeological ruins of many different marae in Moorea have indicated that elevation-wise, both the highest points on the island, the points closest to the heavens, and the lowest points, closest to the sea, were reserved for the Ari’i. For the other classes, the next highest elevations were occupied by other nobles and continued downwards based on class.

Not only did the locations of these marae show the extreme social stratification of the island, but also that Moorea once had a relatively equally distributed population, with islanders living on both the coastline and higher elevations. However, today in Moorea, the majority of islanders live along the coastline, leaving the higher elevations mostly untouched. From this, one might conclude that before Europeans changed the social dynamics of Polynesians, Mooreans used their resources in a more sustainable manner, as they drew from a larger land area. In the future, it is possible that with rising sea levels and a growing population that a coastline will not be able to provide a sustainable lifestyle for Mooreans.

European exploration and subsequent French colonization, starting in the early eighteenth century, changed the island’s economy from subsistence-based farming to a cash crop system. As a result of European exploration in Tahiti, a new generation of islanders of mixed Polynesian and European descent arose, and eventually migrated to other islands in Polynesia, particularly Moorea because of its close proximity (Robineau, 289). This migration increased the population of Moorea and introduced new European agricultural technology and practices to Moorea, in effect changing the scale and dynamics of farming on the island. (Robineau, 291) A higher population meant that more resources were needed, but also that there were more available laborers. Additionally, by the late nineteenth century when this migration was occurring, currency began to flourish over subsistence lifestyles, rendering the islanders’ need-based agricultural system obsolete. The development of plantations ensued, featuring larger plots of land and cash crops determined by the demands of the market (Robineau, 291). The dominant crop was coconut (for coprah), although cotton and sugar cane were also grown, and eventually vanilla and coffee (Robineau, 289). Whereas farms were previously devoted to providing food for the families that owned and worked on them, the plantations formed a hierarchy on the island. This was due to the fact that they were owned by the “Demis,” or the islanders of European and Polynesian descent, and managed by local workforces or by sharecropping (Robineau, 291).

This agricultural system lasted until the early 1960s, when France implemented nuclear testing in French Polynesia. While the testing was off of Moruroa and Fangataufa, rather than Moorea, it greatly affected the human environment and essentially shaped the modern economy throughout the territory. First, Faa’a International Airport was opened in 1961 (Doumenge 148). Not only did that allow for easier transportation between France and Tahiti, but it also opened up the possibility for the implementation of a large-scale tourism industry. Second, the Centre d’Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) which began to gain momentum in 1963, created many new public works and construction jobs to build infrastructures and supply servicemen for the tests (Doumenge, 148). This led to the transition away from the cash crop hierarchy and towards a France-financed wage-based economy (Robineau, 291). It also lead to a “rural exodus” from peripheral archipelagos to more urbanized centers such as Tahiti (Doumenge, 149). During this time, the amount of farmers and fishermen decreased by forty percent while the wage earning population increased over five fold (Robineau, 291). Agricultural production in all of French Polynesia also decreased from 84% of total production in French Polynesia to 33%, demonstrating this transition as well (Doumenge, 148). Coffee, vanilla, and coconuts, previously the main exports of French Polynesia, decreased by 40%  by the mid 1960’s (Encyclopedia of the Nations).

In the process of diminishing French Polynesia’s agricultural sector by creating more desirable and economically rewarding jobs, CEP profoundly affected French Polynesia’s economic dependence on France. With increasing urbanization, demand for consumer goods and external resources greatly increased. This led to a swift and dramatic amplification in the French Polynesian trade deficit. While the value of exports paid for 93% of the value of imports in 1959, by 1962, exports decreased to 56% of imports (Doumenge 149). With an increasing influx of French money and decreasing exported goods, French public transfers made up 61% of French Polynesians GDP by 1969 (Poirine, 25). In fact, over the nuclear testing period from the 1960s through 1995, the French government became “the single largest employer” in French Polynesia, accounting “for around forty percent of the workforce” (Encyclopedia of the Nations).

During CEP, France actually encouraged and perpetuated this relationship of dependency, because of its need for French Polynesian cooperation with the nuclear testing program. In her article, "Tahiti Intertwined: Ancestral Land, Tourist Postcard, and Nuclear Test Site," Anthropologist Miriam Kahn finds that, “in addition to pumping money into the territory for the testing program, France injected extra funds and goods to encourage local acquiescence, generating a colonial dependency relationship and artificial prosperity.” (Kahn, 14) Though France gave money to bolster the French Polynesian economy, the funds were unequally distributed. According to Kahn, “the French payments, on which the economy depends, are filtered through a system that is controlled by a few families, most of whom are French or Demi. This well-entrenched, privileged class provides built-in assurance that the economic and political system will endure” (Kahn,10). In other words, the money that France was supposedly allocating to French Polynesia was actually handed right back to the French people, rather than giving it to indigenous Polynesians.

By the 1980s, France’s influence had profoundly changed the economy. The previously unestablished tertiary sector (trades in goods and services and tourism) accounted for 76%  of French Polynesia's GDP (Doumenge, 150). From 1970 to 1980, the GDP from tourists went from one billion French Pacific Francs annually to 8.5 billion annually and the number of tourists visiting the island doubled (Blanchet 18). Furthermore, as a result of increasing urbanization, 92% of French Polynesian business people resided in Tahiti and Moorea while only 42% of the local population were employed in agriculture and fishing (Blanchet 18). Following the tertiary sector in descending percentage of GDP construction, public works, manufacturing, craft industries, transportation, telecommunication, and finally agriculture made up significant portions of the economy (Doumenge, 150). By 1990, 80% of the islands' food had to be imported (Duane, 3). This marks a huge dependence on outside sources to sustain the changing lifestyles of the population. By 1997, agriculture made up only 4% of GDP and employed 11% of the population (Encyclopedia in the Nations). This situation caused French Polynesia to rely on money from France, as its economy was no longer self-sustainable.

Changes in the economy largely shape the demographic situation in Moorea. The population can be broken up into four ethnic groups: the maohi who are indigenous Polynesian, "demis," who are mixed race (usually Polynesian and European), the Chinese, and the Europeans (Blanchet, 1). Today 68% of French Polynesians are maohi, 15% are demis, 5%  are Chinese, and 12% are European (Doumenge, 145). Of this spread, the majority of the Demis, Chinese, and Europeans live in the Society Islands Archipelago (Doumenge, 145).

Today Moorea, though considered an outpost of Tahiti, is one of the most populated islands in French Polynesia. The current population of French Polynesia is slightly over a quarter million people, with 75% percent of the population concentrated in Tahiti and Moorea (Poirine, 24).

The population of Moorea tripled between 1971 and 2002, from 5,058 to 14,471, and grew from representing 6% of the combined populaiton of Tahiti and Moorea to 8% (Rafiq). Today the population has grown to 16,000 residents ( This is largely the result of increasing urbanization and overpopulation in Papeete. The location of Moorea, only twelve miles from Tahiti, along with increases in technology and transportation, allow it to function as a suburb of bustling Papeete (Duane, 3). Many of the business people who work in Papeete commute from the less crowed island of Moorea. Duane explains, “it has been easier to commute downtown on a ferry from Moorea than from the outlying subdivisions of Papeete” (Duane, 3). In addition to the local ferry, a seven-minute flight between the islands makes it a relatively easy commute.

While Moorea doesn’t appear to be highly populated during the week due to the large percentage of people working in Tahiti, there are actually a lot of people inhabiting the small coastal strip around the island. Pressures on available land have caused development to start to move further up the river valleys. Ultimately, this growth is not sustainable because eventually the island will become over populated. Moreover, the effects of overpopulation and consequential industrialization can hurt the tourism industry, as it will no longer be the pristine environment desired by eco-tourists who are looking for a remote getaway.

Today in Moorea, tourism, the tertiary sector, fishing, and agriculture account for the majority of Moorea’s GDP, with agriculture and fishing only accounting for a small percentage of income ( While French Polynesia has a higher standard of living than many other island nations, the future of the economy appears to be less certain. Strong protectionism on imports negatively effects foreign trade, and an over-valued French Pacific Franc (as a result of its binding to the Euro) lead to a high cost of living, thereby negatively impacting competitiveness, especially in tourism.

Ultimately, the decisions made by France have put French Polynesia, including Moorea, in a difficult economic position. Their dependence on French aid and the tourism industry to bolster their economy has dramatically decreased their exports and increased their imports, which in the long run could prove to be economically unsustainable. Any hope that the tourism industry might eventually provide an economic alternative to French aid is slim, simply because the money accrued by tourism does not usually go back to the local community. This is because the hotels and other infrastructures that tourists visit when they go to places like French Polynesia are “foreign-owned and managed” (Encyclopedia of the Nations).

Even if tourism was a viable option for Moorea, it has declined since 2000 due to the state of the global economy and the high exchange rate for tourists (Porrin, 29). The combination of these two effects, along with a growing population, does not bode well for the economy in Moorea. Furthermore, with population increasing at a very high rate, urbanization of the island will eventually, if it has not already, surpass the carrying capacity and lead to a greater strain on resources and dependence on external goods. France’s historical and current influence in French Polynesia will without doubt continue to shape the human environment of Moorea and all of the French Polynesian islands for years to come.

Jackie Conese, Boston University
Monty Sherwood, Kenyon College


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