Tahiti:  Human Environment and Sustainability

Tourism publications often describe Tahiti as a destination offering the perfect balance of the extravagant and the untouched, a destination that caters both to those seeking a cocktail on the beach or an intimate retreat to a natural paradise. Augmenting the natural beauty of this imagery is the commodity of Polynesian culture, usually represented by pictures of dancers, of colorful floral fabrics or distinctive sculpture. 

Behind these descriptions, of course, lies a reality that is far more complex and nuanced.  This is particularly true with Polynesian culture, as the island’s history overflows with stories of invasion and exploitation by outsiders. Tahiti was formally colonized by France after a brief armed struggle in 1841, and has been under various forms of colonial governance since. Recently, local political autonomy has grown, and while a strengthening cultural consciousness among the local population holds promise to protect these islands from another round of unwelcome exploitation, misinterpretation of Polynesian island cultures by outsiders is still the norm.

Crucial to understanding Tahiti is to recognize the ongoing struggle for cultural and political identity on one side, and the exotic representations of the islands and their people for purposes of economic gain on the other.  To do that, we have to take a little closer look at the diversity of the people actually living there today.


Tahiti, the commercial center of French Polynesia, has experienced large population shifts brought on by a rapid economic change since the start of the French nuclear testing program in the early 1960s. In 2006 the population of the island was estimated to be 170,000, which is 69% of the total population of French Polynesia.[1] Population growth for all of French Polynesia was calculated to be 1.355% in 2010, and the population was 291,000, so Tahiti’s population has likely increased significantly since 2006. The median age in French Polynesia is around thirty years, with the life expectancy ranging from  seventy-four (males) to seventy five (females) years of age.  Fertility rates average just fewer than two children per female.[2] A few decades ago, the population was growing much more rapidly and there were many more children than adults.[3] French support and tourism have helped to transform Tahiti from a developing island into a region with population statistics similar to a developed country. Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is located in Tahiti, and all of the important government functions are centered there.[4]

Geographically the island of Tahiti is comprised of two circular land masses—a large one called Tahiti Nui and a smaller one called Tahiti Iti—connected by a narrow isthmusi.[5] The island was formed by a hotspot where volcanic material pushed through the earth’s crust and created cone-shaped mountains.[6] Because the island is very mountainous, the population is concentrated on the coast. There is a coral reef around the island that provides many important ocean resources; there are a number of breaks in it, one of which is in front of the Papeete harbor, allowing ships to come close to shore. Tahitian family life and culture have changed as an increasing number of people move to the city to look for work. Over half of the people in French Polynesia (52%) live in urban areas and the urban population continues to grow. There are more people on Tahiti Nui, where Papeete is located, than Tahiti Iti. The majority of Tahiti’s population, about 75%, live in Papeete or one of its suburbs.[7]  Only 5.5% of Polynesia’s land has permanent crops growing on it.


The majority of the permanent residents of Tahiti are Polynesian, however, 12% are of Chinese descent, 6% are local French, and 4% are metropolitan French. The ethnic Chinese population arrived as laborers to farm the plantations started by European colonialists. While French is the official language of French Polynesia and is spoken by about two thirds of the population, one third of the permanent citizens speak some form of the Native Polynesian language and small percentages speak various Asian languages.[8] Tahitians have historically been very open to other cultures, which has led to multiple shifts in their own identity. Being a French territory has heavily influenced Polynesian culture. This is evident through the decline of their native language and the adoption of French-linked currency.[9]

There are a number of different religions practiced in Tahiti. Of the Polynesian population, 54% are Protestant, 31% are Roman Catholic, 10% practice other religions, and 6% do not profess a religion.[10] The prevalence of western religions in the Polynesian islands is a result of the success of European missionaries, beginning in the late eighteenth century. Only a few traces of the early Polynesian religion remain. Many families still have traditional maraes on their property, which are walled in gardens meant to contain a family’s positive energy. Polynesians are generally very devout Christians, but a traditional influence can be seen in some of their practices.[11]


Tahiti’s educational system is in most ways identical to that of metropolitan France, which has major implications for the island’s culture. Children are required by law to attend school between the ages of five and sixteen in one of the multiple public and private schools, some of which are run by churches and have a religious focus.[12]  Schools receive funding from France, including some of the private religious institutions.[13]  Many French Polynesian islands do not have schools that go beyond the fifth grade, which means that students from these islands must board in Tahiti to continue their education, putting a strain on families outside of Tahiti. This system has presented an obstacle to traditional family life on many islands, as Polynesians traditionally had large, close families.[14] The students from some of the smaller islands have a very high dropout rate due to the challenges of sending children to school in Tahiti.[15]

While the education is very good by some measures (Tahiti has a literacy rate of 98%), classes are taught in French and not the native Tahitian language.[17] In this way the school system has catalyzed the loss of certain elements of Tahitian culture.  Many children grew up without learning their native language, and even today teaching in the Tahitian language is not available.[18] Local higher education opportunities are also limited by the language gap between French Polynesia and the bulk of the Pacific nations which are English speaking.  While the University of French Polynesia is located on Tahiti, most college-bound students study in France instead of the closer centers of higher education in Fiji, New Zealand or Australia.[19]

Governance and politics

The government of Tahiti is a hybrid system, partly defined by its connection to France yet supplemented by a local political structure. With the end of the Colonial Era in 1945, French Polynesia became an overseas territory of France (a title it held until 2004), marking the first year that Tahitians were permitted suffrage in French elections, although they did not gain French citizenship until a year later. Further political developments in Polynesia during this period included the establishment of a Legislative Assembly and the initiation of two positions for Polynesian leaders to occupy in the French Parliament, one deputy and one senator. Since 1880, Tahiti and the surrounding islands had been referred to as the French Establishment of Oceania, but in 1957 their name was officially changed to French Polynesia stirring contention at its being the only territory with “French” in its name.[20]

Suplementary to inclusion in the French political process, leaders in French Polynesia worked to develop a local government. A man by the name of Pouvanaa a Oopa led this movement, with a campaign against French policies as his central platform. Following a series of arrests for the civil pursuit of his political opinions, Pouvanaa made a formal entrance into the political system. In 1949 he was elected to the French National Assembly and established a local political party, the Democratic Rally for the Tahitian People (RDPT). As published in the Cambridge History of Pacific Islanders, the party focused on social and political reform, “sought expanded access to education and public-sector jobs, better provision of services and social security, land reform, and economic development… Pouvanaa envisaged autonomy in close association with France, and made no reference to independence.”[21] Local support carried the RDPT until opposition from both the Governor and the Territorial Assembly weakened the party’s momentum.[22]

After a year of political stagnation, a new statute emerged in 1958, decreasing the level of autonomy of the local government. France was experiencing serious political restructuring at the time and it was critical to establish how they would move forward with regards to their overseas territories. In September 1958, French President Charles de Gaulle presented French Polynesia with a referendum, intended in part to clarify the magnitude of the independence movement. There was no room for indecision, as the referendum read:

If you say YES in this referendum, it means that you are willing to follow the same road as France, for better or for worse… If you say NO… France will not hold you back. She will wish you luck and let you lead your own life, without giving you any further moral or material help.[23]

The statute passed, but with a majority of only sixty-four percent, signifying the persistence of some anti-French sentiment among locals.[24] French concern was validated by the internal autonomy movement’s quick rise to prominence with the leadership of Francis Sanford and his Front Uni Coalition. They insisted that independence was the only way to combat the institutions that were blocking economic development. Sanford brought prestige to the autonomist movement, a mentality that persisted even after he was politically defeated by his opponent Gaston Flosse, who strategically assumed the position of "super-autonomist," and openly criticized Sanford for not strongly embracing such principles.[25] Regardless of who campaigned autonomist principles more effectively, it was clear that the people of Tahiti were allured by the prospect of independence.

Gaston Flosse managed to hold office until 1987, and again between 1991 and 2004. The beginning of his term in 1984 marked the beginning of a governing system still utilized today, in which, as outlined by the Tahitian Government website, the “territorial elected are responsible for the conducting of the economic and social development through three institutions: the Government, the Territorial Assembly and the CESC (Economic, Social and Cultural Council).”[26] 2004 however, marked a political turning point for French Polynesia. The status of French Overseas Territory was changed in name  to that of  an "Overseas Country," one that is to govern itself “freely and democratically.”[27]  An unexpected change of leadership came with the election of Oscar Temaru. The statute passed on 27 February 2004 and still presides today, despite a rejected attempt to replace it in 2007.[28] Most notably, it grants jurisdiction to the local government in areas including “commercial law and labor law, international air transport,” and it “allows French Polynesia to participate in some French state jurisdictions, and allows French Polynesia to pass ‘country laws.’”[29] Nevertheless, autonomy remains far from absolute, a reality that is a constant source of contention. France maintains jurisdiction in areas surrounding “police and justice, monetary policy, tertiary education, immigration, and defense and foreign affairs.”[30] Acceptance or resistance of this level of French control is a divisive component of French Polynesian culture and politics.

French Polynesian presidents of both the government and the Territorial Assembly can serve an unlimited number of five-year terms. Elections require an absolute majority from the Assembly’s fifty-seven members, all of whom also serve unlimited five-year terms but are elected by popular vote. There are three dominant political parties in French Polynesia, all of which–the parliamentary system ensures–are represented proportionally to their popular support. The present Assembly, elected in 2008, is composed of twenty-seven members of the Our Home alliance, twenty from the Union for Democracy alliance, and ten from the Popular Rally.[31] Further, there are six electoral districts ensuring that each of the five archipelagoes of the region are appropriately represented based on the size of their population. While the executive president holds the power to dissolve the Assembly via a request to his appointed Council of Ministers, the Assembly can likewise remove the president from office through a motion of censure. Finally, the CESC operates as the third component of local government, though it functions under the jurisdiction of the Territorial Assembly. The Council’s primary function is to advise the president and members of the Assembly, while representing salaried employees, employers, the self-employed, and the socio-cultural sector.[32] The process of developing this governing structure symbolizes the growing strength of the local Polynesian community, and while their accomplishments are many, they show no sign of planning to accept the role that France maintains.

Figure 1: The meeting room in the City Hall of Faa’a Tahiti, with a voyaging canoe as the centerpiece of conversation. 2 February 2011 (Photo credit: Amber Hewett).

French Polynesia’s road to political stability has been particularly obstructed in recent years, with nine changes in government occurring since 2004.[33] The current presidents of the government and the Territorial Assembly–President Gaston Tong Sang and Oscar Temaru, respectively–were each elected to their positions within the past two years.[34] The system is caught in a pattern of shifting and adjusting in the search for a working solution. Turmoil is definitely felt at the local level, and the reaction from France adds a degree of complexity. Recent statements by French officials express their perception of Polynesian instability as a lack of responsibility and accountability on the part of local leaders. French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested in a speech in the beginning of January 2011 that electoral reform in French Polynesia is to be complete by the end of the year and “that if the political ‘mess’ was to continue in Tahiti, Paris would take care of things.”[35] With different parties dominating the two branches of government in French Polynesia, short-term organization appears out of reach.

Colonial Ties

Tahiti’s economy is dependent on significant support from France. French Polynesia is not economically sustainable and annually receives billions of Euros from France. Each year France transfers between one and two billion Euros to French Polynesia, which accounts for 30-60% of Polynesia’s Gross Domestic Product. Most of this money goes towards education, military defense, and public service projects. A small percentage of the funds are given to the Polynesian government to allocate as they see fit.[36] On an individual basis, Polynesia’s economic figures do not appear to be worrisome. The per-capita Gross National Product is similar to that of Australia. Compared to other South Pacific countries, French Polynesia is one of the richest regions. The unemployment rate is 11.7% of the population. If French Polynesia were to become independent, however, its economy would collapse. Since the time of French colonization, islands such as Tahiti have transformed from self-sufficient communities to communities with failing economies.[37]

One of the factors that led to the unsustainable Polynesian economy was the French nuclear testing program. When France decided to go ahead with the nuclear tests in the Pacific, a lot of money was invested in the Polynesian islands. Polynesians were given thousands of jobs and were paid well to build the infrastructure that was needed for nuclear testing. They built housing for French officers and helped to maintain military equipment. Many people from around French Polynesia migrated to Papeete to take the jobs newly created by the French government. The money that France put into Tahiti during the nuclear testing period was far greater than the revenue the island could produce on its own. Polynesia became dependent on the inflow of money from France and an inflated economy was created. Services and goods on Tahiti continue to be very expensive from the influx of money during the nuclear era. When France stopped their nuclear tests, they had to transfer money to Tahiti and other islands to fill the economic deficit that was created. This nuclear period was a transformative period in terms of how Polynesians lived. Before the testing, many Polynesians produced their own food, but beginning in the 1960s people moved to the city and came to rely more on a cash income.[38]

In recent years, France has looked for ways that Tahiti can generate increased income and become more economically independent. At one time, Tahiti could produce all the food that its population needed. However, the shift to a cash economy encouraged farmers to grow cash crops instead of food. The island then had to start importing food from other countries, which made the people more dependent on money.[39] Exports create some profits for Tahiti, but the positive income is overshadowed by the amount spent on imports. Black pearls are Polynesia’s most lucrative export. They account for 80% of the total income that is generated from exports. Other products such as vanilla, coffee, copra, noni, and fish bring in some money, but represent a small percentage of the total economy.[40] In 2005, French Polynesia exported 211 million dollars worth of products but imported 1.706 billion dollars worth of goods.[41] As mentioned above, Polynesia now has to import large quantities of food; France is the main supplier of French Polynesia’s imports.

Figure 2: Food and artisan market in Papeete, Tahiti. 1 February 2011. (Photo credit: Amber Hewett)

Figure 3: Tahiti depends on the port in Papeete for imports and exports. 1 February 2011. (Photo credit: Eric Smith)

To boost the Tahitian economy, France has invested billions of Euros in developing tourism, which brings in more money than any other sector, but it has not had the success that France hoped for. It generates a quarter of Polynesia’s Gross Domestic Product. Service occupations are by far the most common types of jobs. Agricultural and industrial occupations combined provide only one third of Polynesia’s employment.[42] Tahiti has some disadvantages in attracting tourists: the artificial economy makes it a very expensive place to visit, its remote location adds to travel costs,[43]  and the worldwide economic downturn has caused a significant drop in tourism.[44]

France’s efforts to encourage tourism have had major effects on outsiders’ perceptions of the island. Advertisements show pristine beaches and all-inclusive resorts. Pictures such as these do not encompass true Polynesian culture or the conflict and local struggles that have been present since colonization. There is a clear division between the Tahiti sold to tourists and the traditional Tahiti that has a rich cultural history. Miriam Kahn wrote in 2000 of witnessing this reality while living in Tahiti:

I began to realize, both through ethnographic research and by studying media representations, how economically motivated, politically manipulated, and consciously constructed the images were. Above all, I understood how deliberately intertwined they were with the French colonial enterprise. Indeed, the production and distribution of images of Tahiti as paradise seem to serve colonial interests by allowing those in power… to convince those without power (primarily Tahitians) that the status quo serves Tahitian interests.[45]

It is the postcard image that has allowed the tourism industry in Tahiti to grow to what it is today, thus France can easily make the case that the perpetuation of this image is critical to the economic survival of the islands.  As Tahitians seek a concensus as to whether and how to acquire the power to rule their own nation with full autonomy, they face serious decisions that will determine whether and when they can attain such a goal.  Gaining independence however, will be the beginning of reinvention for Tahiti.

Amber Hewett, University of Massachusetts
Eric Smith, Ripon College



[1]  Blond, Becca, Celeste Brash, and Hilary Rogers. Tahiti and French Polynesia. Victoria (Australie): Lonely Planet Publications, 2006, 34.

[2]  "French Polynesia." CIA - The World Factbook. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/fp.html>

[3]  "Les Mouvements Naturels De Population." Atlas De La Polynesie Francaise. Paris: Orstom, 1993. 79. Print.

[4]  "French Polynesia." CIA - The World Factbook.

[5]  Blond, et. al., 84.

[6]  Crossland, Cyril. "The Island of Tahiti," The Geographical Journal Vol. 71, No. 6, Jan. 1928. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1783176>.

[7]  Blond, et. al. 34.

[8]  "French Polynesia." CIA - The World Factbook.

[9]   Blond, et al., 31.

[10]  "French Polynesia." CIA - The World Factbook.

[11]  D'Alleva, Anne. "Art History of French Polynesia." Lecture, SEA Campus, Woods Hole. 21 Jan. 2011. 

[12]  Blond, et al., 32.

[13]  DeAngelo, LeAnna. "French Polynesia." StateUniversity.com. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/489/French-Polynesia.html>.

[14]  Blond, et al., 32-33.

[15]  DeAngelo.

[16]  DeAngelo.

[17]  Maamaatuaiahutapu, Keitapu. "Contemporary Polynesia." Lecture, SEA Campus, Woods Hole. 5 Jan. 2011. 

[18]  DeAngelo, LeAnna.

[19]   Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[20]  The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 339-40.

[21]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[22]  The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders, 340-41.

[23]  The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders, 341.

[24]  Shineberg, Barry. “The Image of France.” French Polynesia: a book of selected readings. Ed. R.G. Crocombe. French Polynesia: University of the South Pacific, 1988. 89.

[25]  “Government.” Tahiti.com. English version. Web. 20 January 2011.

[26]  “Government.”

[27]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[28]  “Government.”

[29]  “French Polynesia.” The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency. 29 Dec. 2010. 9 Jan. 2011.

[30]  “French Polynesia.”

[31]  “Government.”

[32]   Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[33]   “French Polynesia.”

[34]   “Paris to take care of things in Tahiti if “mess” continues, Sarkozy warns.” Tahiti Presse. 10 Jan. 2011.

[35]  "French Polynesia - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade." Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/french_polynesia/index.html>.

[36]  Blond, et al., 33.

[37]  Chaddock, Gail Russell. "France drops an economic bomb on Tahiti." Christian Science Monitor 14 Aug. 1995: 8. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 27 Jan. 2011.

[38]  Cunningham, Glenn. “Food for Tahiti.”Economic Geography Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1961): 347-352. Clark University.11 Jan. 2011 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/141998>.

[39]  "Les Mouvements Naturels De Population." 75.

[40]  "French Polynesia." CIA - The World Factbook.

[41]  "French Polynesia." CIA - The World Factbook.

[42]  "Les Mouvements Naturels De Population." 75.

[43]  "French Polynesia - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade."Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

[44]  Kahn, Miriam. “Tahiti Intertwined: Ancestral Land, Tourist Postcard, and Nuclear Test Site.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 102, No. 1 (2000): 7-26.