Radio Active Islands

Almira Matayoshi was pregnant when the 15 megaton hydrogen bomb known as Bravo was detonated at Bikini Atoll in March of 1954. The radioactive cloud, which rose to 100,000 feet, blew east and rained down on the inhabited atolls of Rongelap (where Almira lived), Ailinginae, Rongerik, Utirik, Ailuk and Likiep. None had been evacuated prior to the explosion, the U.S. government claiming that it was unaware that fallout would be as great as it was, or that prevailing winds would contaminate the surrounding islands. The effects on the downwinders (as they have since become known) were devastating.Almira now lives in Honolulu. Speaking through an interpreter she described the near immediate effects of Bravo on the Rongelapese: Islander's feet blistered as if they had been walking on hot coals; their hair fell out and for days after the test their skin felt as though it was being pricked by needles. When Almira's baby was born it had no skeleton and, she says, "looked like a bunch of grapes." Though the Rongelapese were allowed back on their atoll in 1957, they chose to evacuate again in 1985 due to continued problems linked to radiation exposure. Like the original inhabitants of Bikini Atoll, the Rongalapese have since been dispersed throughout the Marshall Islands and the Pacific.Almira was one of an estimated 100 people from around the globe who descended on the island of Moorea during the last week of January for a gathering organized by Abolition 2000 -- a global grassroots coalition of more than 800 groups that is seeking a worldwide nuclear weapons abolition agreement.The congress took place one year after the latest round of French nuclear testing on the island of Moruroa, and was planned to coincide with the release of the first independent health survey of Te Ao Maohi (the indigenous name for "French Polynesia"). The health survey, organized by a coalition of non-governmental organizations known as Hiti Tau is unprecedented. It attempts to gather information on the health of Tahitian workers whose records have been declared off-limits by the French government. Test-site workers are made to sign contracts demanding a lifetime of silence on test-site activities, and they are denied all access to their own medical records -- a tactic designed to keep the workers from seeking any compensation for health problems. It's a strategy perhaps learned from the United States: Marshall Islanders have for years faced similar bureaucratic roadblocks in obtaining their health records -- and learned only recently that at least 10 Rongelapese who had not been exposed during the Bravo tests were without consent injected with Chromium 51 (a radioactive tracer) to determine whether the anemia observed among the downwinders was an ethnic characterisitic or due to their radiation exposure.The health survey was a larger undertaking than originally thought. At the time of the conference, Hiti Tau was still compiling the survey data and was unable to release the results, though Hiti Tau leader Gabi Tetiarahi did allow that preliminary findings showed a wide range of health problems among the 1,000 workers surveyed.The generally pro-French press, shocked to find that the 300-plus locals and visitors marching through the streets of Moorea were not there to congratulate France on the cessation of testing, declared "une catastrophe de plus pour notre tourisme" that was "pire que la conjonctivite!" -- that is, "a great catastrophe for our tourism "worse than conjunctivitis!" (An outbreak of "pink-eye" was going around Moorea at the time.) Further indication of France's control over the media was evident when local television took the groundbreaking action of showing footage of the Bikini Atoll tests (images never before broadcast in Tahiti), only to follow the broadcast with a commentary that said, to paraphrase, "It's too bad we don't have radioactive sites like they do, otherwise we, too, would be a tourist destination." (The sunken shipwrecks off Bikini Atoll have, in fact, recently been opened as a macabre tour destination for scuba divers).Likewise, Tahiti's Territorial Assembly leader Gaston Flosse, who has the habit of fleeing the islands at the first sign of unrest (the riots that took place shortly after France resumed testing in 1995 occured when protestors gathered at Papeete's airport in a failed attempt to block Flosse's flight), was reportedly enraged to find that conference sessions connected nuclear policy to colonialism. One local paper published a letter from Flosse calling the gathering "un mascarade," and claiming that he was purposely excluded from the gathering. (Organizers later produced letters of invitation that had been sent to Flosse.)Two documents that came out of the conference will undoubtedly be viewed as the major accomplishment of the gathering. "The Taharoi Statement," drafted by the Maohi (native Tahitians), cites France, the United States, Russia, The United Kingdom and China for crimes of nuclear colonialism, ranging from "rape of Mother Earth" to the use of indigenous people as human guinea pigs -- and calling for "an International Customary Tribunal to judge the crimes of the five nuclear superpowers according to the values of each culture.""The Moorea Declaration," drafted by Lopeti Senituli, the head of longtime grassroots organization Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP), was designed to raise awareness of the link between colonialism and nuclear testing, noting that "...colonised and indigenous peoples have, in large part, borne the brunt of this nuclear devastation -- from the mining of uranium and the testing of nuclear weapons on indigenous peoples land, to the dumping, storage and transport of plutonium and nuclear wastes, and the theft of land for nuclear infrastructure."Kilali Alailima is Pacific Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Commitee. AFSC, along with Hiti Tau and Abolition 2000, coordinated the Moorea gathering. As she points out, these two documents illustrate the success of the conference in allowing various Pacific Island communities to recognize for the first time the similarity of their situation, as well as to educate outsiders."In the Pacific, the struggles to be nuclear free and decolonized have been linked for years through the work of organizations like NFIP," she says. "But the rest of the world did not see the link. What this conference helped do was to provide opportunities for people from Europe, North America and Canada to see first hand how the struggle in Belau for a nuclear free constitution [which was overturned in 1993 as the result of a dozen U.S.-backed plebiscites]; the struggle for a South Pacific nuclear free zone; the struggles for stopping the testing and to gain recognition of the health and environmental effects on the peoples of the Pacific are all linked together."

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