Welcome to the Youth Fusion Experts Series, a podcast where we engage with leaders and experts in the various related fields of nuclear disarmament, peace and security, and sustainable development. Through these conversations, we wish to offer you all the chance to learn and be inspired by those who are actively working towards a fairer and more peaceful future for all. This article is based on a podcast that you can listen to here.
Our second Youth Fusion Expert Series guest is Lis Kayser, who is currently doing her PhD at The Danish Institute for International Studies, otherwise known as DIIS, on “T”, which is part of DIIS’s ongoing project called ‘RADIANT’, which stands for ‘Radioactive Ruins: Security in the Age of the Anthropocene’. Lis’ academic background lies in anthropology, which is the field her PhD is in. Her PhD project explores how nuclear legacies, including infrastructural expansion, economic transformation, ruination, and contamination inform competing nuclear imaginaries that reverberate in the present, with a particular focus on French Polynesia. Lis has just come back from doing fieldwork on the Hao Atoll, so this interview is very timely!
A bit about Lis
Lis’ interest in understanding complex cultural phenomena started with her traveling in her teenage years to places like Bolivia, Norway, and Benin. When asked about what fuelled her interest in anthropology, Lis explained that anthropology helps us make sense about the world around us. This interest led her to pursue anthropology at university in Vienna, where she put her interests into practice. During the interview, Lis stated that, “I always understood anthropology, during my studies, as being the bridge maker between different societies, different communities, so people can better understand other people and themselves”. Although Lis never focused on nuclear related issues during her university studies, her keen interest in nuclear waste, colonialism, militarism, and life in the Anthropocene for Pacific Islanders convinced her to apply for the PhD position on nuclear testing on the Hao Atoll at DIIS.
So far, Lis has visited the Hao Atoll for fieldwork twice. Once in 2019, and once again in 2021. For Lis, fieldwork on the Hao Atoll was an exciting opportunity because, as she declared, “we live for doing field work and being with the community”, as anthropologists. Lis reflected that her second trip to the Hao Atoll strengthened her relationship with the community there, as they realized that she was taking them seriously, as well as what they had to say about their nuclear afterlife. The islanders were happy to see Lis coming back with new questions, and were more curious the second time around. Lis stated that, “giving them an active role in creating an analysis was a crucial element of the second field work”, and made them more open.
The French military, nuclear testing, and attitudes of nostalgia for the ‘nuclear golden age’
Lis’ PhD focuses on the afterlife of the nuclear age on the Hao Atoll, 26 years after the last nuclear test. Before Lis went on her first study trip, she had different imaginings of how the people of the Hao Atoll would imagine their nuclear past, and said that, “at some point, I had to comprehend that my idea of their nuclear past was completely different from their idea of the same past”. Prior to her first field trip, Lis had imagined ‘a twentieth century nuclear holocaust scene’ where she would find innocent Polynesians with radioactive fallout related diseases and dead fish floating of the surface of the lagoon. This ‘end of the world imagining’ Lis had was influenced by the literature she’d read about nuclear testing. Lis had thought the islanders would be traumatized and angry at the French military, but Lis experienced completely different attitudes from the 120 inhabitants she talked to, who were nostalgic of their nuclear past.
At first, Lis could not understand their nostalgia for the nuclear testing era. During her first few weeks, Lis jumped to the conclusion that some people were just blinded by the good things from that time, like lucrative job opportunities, parties with the French militaries, lots of French wine, free running water, and electricity. Lis assumed that they were so blinded by the good things that they did not see the catastrophic impacts on their environment or their health that the nuclear testing and military activity had had. At some point, after speaking to roughly 10% of the population, she decided to ‘go with the flow’ when realizing that there is a shared nuclear nostalgia, and much more nuances to her assumptions.
Therefore, once Lis ‘went with the flow of things’, the main theme in her work turned out to be nostalgia. Lis commented that this shared nuclear nostalgia can tell us more about the present than she once thought, with the first trip serving as an eye opener. The inhabitants of the Hao Atoll have nostalgia for the French military that were present there for 30 years, from the 1960’s up until 2000, with active nuclear testing happening from 1966 – 1996. This nostalgia was repeated in Hao peoples’ discourse the first time Lis visited again and again, but during her second trip, the shared nostalgic discourse was there, but they also added they had a high price to pay for the French Military’s nuclear presence.
Hao was a major French military base from 1966 – 1996 for French nuclear testing, with a total of 193 nuclear devices being tested on the French Polynesian islands. From 1963, the French military established Hao into their homebase, and took Hao from being a small fishing village to a more developed island with better infrastructure, including running water, electricity and more jobs for the locals. This occupation was considered a ‘golden nuclear age’ to the local inhabitants as they benefited vastly from such developments. For example, Lis was explaining how they had the only open-air cinema in French Polynesia at the time, as well as tennis courts, water sporting activities, and a rich nightlife. The French military mingled with the locals, sharing BBQ’s, trips to other islands, developed a strong social cohesion, and even loyalty. Up to this day, Lis mentioned that there is still a sense of loyalty towards the French military, and even the French government, on the part of the people of the Hao Atoll.
“Hao was a major French military base from 1966 – 1996 for French nuclear testing, with a total of 193 nuclear devices being tested on the French Polynesian islands. From 1963, the French military established Hao into their homebase, and took Hao from being a small fishing village to a more developed island with better infrastructure, including running water, electricity and more jobs for the locals.”
When the French left the military base in 2000, they left a lot of military waste behind and dumped much of their military equipment into the How Atoll’s lagoon. This approach contaminated a lot of the land, too. However, the people of the Hao Atoll seem to link the price they have to pay now with the French military leaving, and not with the actions of the French military while they were there. They commented on how Hao was much cleaner when the French were there, how the hospitals ran better, and infrastructure was maintained. They claim that all the bad things that they deal with today happened when the French military left.
There is also diversity within the attitudes of the nostalgic population. For example, young people are also nostalgic, but are also more critical of the French military. Older people feel nostalgia, but also feel guilty for the military’s actions, for the health and environmental impacts, and how they failed to maintain the infrastructure when the French left. In the older generation, there is also guilt for the sexual violence that occurred during the military occupation, especially in the night clubs, against men that presented themselves in a more feminine way, which is a part of the Polynesian culture. The Hao people are very aware that those 30 years of happiness and the ‘golden nuclear age’ came with a heavy price of environmental degradation, health consequences, decaying infrastructure, unemployment and a lack of social cohesion, but they still associate this with the French leaving in 2000. The afterlife of the French military presence makes visible the negative effects. There are so many layers to the nuclear testing and military occupation within the Hao Atoll, such as links to the environment, health, the economy, shared identity, colonialism, and gender issues.
“Older people feel nostalgia, but also feel guilty for the military’s actions, for the health and environmental impacts, and how they failed to maintain the infrastructure when the French left. … The Hao people are very aware that those 30 years of happiness and the ‘golden nuclear age’ came with a heavy price of environmental degradation, health consequences, decaying infrastructure, unemployment and a lack of social cohesion, but they still associate this with the French leaving in 2000. ”
Through her work, Lis aims to capture the nuances of life on the ground, and explains that, “I’m not trying to romanticize life on the Hao Atoll today by saying, oh nice they are all nostalgic, let’s move on. When I came to Hao, I had read a lot about the history of the Hao Atoll, but they preferred to tell me about the past. I always tried to get them back to the present, but I realized this already says a lot when they prefer to talk about the past than the present. Some people say there isn’t much to talk about today; ‘it’s a harsh life, we don’t have any jobs, our young don’t have prospects and our houses we were once proud of are decaying’”.
Lis highlights that “the Hao Atoll’s community’s perceived trauma is not what happened during the period of the 193 nuclear devices detonating, but rather the moment after, this moment of crisis”. Some Hao people compare the departure of the French military, in July 2000, as a ‘moment of darkness’. Furthermore, “they were not prepared for this moment of transition in the year 2000, so they feel abandoned by the French military. The act of violence in this context was the aftermath that they had to deal with all by themselves”, Lis said. An abrupt ending to the ‘nuclear golden age’ left an era many locals refer to as ‘the after-military epoch’.
There have been some clean up measures from the French government, such as tons of military equipment being taken out of the lagoon, but only so far as 40 meters deep. The lagoon is a hundred meters deep in some areas, so it is still not enough. Furthermore, it is still not certain if the military took out all the waste. On the land, soil is still contaminated with heavy metals, too, and these heavy metals come from military waste dumped into the soil. Therefore, there still needs to be a fair amount of clean up. There is a certain anger about this within the community, and a growing impatience as the Hao people really want change regarding the waste that is left, and for the ‘No Entry Signs’ the French military left behind to cover up their mess to no longer be needed. A part of this impatience is their image that is suffering due to being viewed as the ‘polluted atoll’, which has negative impacts on tourism, for example.
Context of the Hao Atoll within French Polynesia
In the greater context of French Polynesia, this nostalgia is unique as other islands, such as Tahiti, have an attitude towards justice and transparency, and strive more towards demanding the French government to pay for what it did to French Polynesia. For example, by asking for compensation for people who might have gotten sick from the atmospheric testing. The word ‘might’ is used as there hasn’t been enough research on this. There have been some efforts towards such compensation, but Lis pointed out that there are many loopholes in the compensation law (Loi Morin) that make it difficult for people to prove they are eligible, such as having the correct documentation verifying they were contaminated with radioactive fallout, which can be difficult. An attitude of anger and resentment, and the fight for justice, is more prevalent on the Tahiti, Mangareva and Tureia islands that were ‘really showered with radioactive fallout’, and where many people got sick and still suffer from thyroid cancer.
“There have been some efforts towards such compensation, but Lis pointed out that there are many loopholes in the compensation law (Loi Morin) that make it difficult for people to prove they are eligible, such as having the correct documentation verifying they were contaminated with radioactive fallout, which can be difficult.”
Furthermore, the islands of French Polynesia are still waiting for compensation and an apology from the French government. Among the islands, there is a diversity of attitudes toward this nuclear past and a completely different way people deal with the same past. On Hao, there is a nostalgia and a guilt that they were part of the problem as they participated and benefited from the ‘nuclear golden age’, and now they must pay the price. Lis commented that these different attitudes are interesting, and explained that they could be different because, for example, on Mangareva the military was more separated from the society and was practically gone by the 1980’s. Furthermore, Mangareva have highly sought-after black pearls, and therefore have more economic means and were not as dependent on the French military.
Present day: development on the Hao Atoll
More recently, the Hao people are waiting on a 300-million-dollar Chinese fish farm project that has been in the works for 9 years as the biggest fish farm in the Pacific. However, there is a very much debated environmental question. The Hao population’s attitudes have changed regarding this project since Lis’ last stay in 2019. Back then, many people were full of hope and waiting for the fish farm to be implemented to bring new jobs, especially the younger generation, despite slight skepticism on the environmental impact of marine life and the environment. However, nine years after the initial phase, people are still waiting and are now losing patience. Adding to this skepticism, words of French President Macron seemed to have changed their minds during his visit in France’s overseas territory in July 2021, as he told them to be aware of foreign investment as it is French Polynesia’s and France’s land, and shouldn’t be taken advantage of. Macron promised a new installation of the French military on the Hao Atoll that will offer training for young people, which made people hopeful. Understandably, the Hao Atoll inhabitants are suspicious of both projects as they are worried about what will happen afterward, and also about the marine environment, thus showing signs of the trauma that arose after the French Military left them in a ‘moment of darkness’ in 2000.
Locally, development is a challenge as the means and know-how are lacking among the Hao population. The global pandemic has also changed their attitudes towards economic development and Lis notes that they have started to be more self-autonomous by growing their own fruit and veg, and vanilla farms where they started to grow their own Polynesian vanilla. This attitude was further exacerbated as many cargo ships stopped going to French Polynesia’s remote islands due to the pandemic, so there are more small-scale projects popping up out of necessity. To add to this, the local inhabitants of Hao have also lost patience and hope regarding the Chinese fishing farm project as it has taken so long. Tourism is also a possible economy they are thinking about, as scuba diving would be ideal, but again, the military waste and the image of being polluted is hampering this idea.
Overall, the Hao Atoll has had a fascinating past, many struggles, but also, newfound hope and developments. Through Lis’ work, we truly see the tragic history of nuclear testing and how it still leaves communities grappling with the severe economic, environmental, infrastructural, societal, health, and political issues today, 26 years later.
Article by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen