Moetai Brotherson at the Forum: “We all share this Moana Nui a Hiva”

President Moetai Brotherson

For Moetai Brotherson, the newly elected President of French Polynesia, this week’s Pacific Islands Forum is a time to share ideas with the leaders of state from neighbouring island nations.

“It’s necessary to have all the leaders of the Pacific around the same table,” he said. “It’s very important to come here and meet with our peers, the leaders, and also with all the dialogue partner countries, discussing themes that are not specific to only one country but are shared across the Pacific.”

Attending his first Forum leaders retreat in Cook Islands this week, Brotherson is keen to look for common agendas across the region: “If I take the issue of fisheries, the issue of deep-sea mining, tourism – all these are topics that we have to discuss together, because there are so many partnerships, so many implications with what one country does to the other.”

A member of the Māʻohi independence movement Tāvini huiraʻatira nō te ao māʻohi, Brotherson has had a rapid rise to the Presidency of French Polynesia.

He won a seat in the French National Assembly in 2017, the first time the independence movement represented French Polynesia in the legislature. Then, in June 2022 elections for French Polynesia’s three seats in the National Assembly, Tāvini huiraʻatira made a stunning advance, winning all three seats allocated to French Polynesia

Brotherson then announced his candidacy for the Presidency of French Polynesia in March 2023, seeking to replace long-serving autonomist President Édouard Fritch. The following month, winning elections for the Assembly of French Polynesia, the independence movement swept into office with a 19-seat majority.

In a wide-ranging interview with Islands Business in Rarotonga, Brotherson spoke of climate change, nuclear legacies, deep sea mining and the rapidly changing geopolitical context.

A key focus this week is his government’s new agenda for development: “I have set some priorities for our economic development: tourism, primary sectors, the energy transition and the digital economy. Coming here, we have the 2050 Blue Pacific Ocean Strategy and this strategy encompasses many of the topics we have to discuss – from agriculture to fisheries to a sustainable model for tourism.”

On Monday, President Brotherson took the chair at the pre-Forum meeting of the Polynesian Leaders Group (PLG). Today, historic cultural bonds between Cook Islands and Ma’ohi Nui are complemented by shared interests in transport, tourism and telecommunications. The PLG meeting discussed collaboration on connectivity, such as the Manatua cable system stretching from French Polynesia through to Samoa. However this maritime cable system has had many teething problems.

“We’ve had this Manatua initiative that was launched a few years ago, that is still encountering some issues,” Brotherson said. “The first issue is relative to each country – its capacity – after the cable lands on the island – to have fibre delivered to the home. It’s one thing to have a cable coming to your country, it’s another thing to have fibre to the home. I think that not every country has the same capacity to deliver on that.

“There are also issues when it comes to the taxation system around those submarine cables. It’s a complex matter because we have to involve the Telecom operators, the states who are the regulators in this area and we have to understand that everyone has the same understanding of what the stumbling blocks are.”

To boost regional tourism, French Polynesia is looking at the expanding routes of airlines like Fiji Airways. However Tahiti will take slow but steady steps to recover from the downturn of tourism during the COVID pandemic.

“For Air Tahiti Nui, we are still exploring our strategy,” he said. “We just re-opened the Tahiti-Tokyo route that was suspended during Covid – we’ll see how it goes. We are studying other entry points into the Asian market, be it Singapore or Hong Kong, but we’ll see how Tokyo goes.

“We’re also supporting more regional initiatives, looking at a more domestic level, such as possible connectivity via Air Tahiti between the Austral islands and Rarotonga, or between Aitutaki and Bora Bora. High level tourists could go from one island to another without the hassle of going through Faa’a airport because of customs obligations.”

Seabed mining

Nauru, Tonga and Cook Islands are forging ahead with plans to licence exploration of the ocean floor for potentially valuable mineral resources within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). In contrast, other Forum members have called for a moratorium on exploitation, while some civil society groups call for a complete ban on deep sea mining (DSM). It’s a complex debate amongst Forum member countries.

At last year’s Forum in Fiji, Cook Islands Special envoy Tepaeru Herrmann told Islands Business that her government did not support a moratorium: “From our perspective, as a country with substantial seabed mineral resources, we should instead be supporting the right of Pacific nations to make decisions regarding the sustainable development of their resources. A moratorium will undercut investment in much need marine research that will help us to better understand our deep-sea environment.”

In contrast, while recognising the sovereign decisions of neighbours like Cook Islands, Brotherson is a strong supporter of a DSM moratorium.

“We all share this Moana Nui a Hiva, and we have to be very cautious,” he said. “This is the cradle of life, and we don’t want to be guinea pigs. We’ve been guinea pigs for the nuclear tests, and we don’t want to be guinea pigs for deep sea mining if it goes full scale before the technology is ready.

“This week, we have to listen to what everyone has to say, but the position of French Polynesia is very clear: we want a moratorium on any exploitation of deep-sea resources. We would like exploration done mainly for scientific purposes, to have a better understanding of what lies beneath. We probably know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the depths of the ocean.”

Through PLG and Forum sessions, Brotherson continued the discussion with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, a strong supporter of the DSM industry.

For the French Polynesian President, “my understanding of the position of Cook Islands so far has been to explore and assess the amount of minerals and where they are located, how they can be harvested in a proper manner. They have the right to do so in their EEZ – it’s a question of sovereignty. But we are here in Rarotonga to remind everyone that we must respect the Moana Nui a Hiva.

“It also comes to boundary issues between the Exclusive Economic Zones,” he said, “the EEZ of Cook Islands is close to ours! So what happens if deep sea mining right at the threshold of our EEZ and Rarotonga’s EEZ? Who’s going to pay for the damages if damage were to happen? These are questions that we must put on the table. Discussions will occur, we can agree to disagree, but we must work towards a framework on which we agree.”

Nuclear legacies

This week, Forum leaders are also discussing nuclear legacies – old and new. At ten sites across Oceania, there is radioactive contamination from fifty years of 20th Century nuclear testing. Now, there are 21st century challenges to ocean health, such as Japan’s ocean dumping of treated radioactive wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor.

This week, the host nation is proudly highlighting the Treaty of Rarotonga – a disarmament initiative first signed at the 1985 Forum in Cook Islands, creating the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ).

“We must recall the importance of the Treaty of Rarotonga,” Brotherson said. “It’s something of the common heritage of the Forum and this issue of nuclear legacies is not something that should be treated lightly. This has been so hurtful for people in the area – all these nuclear testing grounds in the Pacific, including French Polynesia. That’s not something you can just brush away, saying ‘let’s move on, it’s not the way it used to be.’”    

Between 1966 and 1996, French Polynesia suffered 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. Former workers at the test sites and neighbouring island communities are living with the health and environmental consequences. The atolls are a sacrifice zone, polluted by hazardous levels of ionising radiation. For Brotherson, clean up and compensation are a major priority for his new government.

“When I was a member of the French parliament, I proposed a new law on dealing with the victims of nuclear tests,” he explained. “It wasn’t adopted at the time, but the key proposals are still relevant. We need to conduct research on the genetic transmission on pathologies for descendants of workers or people exposed to the nuclear tests. So far, the French government hasn’t agreed to conduct this research, but we have been meeting with other researchers in Japan, the U.S. and Europe.

“Beyond this, there’s the question of nuclear waste,” he said. “I have written to President Macron asking for the removal of nuclear waste that’s still in Moruroa. You have two very deep wells full of nuclear waste on Moruroa Atoll and you still have plutonium in the lagoon. We all know that due to the underground tests, there are large fractures in the atoll. France has spent billions and billions [of francs] on a geo-mechanical surveillance system. Don’t tell me you would invest so much money if nothing is to happen! I would rather have this nuclear waste removed before this happens.”

At the United Nations, French Polynesia is listed as a non-self-governing territory under French administration. Despite this colonial control, the new Tavini majority in the Assembly of French Polynesia has been willing to push the boundaries of constitutional provisions that leave control of defence and most foreign policy to the French State.

One striking example was the unanimous passage of a resolution through the Assembly of French Polynesia on 28 September, supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). France, like other nuclear weapon states, has tried to ignore this humanitarian disarmament treaty. However as more countries have signed and ratified TPNW, France is getting anxious. Eleven Pacific countries and territories have now ratified TPNW, and Brotherson thinks the Assembly resolution sends an important message to Paris.

“It’s not legally binding, so that’s probably one of the reasons they don’t really care about it. But it has a symbolic value that is very strong and it’s consistent with the policies of Tavini Huira’atira from the very beginning. For us, it’s only natural that we have this kind of position taken at the parliament. It’s a message we want to send to the world – that nuclear weapons are dangerous and we can destroy this planet if we are not cautious about it.”

Where’s the Pacific in the Indo-Pacific?

The debate over nuclear legacies comes at a time of war in Europe and the Middle East, expanding nuclear arsenals and growing strategic competition in the region dubbed the Indo-Pacific.

France’s 2021 Indo-Pacific Strategy reflects its claim to be a Pacific power, through its colonial control in three Pacific dependencies. French President Emmanuel Macron has argued that France can act as a “balancing force” in the Indo-Pacific region, at a time of growing US-China tensions.

But speaking this week, President Brotherson stressed that France must work with local island leaders, if it wants to move forward in the region.

 “We don’t want to see what happened with the nuclear tests,” Brotherson said. “That’s to say, things are decided without us. I told this to President Macron when I met him in Paris the first time and then again in Vanuatu and PNG in July. I said ‘When you talk about Indo-Pacific, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and – to a lesser extent – Wallis and Futuna, we are the Pacific! So you cannot do it without us.”

In 2016, both New Caledonia and French Polynesia were made full members of the Pacific Islands Forum (the third French Pacific dependency, Wallis and Futuna, is an observer).But this week, for the first time, both French collectivities in the Forum are represented by supporters of independence.

For Brotherson, it means that Paris must pay more attention to local perspectives: “You may have ambassadors and civil servants and blah, blah, blah, but the ones who speak to other leaders in the region are the Presidents of those collectivities, either Louis Mapou from New Caledonia or myself for French Polynesia. Don’t do anything without us, and please consult us beforehand! Otherwise, it’s not going to work.”

He also suggested that French pretentions to be a “balancing force” between the world’s two major powers lacked substance.

“The reality is that there’s an imbalance between what the Chinese and U.S. can do in the area, and what France can do,” he said. “France doesn’t have the same financial capacity, they don’t have the same military capacity. The definition of the Indo-Pacific strategy of France is very clever, because they don’t mean to be an opposition force to either China or the U.S. – they want to maintain some kind of neutral position and somehow to offer balance in the equation. But that’s probably all they can do.”