Residents of Tahiti are demonstrating to express concern with planned construction for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.
While the majority of the events of the 2024 Olympics will be held in Paris, it is the village of Teahupoo on Tahiti Iti in French Polynesia—nearly 10,000 miles away—that will host the Olympic surfing competition. French Polynesia is a semi-autonomous department of France with its own assembly and President, but residents—who are French citizens—also elect representatives to France’s National Assembly and the French President.
Teahupoo is already famous in the surfing community for its surf break, which produces an almost perfectly cylindrical wave. The community is also accustomed to hosting world-class surfing competitions. When those competitions are held, judges view the competition at the offshore surf break from a wooden platform, constructed on the shore, which is dismantled and put back away after each event.
Although Teahupoo was announced as the site over two years ago, local residents understood the judges would be viewing the competition from the usual wooden platform. But concerns grew after the government of French Polynesia announced that the wooden platform would be replaced with a three-story aluminum tower in the ocean atop the coral reef. Although the platform is similarly expected to be temporary for the Olympics, its construction will require drilling into the coral bed to anchor the structure, and a pipe for electronic cables and wastewater will connect the structure to shore.
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The news was enough cause for concern among village residents that several hundred demonstrated on October 15 to demand the local government closely review the construction plans to ensure the reef won’t be harmed. The primary concern voiced by residents was that the government had not completed an environmental impact study for the construction—particularly necessary, they say, because of the fragile nature of coral reefs.
“‘Worried’ is a good word to describe our feelings today,” said Tahurai Henry, a local surfer and guesthouse owner. “From the beginning, all of the work we’ve seen has been destructive and polluting. Now we’re learning that the same companies will be in charge of building the judge’s tower and we’re scared. I don’t trust these companies at all. We don’t see the purpose of radically changing Teahupoo forever, for only four days of competition.”
Residents have already seen significant change in Teahupoo since the announcement. Construction is already underway on improvements to the community’s footbridge and marina. A taro field has been filled with gravel for construction of the athlete’s village, and additional parking lots are being built in nearby communities on Tahiti Iti, which is a draw for visitors to French Polynesia because of its undeveloped nature.
Olympic Committee President Tony Estanguet explained to the press Tuesday that the new tower was planned by the government of French Polynesia due to safety concerns with the existing tower, but that the Committee is “ready to study concrete proposals to further improve the project and reduce the impact if possible. But it is first and foremost a safety issue: Paris 2024 will not endanger anyone’s safety—the people who are going to work in the judges’ tower must be safe.”
Local press reported that the President of French Polynesia, Moetai Brotherson, reassured local residents with remarks at a gathering in Tahiti Iti on Saturday, “It is obvious that when drilling, there will be noise and release of sand, but all of that will be contained and cleaned. Then, nature will reclaim its rights.”
But residents aren’t convinced. The French Coral Reef Initiative (IFRECOR) has long warned that degradation of the coral could affect the formation of the wave. Damage to the reef structure could also increase erosion along the shore and put the reef ecosystem at risk for ciguatera, a poisonous toxin that affects reef fish—a significant concern in a community that still depends on fishing to stock their kitchens.
One resident, Matahi Drollet, told local news outlet La Depeche that “it is certain that they will degrade the corals—it is a destruction of our pantry—one of the rare places on Tahiti where the surgeonfish is still edible.”
Organizers of the protest have put forward two alternatives: modifications to the existing wooden judge’s tower so that it meets the necessary safety codes, or construction of the proposed aluminum tower on land, preserving the reef from drilling.