With New Take on Tradition, French Polynesians Work to Save Their Ocean

Locals use video game, dance contest, and more to support marine safeguards

Navigate to:

With New Take on Tradition, French Polynesians Work to Save Their Ocean
French Polynesia
A group of Sabre Squirrelfish under a coral reef in Rangiroa, French Polynesia — one of the largest atolls in the world.
Bernard Radvaner/Getty Images

Throughout their history, Polynesian peoples from New Zealand to Hawaii to Rapa Nui (Easter Island)—also known as the Polynesian triangle have relied on the sea to provide food and connect islands to each other, maintain family bonds, and help isolated communities share their cultures with the outside world. As they traveled across the Pacific, Polynesian peoples brought with them that deep relationship with the ocean, including the concept of the rāhui, a traditional practice of restricting access to an area or resource as a way of conserving it.

In the heart of the Polynesian triangle, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project has been working to support the creation of a large marine reserve to be part of the marine managed area for the entire economic exclusive zone proposed by the French Polynesian government. While that work continues, we have also partnered with the Federation of the Polynesian Environmental Associations (Te Ora Naho in Tahitian) to promote ocean conservation through the Call for Rāhui program. Throughout June, the initiative is accepting proposals for 10 new projects to promote the sustainable management of coastal resources and help French Polynesia protect at least 30 percent of its marine territory—a target recommended for the entire ocean by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Since its launch last year, Call for Rāhui has supported projects from local communities, fishermen, scientists, and conservation organizations with the aim of protecting coastal marine resources across French Polynesia’s five archipelagos. So far the program has supported 10 projects, ranging from managing and monitoring a rāhui in Huahine to an educational program on the tradition for a school in Taravao, Tahiti, to coral restoration in Punaauia, Tahiti, and production of a rāhui video game on the rāhui.

French Polynesia
A screenshot of the rāhui video game in French.

The video game was created by the French Polynesian app and game developer, 3Dcarré Tahiti, in collaboration with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project. Its goal is to use the rāhui concept to teach young people about ocean species, the benefits of a healthy lagoon, and the importance of preserving marine resources for future generations. The game, which is free, launched in March and has been distributed and used in several schools on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea. It is available for download in all French Polynesian public schools.

In Rurutu, one of the five islands in the Austral archipelago, Call for Rāhui funded a proposal from the local cultural and conservation association Vaitemarama to host a dance competition based on rāhui-themed songs and performances. Tahitian dancing is deeply rooted in Polynesian culture and remains popular within the community. The contest was held in December and the winning group, Tamarii taura’a u’i, will perform its routine at Heiva, Tahiti's biggest dance competition, in 2019.

French Polynesia
A resident of Raivavae Island looks on as the Faafaite, a traditional Polynesian wayfinding canoe, sails in the island’s lagoon.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Other rāhui’s that the program is supporting include one in the lagoon of Teva I Uta, Tahiti, also through the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project partnership. Local leaders expect that protected area, which was proposed after an assessment of the marine ecosystems and consultation with fishermen and the community, to be finalized by the end of year. And in the island of Huahine, the program helped the local community association protect its lagoon—Paruru te tairoto o Haapu—through the acquisition of a small boat to enforce and survey an existing rāhui zone.

These projects show Polynesian communities’ longstanding recognition of the benefits of conservation, for current and future generations.

With our ocean facing increasing threats from human activities and climate change, governments must continuously improve the management and protection of marine environments. The rāhui concept can help French Polynesia, and island communities around the world, safeguard the ocean ecosystems that have supported them for centuries and that may ultimately determine their survival.

Jerome Petit is the director and Donatien Tanret is an officer with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s French Polynesia campaign.