Last November, more than 2,000 people arrived on Temae beach, in the heart of Mo’orea island in French Polynesia.
The gathering was a traditional cultural ceremony called tahei, which saw people tying braided ti leaf cords together in a symbol of peace. The aim was to raise awareness of the growing number of developments by a number of different groups on the island, which includes plans for two new hotels, as well as over 300 villas, houses and bungalows, aimed at high-end visitors range.
Temae is one of three publicly accessible beaches on the entire island, the others are private or attached to resorts and inaccessible to locals.
But some locals fear Temae will soon be lost to the public as well. Last year, 53 acres of land in Temae, including the waterfront, was purchased for around 4 billion CPF ($36 million). The land was bought by the Wane group, a major player in the French Polynesian economy, operating hotels and owning the largest supermarket chains in the country.
They also own the Sofitel Resort, near Temae. No announcements have been made about plans for the land but there are fears the recently purchased beachfront could be used to expand the resort’s operations. The Wane Group did not respond to requests for comment.
In a television interview, a spokesperson for the Wane group reassured the population that the Wane group was working for economic development in harmony with the community and the natural environment.
“Part of the beach will likely remain open to the public,” she said in the interview, adding, “Mo’orea has a unique environment, and that environment will be respected.”
The Keep Moorea Wild movement, which organized the tahei, and the Temae Residents Association would like to see the Temae land used in a way that benefits the residents, such as building a public park in the area.
However, Hironui Johnston, a government official at the Ministry of Tourism and Labour, pointed out that the land at Temae was privately owned before the acquisition of the Wane Group and that the previous owners allowed access to locals. He said the government could not afford to buy the land in Temae, nor to build a public park on private land.
Many locals fear that the number of new developments by different groups across the island are privatizing huge swaths of land, could negatively impact the environment and contribute to real estate speculation. Others argue that the developments are creating much-needed jobs and boosting economic growth.
“Growing up in Mo’orea as a kid I thought wow, this place is beautiful, it’s magical. But all these places where I used to go and play were being destroyed to build parking lots and big houses,” said Temoana Poole, photographer and one of the founders of Keep Moorea Wild.
He launched the campaign group in response to extensive high-end development. Their goal is to preserve Mo’orea’s natural environment for future generations, as well as to promote indigenous-centered sustainable development.
The movement has already presented a project to the local government for funding – a center focused on connecting local people with tourists through culture and outdoor sports – but they say they have never received a response from government officials.
“Polynesia is so special and if it becomes just another concrete jungle, another city, it will lose its mana (power/spirit), he will lose what makes him special – the culture, the people, everything,” Poole says.
The influx of property developers in Mo’orea has also contributed to rising house prices, and property speculation has become a growing problem. A hectare of land in Temae now sells for more than $250,000, a price most residents cannot afford. The land, however, is being bought up by foreign investors who buy land to build vacation homes and then market it as Airbnbs. Others are creating housing estates, houses and villas for high-end visitors.
“Every family living here wants to be able to afford to live on the island. This is where we were born and raised. Where are we supposed to move if we can’t live here? said Heimata Hall, Mo’orea resident and tour operator. “It’s about preserving who we are, preserving our culture, preserving our people.”
However, proponents of high-end developments argue that they boost the economy, attract more tourists and provide jobs for locals.
Tourism is French Polynesia’s leading export product and represents 12% of GDP. Moorea is the second most visited island in French Polynesia, but it lags behind Bora Bora and Tahiti in terms of tourist accommodation.
According to the Ministry of Tourism and Labor, Moorea’s hotel accommodation capacity stands at just over 1,000 beds, compared to Tahiti and Bora Bora which can both accommodate nearly double that figure.
A new hotel would allow more tourists to visit the island and create up to 800 new jobs, according to Hironui Johnston, an official with the Ministry of Tourism and Labor, a significant contribution given the unemployment rate in French Polynesia which is 12.8%. , according to the Institute of Statistics of French Polynesia.
But campaigners say those jobs aren’t always lucrative.
“It’s like an old mindset that we need development, we need a hotel, and that’s not working anymore,” Poole said. “What do the inhabitants receive? Well, they become cleaners, they become bartenders, you know, they can clean the garden and they can just survive in a minimum wage job.
He said many of these types of jobs are “jobs to survive in society, not to thrive.”
Johnston acknowledges that developments can impact the environment, but says it is in the developer’s interest to preserve natural beauty.
“Even if we think economically or in terms of finances, it is in the interest of [developers] preserve the environment because it is Tahiti’s selling point.
In September 2021, a clause in the law regarding Moorea’s maritime space management plan was amended, potentially allowing overwater bungalows on the Temae lagoon, an area that was previously under environmental protection.
Ronald Teariki, the mayor of Teavaro, the district where Temae is located, said more than 200 meetings have been held across the island with residents regarding changes to the laws, but the change that would allow overwater bungalows has been done at the last minute at the federal level. He has since participated in meetings to address local concerns.
“The district asked the [federal government] to obtain authorization to set up an oversight committee. A strategic steering committee in relation to these development zones.
The committee would help keep residents informed and ensure that any development complies with environmental laws to protect Temae’s marine ecosystem. Teariki thinks a committee like this would help residents feel that their concerns are taken seriously and encourage developers to create environmentally friendly developments.
“These developers can’t do whatever they want, they have to abide by Mo’orea’s maritime space management laws,” he said.