While exploring the Gambier archipelago in French Polynesia, the corona crisis reminds us of the importance of local resilience.
Pitcairn (GBR)– Gambier (FRA)
“Finally, no more rolling!” Floris grins. We have just dropped our anchor in Rikitea and it holds well. For the first time in months the boat is motionless. Ever since departing from Valdivia, Chile, we continuously felt the waves of the Pacific. During the crossings, of course, but also at the anchorages of the islands we visited. None of them were well-sheltered from the swell. Here, it is almost as flat as a mirror. A coral reef surrounds almost the entire archipelago of Gambier. The only thing tainting our otherwise perfect anchorage is the weather. Dark grey clouds shield the mountains of the main island of Mangareva from our view and heavy rain is pouring down. Thanks to the reunion with friendly sailors, we nevertheless have a joyful arrival.
Polynesia with a French touch
When the rain stops the next day, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that we are on French soil. At the gendarmerie, the tricolour flies proudly from the flagpole. Inside we only have to show our passports and fill out a customs form. “Send it to Tahiti, or you may run into problems later”, the officer urges. Moments later we obediently buy a stamp at the neighbouring post office and leave our forms there. “This was the easiest way to clear-in since we left Europe”, Floris says with a smile. A few weeks later, other boats would envy us for it.
Now we have time to take a closer look at Rikitea, the only village in Gambier. In just fifteen minutes we walk from one side to the other past detached houses with spacious gardens, a church, and a few small food shops. Most residents have a Polynesian appearance and raise a hand or greet us with “bonjour”. Yet French influences are visible everywhere. The baker bakes fresh baguettes and minimarket JoJo’s sells French brie. Philippe bakes brioches, loved by Polynesians and sailors alike. They also pay him frequent visits to read the latest news in his internet café. That’s how reports of the corona crisis, which still seems to be far away, slowly reach us.
Anchored in a Postcard
When the sun comes out a few days later, we climb to the top of the bright green Mount Duff, with its 441 meters the highest mountain in Mangareva. As a reward for our efforts, we get a spectacular 360-degree view of the entire archipelago. Numerous small and large islands dot the landscape and seem to invite us for further exploration. The many shades of blue of the lagoon make the picture almost kitsch. On the way back to the boat, we notice coconuts, bananas, grapefruits, and papayas growing in almost every garden. When we ask a young woman if we can buy something, she says “no”, instead gifting us a bag full of papayas. “Take it, there is too much for us,” she says, kindly but firmly refusing our money.
Over the course of the following weeks, we leisurely sail to small islands. They are all just a few miles from Rikitea and form the boundary of the archipelago. Consisting entirely of coral, walking is somewhat difficult, but the crystal clear water, the sandy beaches, and coconut palms make us quickly forget that inconvenience. The idyll reaches its peak underwater. There is an abundance of healthy coral and colourful fish of all sizes and shapes. Our anchorage might just as well be a postcard.
The Virus Flies In
Everything suddenly changes on March 21. By plane, the corona virus has reached Tahiti, some 1,800 km away. The government of French Polynesia takes decisive action and suspends all domestic and international flights. The local gendarmes visit all sailboats to spread the rules of the “confinement”: We may only go ashore briefly to buy groceries and are not allowed to sail to other islands.
With the other 25 boats we stick to the rules. Sailors have brought illness to French Polynesia in the past, so we understand that our presence is sensitive to locals. At the same time, we consider ourselves lucky: sailors who arrived after March 21 are not allowed to disembark at all. They are not cleared in, and must proceed to Tahiti after re-provisioning. We bring them fresh fruit, do their shopping, and lend an ear. After weeks at sea, they are eager to tell their stories.
Not much later, the countries around us also close their borders to all foreigners. We had planned to sail to New Zealand through the Pacific islands, but now everything is up in the air. How long will it stay like this? Fortunately, this is a good place to be for the time being. All we can do is accept the prospect of an indefinite stay.
The Beginning of Awareness?
Apart from the sailors, hardly any tourists come to Gambier. The residents are largely dependent on pearl cultivation. We learn from pearl grower Eric that cultivation is severely affected by the absence of hundreds of highly specialized Chinese employees. They went en masse to China to celebrate New Year, but cannot come back now. As a result, pearl production has virtually collapsed. This also means fewer customers for the town’s stores.
In town, people use homemade masks. We improvise and tie a tea towels in front of our faces. “Who ever thought it was a good idea to have all medical devices made in China?” Ivar asks cynically. We realize that boundless globalization has made the rapid spread of the virus possible, and makes it more difficult to combat. The government in Tahiti, for instance, had to wait weeks before it could get masks, gloves, and testing kits from China.
Among sailors the crisis is also on top of mind. “The economy runs on international trade, labour, and capital markets,” our German neighbour opens when we meet at JoJo’s. “Yes, but now that it has come to a standstill, you can see that our society was extremely efficient, but insufficiently resilient,” Ivar counters. “I see the corona pandemic as a signal that our globalized way of life is not sustainable. Just as I view the climate crisis as a message from nature that our energy systems, farming methods, and consumer culture are not sustainable,” he closes and leaves our neighbour to reflect on those words. We realize that the virus is devastating, but it also raises awareness and has the potential to bring about lasting change.
Towards Greater Local Resilience
Everyone, sailors and local inhabitants alike, keeps track of the number of corona infections in French Polynesia. “Still no cases in Gambier,” says Floris happily when he climbs on board with a baguette. The measures seem to be effective and we are pleased that the government has put public health first. At the same time, we believe that more must be done than saving human lives. It will be a big challenge to organize our society in such a way that the next virus will not have such devastating consequences. This task comes on top of tackling existing sustainability challenges, such as disappearing biodiversity, soil erosion, extreme wealth inequality, plastic pollution and climate disruption. None of these are easy tasks, but the good news is that many solutions are already in place, as we have been highlighting over the past four years. They are solutions that bring an ecologically healthy and socially just society closer, but also make such a society more resilient to shocks like the current pandemic.
At a time when the globalized world economy is collapsing before our eyes, the key to a more sustainable future may very well lie in becoming less dependent on geopolitical, climatic and economic decisions elsewhere for our food, energy, and other needs. Various initiatives we documented are geared towards becoming more locally resilient:
The Sharing Economy: when people share, they not only use fewer resources, but also get to know their neighbours better.
Community-Supported Agriculture: become a member and get fresh, organic produce throughout the year while supporting local farmers.
Samsø: how an island became energy-independent with renewables, to the benefit of the local population and the environment.
The Transition Town movement, which started in the southern English town of Totnes, is aimed at strengthening local communities, generating local renewable energy, and growing food in gardens and public parks.
Slow Food: Promoting biodiversity by supporting small-scale producers, local production and educating consumers about artisanal products.
Sardex: a digital currency that can only be used on Sardinia to support the local economy, increase resilience against future financial shocks, while contributing to a more circular economy.
Reforestation to restore ecosystems, which helps to fight climate disruption, drought and wildfires. The planted trees provide fruit and nuts (and jobs!).
El Hierro: a world-leading renewable energy storage solution that combines wind- and hydropower.
Casa Tambor: using recycled and local materials, including tiles from recycled bottles, to save the environment and money!
Organic Neighbourhood Farm: organic farmer Alda has increased biodiversity and enriched the soil of her farm by planting hundreds of trees and plants, which also has positive climate effects. The fertile soil and rich biodiversity enable her to avoid poisons and grow healthy vegetables for her family and the neighbourhood.