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dimanche 13 octobre 2013

The island of Bora Bora

The tarnished pearl of South Pacific

Bora Bora, recognized worldwide as a symbol of Paradise, who knows than this island is in French Polynesia…?

Undoubtedly, the most famous Polynesian island, Bora Bora, is at two hundred and sixty kilometers northwest of Tahiti in the insular subset of Leeward Islands, which forms the northern part of the Society Islands.

A bird’s-eye view of Bora Bora, the tarnished “pearl” of the Pacific 
At all eras, it was described as the most beautiful island. But, it’s the installation of a U.S. military base in 1942 which was made known it to the general public worldwide.

Geography of Bora Bora, the mythical island
His real name is Pora Pora (“first born” in the Raromatai* language) and Bora Bora is also named Mai te Pora (“created by the gods”). 

The island is small since its total area (motu** included) reaches only 38 km2. At the heart of the lagoon, the main land that hosts the villages of Vaitape, Faanui and Anau measures only 8 km from north to south and 5 km from east to west.

Map of the Society Islands
Despite its small size, Bora Bora is dominated by two peaks with impressive rock faces: Mount Otemanu (727m), on the main island, and Mount Pahia (661m), on the “Motu” Nunue.

In the 2007 census of population, there were 8,927 people in Bora Bora. However, some more recent indicators suggest a decline of nearly two hundred people.

Very close to Raiatea and Taha’a, Bora Bora’s climate is much the same in these two islands.

The whole island and “motu” is protected from the swell of the Pacific by a barrier reef in which one gap alone opens: the fishway of Teavanui.

Bora Bora and the history
It’s around the fourth century AD that the first Polynesian settlers landed in Bora Bora. They called it Vava’u.

The first Westerner to report the existence of the island in his logbook was the Dutch sailor Jakob Roggeveen, in 1722. He was followed by James Cook, who put it on his maps in 1769. But he’ll land there only in 1777.

For the long period before the contact, we know very little. The genealogies don’t go back beyond Ofa’i-Honu, the first “ari’i”*** known. However it’s interesting to note that he belonged to a royal lineage.  It was different from that which prevailed on Havai’i (Raiatea), yet very close. Quickly, the both families united through weddings and reigned on these islands for a long time. Later, they’ve expanded their influence to Tahiti.

In 1842, the island of Bora Bora is put under French protectorate, after a very special warring episode.

Mount Otemanu (727m) in Bora Bora
After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Americans used Bora Bora as their military base of the South Pacific. Thus an airfield was erected. It remained as the only airdrome of French Polynesia until 1962. Then was built the Tahiti Faa’a airport to allow the installation of the CEP and the realization of the French nuclear program in the South Pacific.

During the five years of occupation, nearly five thousand GIs resided on the island permanently, while the Polynesian population was barely more than two thousands souls… In 1947, the U.S. army departed, leaving behind it many memories, not all particularly laudable.

If the Motu Mute airport and some other infrastructure enabled a much faster rate than in other Polynesian islands economic development, they also left behind them hundreds of wrecked cars, buildings and equipment out of use, as well as many children who will never know their father…

Bora Bora, a devastated economy
Through the medium of the U.S. soldiers’ tales, Bora Bora became the Polynesian choice tourist destination, so that the whole economy of the island is now exclusively focused on this activity – unfortunately decaying.

A typical house in Bora Bora
Announcing the end of the fat years, Club Med the first will have to close down in 2009. Since then, other luxury hotels have followed and among those which still work, some will not survive very long in the absence of a significant recovery of the sector.

If these hotel infrastructures have enabled decades of undeniable wealth, that’s not without consequences.

The traditional economy based on fishing and subsistence farming is virtually over. The lagoon ecosystem was strongly affected by the construction of these hotels. Thus, wonderful bungalows on stilts have driven out manta rays which deserted Bora…

With two or three exceptions, all the motu have been devoted to the construction of hotels, thus making them forbidden to the population, destroying the resource associated with coconuts that had been planted. Hotels are closed, but the motu are still owned by hotel chains. The only sandy beaches are also inaccessible to people.

The main island has lost most of its charm due to a totally uncontrolled urbanization, poorly maintained infrastructure are decaying, even the cleanliness of the island and of its rare beaches is hardly assured…

Finally, always driven by the dreams of a prosperous bygone era, the prices on Bora are the highest, by far, of the whole French Polynesia.

Bora Bora or the dream murdered
If the lagoon of Bora is still relatively preserved, it’s also seriously threatened by pollution due to uncontrolled urbanization and obvious ecological incivility of the population.

Private motu of the hotels of Bora Bora
Today, the best memories that we keep from a trip to Bora Bora are the sumptuous images that the island offers when we comes and return by plane.

Unfortunately it’s a misleading view of what was one of the most beautiful islands on the Earth…

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

*raromatai: adjective denoting everything that concerns on Leeward Islands
**motu: islets or islands most often located on the coral reef.
***ari’i: leaders, kings in the traditional society

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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