PAPEETE, French Polynesia — Scattered across the west South Pacific like a broken strand of pearls, the 130 islands of French Polynesia have long seemed a paradise. Yet within that paradise there is substantial poverty in French Polynesia and its most-known island, Tahiti.
French Polynesia is the largest and most populated of France’s three territories in the South Pacific. It is made up of five archipelagoes with a total land area of 1,622 square miles, stretched across more than 965,000 square miles of ocean. It is home to about 295,000 people, with the greatest concentration on Tahiti and in the capital city of Papeete.
French Polynesia certainly seems prosperous enough. It is the fifth-largest economy in Oceania, trailing only Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and New Caledonia. In the worldwide scheme of things, it is regarded as a moderately-developed economy.
Yet alongside that picture of prosperity, one finds substantial poverty in French Polynesia, especially evident after the Global Financial Crisis. A 2009 study, for instance, found that nearly 25 percent of the population living on the ‘sous le vent’ islands – the leeward islands of the west Society archipelago – lived below the poverty line. The people of the ‘sous le vent’ make up 75 percent of French Polynesia’s total population. A similar study carried out by the French Development Agency in 2010 found that 28 percent of the total population is poor. That means each family unit earned slightly more than $1,000 per month.
Moreover, the study found that the gap between rich and poor was equivalent to the gap in Latin American countries. The top 20 percent of households in French Polynesia receive half the total income. The poorest 30 percent receive only six percent of the total income. Ameliorating poverty is made more difficult because French Polynesia has neither unemployment benefits nor an income tax.
More recent accounts of poverty in French Polynesia put the figure at 30 percent and cite minors living on the streets as a sign of the depth of the poverty. To help these people, social and humanitarian organizations in French Polynesia have been expanding their services. For example, the Red Cross, in French Polynesia since 1933, has continued to grow its operations. Over the last six years, it has opened five ‘social’ grocery stores and increased its volunteer base by 120.
The Social Welfare fund in Pirae, a commune in the suburbs of Papeete, added 3,000 to its welfare rolls this year alone. Tea rata, one of four shelters run by the Emauta Catholic associations, has taken in 25 to 30 families and provided them with emergency housing since the beginning of the year. The families are helped not only with housing but with social services from six monitors and one psychologist. Their stays can last from three months to a year. There are now 12 shelters for the homeless in all of French Polynesia.
Finally, SOS Children’s Villages in French Polynesia has recently taken in 51 orphaned and abandoned children. At present, there is one SOS Children’s Village in the territory, located on the west coast of Tahiti, near Papeete. Younger children live in SOS families and are cared for by SOS mothers. Older children go to special homes where they are taught to live independently.
Thanks to these social service agencies, those living in poverty in French Polynesia have a chance for survival and a better life.
– Robert Cornet