Locals claim infrastructure construction for the 2024 Olympic Games will cause environmental damage to the famed Tahitian coral reefs of Teahupo’o
When a giant, long period swell rolls out of the Southern Ocean and heads toward a small reef pass known as Teahupo’o, off the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia, surfers across the world know that it’s show time. And so does the Olympic committee, and that is causing problems.
Teahupo’o is the Coliseum of surfing. At this most spectacular of surf spots, huge, powerful waves explode with staggering violence over a sharp, shallow coral reef with only the bravest and most skilled surfers in the world taking on the challenge of a big day.
No wonder then that when the Olympic committee chose Paris and France to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, Teahupo’o (French Polynesia is a part of France) was the venue of choice for the surfing competition.
Teahupo’o is no stranger to major world surfing competitions and an infrastructure has been in place for many years to cater to such events. But the Olympics is not just another competition and this has got the locals worried.
According to the Olympic committee, the Paris 2024 games will be ‘setting new sustainability standards for major sporting events by encouraging energy conservation, innovation and creativity. These will be Olympic Games of a new era’. However, according to Tahitian environmental organisation, Mata Ara Ia Teahupo’o, as well as local residents, this doesn’t seem to be the case (in French).
The offshore reef facing the wave at Teahupo’o already has a demountable, wooden judging tower that has been used during all major surf competitions for over twenty years and is taken down after use. Locals would like to see this tower upgraded, but instead, the French Polynesian government has announced the imminent construction of a three-story, aluminium judging tower built directly on top of the coral reef.
To accomplish this, 72 four-meter-long rods will be driven into the reef to affix six underwater, reinforced concrete bases. A 20cm-wide by 800m long pipe for an electric cable, wastewater evacuation, and internet fibre optic cable will run from the tower to the coastline. Locals allege that no environmental impact study has been performed to ensure that this construction will be safe for the reef or its surrounding ecosystems.
The danger, those opposed to the building project, say, is that any construction on the reef could lead to damaging the quality of the wave, which could have a knock-on effect on the area’s economy, which is today almost wholly reliant on surfing and tourism.
In addition, there are concerns that damage to the reef could increase the presence of the harmful algae known as Gambierdiscus toxicus, which produces a toxin in fish that causes ciguatera poisoning in humans when eaten.
In addition to simply upgrading the existing wooden judge’s tower, Mata Ara Ia Teahupo’o has suggested using solar or generator power instead of electricity from the mainland, building on-site composting toilets and using portable internet solutions. All of which the group says would go a long way to meeting the Olympic committee’s stated aim of reducing the environmental footprint of the games.
On 15 October, a protest march, with traditional singing and a human chain, was held in Teahupo’o. However, the French Polynesian government has said that the building work will go ahead as planned because the decision is up to Paris and the Olympic committee.
Teahupo’o locals have set up a petition against the works.