Between the equator and Samoa lies lonely Tokelau in the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand’s last colony is more difficult to reach than Antarctica. The 1500 inhabitants of the South Seas, where tradition and piety determine life, live with the certainty that their islands will eventually sink into the sea.
The atoll has no cars, no prison, no televisions and no beer for two weeks. It also has no port, only a narrow channel in the reef, and in front of it crosses a massive naval ship. The captain does not know where to anchor. On board is the French ambassador from New Zealand. He has been expected ashore for hours, “8.10 a.m. – Welcome” is the festive program. On the beach children in blue school uniforms and with flower wreaths in their hair stand patiently in the hotter sun and observe the manoeuvring attempts of the grey sea monster. The men from the dance troupe have put on their warlike costumes, the last chickens are scared away, and the path leading the guest from the shore through the village gate to the fan-cooled meeting house has been freshly renovated with a white covering. Coral turf.
It is the first official visit of the French in the history of Tokelau. The tiny country between Samoa and the equator, consisting of three atolls, is visited by only a handful of sailors or sea-bound Pacific travellers and the few doctors, teachers or development experts who work there. What the atolls do not have either is an airport. Access to the outside world is only possible every two weeks by three-day boat trip between cargo, booming chimney, sleeping children and strong Polynesians watching rugby videos on the on-board monitor. Those who come here do not go on holiday, and those who leave here do so for months or years. Often forever. In Australia and New Zealand there are now four times as many Tokelau residents as in the South Seas.
Telephones as the last country in the world
In the 19th century the islands, which had been completely self-sufficient until then, received influential visits. Whalers brought diseases with them, missionaries tried to resettle 500 people, Peruvian people robbers kidnapped 140 men on plantations. Finally, a population reduced by half survived on the three atolls Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo. In 1889 Tokelau was incorporated into the British Empire. The English handed over the twelve square kilometres of barren coral soil and palm grove to New Zealand in 1925.
Now the copra traders came to visit and resold the dried pulp of the coconut, which is mainly used for edible oil, at a good profit. Very rarely once did an emissary of the Queen come. The islands were too far away, the journey by ship too arduous and the resources at the destination too meagre. The mail ship passed only three to four times a year, a school was only built in 1950. The last colony of New Zealand was also the last country in the world to receive telephones in the nineties.
Today a delegation from the United Nations visits us from time to time. Negotiations have been going on for years. The UN would like to see the country released from colonial status. But it is difficult to survive without the eight million New Zealand dollars that flow into Tokelau every year. There is no infrastructure to process, cool and transport fish abroad. And hardly anyone in Tokelau wants to give up New Zealand citizenship just to hoist their own flag between palm trees and satellite dishes. Not independence, but self-determination is the goal of most people.
Real fear in our hearts
The French ambassador is particularly interested in a redefinition of the sea borders in the tuna-rich waters between Tokelau and the Wallis and Futuna Islands several thousand kilometres away, which are still under French rule today. He will promise the small country solar cells for the school and for the Lomaloma hospital, where the paint peels off the walls and the scalpels are rusty because it rains through the ceiling.
Tokelau: Whoever comes here does not take a holiday, and whoever leaves here often does so forever.
But first, he’s got to get ashore somehow. A canoe approaches the warship, bobbing up and down with the waves on the outer wall, the diplomat is let off board and, sitting on a chair, safely brought over the reef to Atafu, the northernmost of the atolls and the first station of his visit.
Shaking hands, waving to the people, a cool sip of coconut in the shade in front of the parish hall. Then the distinguished gentleman, dressed in pure navy white, sits in the hall and listens to the warm singsong of the Tokelau greetings of the pastor and the council of elders. He watches the dance performance of the school classes, then he looks with interest at Kuresa Nasau, who begins his speech. The faipule – the elected head of the island -, a man with sharp facial features and a reflecting bald head, has rehearsed the correct pronunciation of the French name several times before. He wears a tie today and looks serious.
“A subject that has brought real fear into our hearts is the greenhouse effect. We ask you to send your government a report on our fear, because we do not want to disappear from the face of the earth,” says Nasau. He says that the visitor had to walk many miles on the sea to get to them. The sea, on whose mercy they are so dependent. Not only to get their daily food, but to cultivate culture, music and dances. “We do not want to be destroyed by the same waters that have given us life so far because of global warming”.
It is quiet in the hall, only a chicken clucks outside. Then schoolchildren, old people, speakers and dancers lift up to a hymn that is beautiful and clear and sweet like fresh coconut water. His Excellency smiles without obligation and now gives the speech. “We French want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by 2050,” he says. Behind him sits Falani Aukuso, the advisor to faipule, who interprets the English words of the guest. He bends over as if he hadn’t heard well. “Six zero?”, he politely makes sure, “or sixteen?” His demand is cryptic. Because the reduction achieved in 2000 was just 0.5 percent.