Taboo zones

© Pierre de Parscau / Fondation Tara Expéditions

The preservation of marine areas is not a recent theme in the Pacific Islands. Long before the arrival of European explorers in the late sixteenth century the Polynesian civilization had recourse to total or partial restrictions in certain territories: the taboo zones.

It was James Cook who first introduced the term “tapu”, which became “taboo” in England after he returned from his first expedition to the Pacific aboard the Endeavour. Though the word still designates a ban in a society, the Polynesian “taboo” includes a powerful sacred and political dimension: transgressions were once punishable by death. This notion of taboo is directly linked to the rahui – restricting the harvesting and consumption of marine and plant resources in a given area, as decreed by the arii, the head of the community. While it is tempting to compare this traditional practice to a form of “sustainable development”, the first objective of rahui seems to have been the preservation of sacred sites, a tribute to a deceased person or the assertion of political authority. This ban could affect only a part of the population and last for a whole year or more, allowing marine resources time to recover.


credits_pdeparscau_aire-marine-protegee-mooreaA marine protected area of Moorea © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation


According to the anthropologist Alexander Juster, the rahui was usually declared in anticipation of inaugurating a marae – a shrine or place of worship. We still find remnants of these wide open spaces of volcanic rock where the ancient Polynesian cults were practiced. Of varying sizes, they served as a link between the world of men and gods. After the celebrations, edible material taken from the taboo areas was redistributed to the local population. The arii thus exerted his authority on the social and religious life of the island.


Un « marae », sanctuaire sacré sur les hauteurs de MooreaA “marae sanctuary” in the heights of Moorea © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation


Today, many Pacific communities continue to claim their heritage of taboo areas to  preserve marine resources threatened by overfishing. But passing laws to impose marine protected areas clashes with the rahui custom. Where tradition took on a sacred and inviolable character, modern marine areas require vigilant monitoring of coastal areas and raising the awareness of local fishermen.

On Moorea island, Lee and Maurice Rurua have dedicated part of their lives to preserving  the lagoon. Both grew up on the coast and have been striving for over 15 years to impose regulations on fishing. In 2001, a dredging machine began taking sand from the lagoon bottom to build an embankment for the construction of a hotel. After several demonstrations, the local population succeeded in stopping the construction, and the Ruruas founded the PGEM (Plan de gestion de l’espace maritime) which established 8 marine protected areas around Moorea. This number reflects the 8 tentacles of the legendary octopus that the gods sent to the island to guide men. « For the last 10 years, the situation has been improving,» says Lee Rurua.

« Some fish that had disappeared have returned,  and we’ve observed a real change.  Coral bleaching and global warming are certainly creating other problems today, but we’ve set an example for other communities that are beginning to implement management plans that can be traditional or more modern.»


credits_pdeparscau_lee-et-maurice-ruruaLee and Maurice Rurua, the founders of PGEM © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation


Affected by population growth and the pressure of human activities on the coasts, the islanders are invoking the tradition of their ancestors to set aside certain maritime areas. Their success should depend on the delicate balance between scientific concerns and the power of custom, somewhere between gods and men.


Pierre de Parscau



Related Articles :
- Tara Pacific in the eye of the camera
- Valeriano Parravicini, taking the “pulse” of atolls
- Video: Reef builders