Marie-Thérèse Danielsson

Beloved activist dies at 79

Feature story - 13 February, 2003
Marie-Thérèse Danielsson, who died earlier this week in Tahiti aged 79, was a key figure in the global campaign against French nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll. With her husband, the Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson, she brought to millions of people the injustice and dangers of the nuclear testing programme in their book "Moruroa Mon Amour."

Bengt and Marie-Thérèse Danielsson

Marie-Thérèse was born in France, had lived in Sweden and travelled widely, but her passion was for the people and environment of Tahiti-Polynesia. She was a staunch friend and supporter of Tahitian anti-nuclear and pro-independence activists -- not an easy place to be in the heavily militarised, colonial society of Tahiti in the 1960s. When the testing programme at Moruroa ended in January 1996, she continued to campaign in Tahiti and France for compensation and access to medical records for Tahitian workers on the atoll.

Marie-Thérèse first joined Bengt in Tahiti when he was doing anthropological work in a remote atoll in Tahiti-Polynesia after he had completed the famous Kon Tiki raft voyage from South America to French Polynesia. That experience, working in a community unaffected by much of 20th century western civilisation was rudely interrupted by de Gaulle's decision to use Moruroa as a test site in the early 1960s. The economy, society and culture of Tahiti underwent a violent shock with a flood of 20,000 military personnel. Bengt and Marie-Thérèse documented this "tsunami" as they called it, which irrevocably changed Tahiti and its people.

Marie-Thérèse cared about people, first and foremost. She helped create the space particularly for Tahitian women to speak out. While Bengt lectured guests on the history of French colonialism in Tahiti, she provided practical hospitality and friendship to an international network of activists sharing her dream of a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific. Their home was always open to visitors: the large library of books on Pacific cultures and environment to pore over, fabulous meals, and a "visitor's bure" on the edge of the lagoon at their house in Tahiti which was a haven place for Greenpeace campaigners, Pacific activists, French scientists and politicians and a whole host of globe-trotters. I asked her once how she maintained her endless hospitality, her capacity to give to others in spite of her own busy life of activism and in latter years, Bengt's illness. She said simply, "what goes around, comes around" -- that the goodness you give eventually comes back to you.

I met Marie-Thérèse on my first ever day in Tahiti. New to Greenpeace and new to Tahiti, I was feeling jetlagged and slightly disoriented after arriving on a 2am flight into Papeete. After I'd visited a few contacts in the anti-nuclear movement in Papeete, I went to make a phone call in the Post Office. A mysterious man with a camera followed me, trying to snap my picture. I suspected the authorities knew I was an activist, and were either trying to get a picture for their files, or simply wanted to intimidate me. I rang Marie-Thérèse and asked if this was normal. "Yes," she said, "don't worry. Just come out and have lunch with us and use the phone here." For years the Danielssons had had their phone bugged and their mail opened by one of the various intelligence forces that operated in Tahiti. In spite of this harassment and torrents of abuse from the pro-French local tabloids, the Danielssons documented the lies and inconsistencies of the French authorities about the impact of the tests on people's health, the state of the vulnerable coral atolls after the underground blasts, and the cover-ups of accidents at the test site.

Marie-Thérèse was also a founding member of the local Moruroa e Tatou (Moruroa and Us) nuclear veterans association and of the local section of the Women's International League for Freedom and Peace (WILFP). Bengt and Marie-Thérèse were honoured in 1991 with the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. She is to be buried in Sweden.

Stephanie Mills

Nuclear Issue Co-ordinator