Island group, French Polynesia. It is the southeasternmost extension of the Tuamotu Archipelago. The largest island, Mangareva, is 5 mi (8 km) long and encircled by a barrier reef 40 mi (64 km) in circumference. Mangareva rises to about 1,444 ft (440 m) in the peaks Duff and Mokoto; the chief village, Rikitea, is on Mangareva's eastern side. The Gambier Islands were annexed by the French in 1881. Their economy is based on subsistence agriculture; pearl harvesting is also of economic importance.
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Together with the Tuamotus, the Gambier Islands form Îles Tuamotu-Gambier (French: (les) (Îles) Tuamotu-Gambier or officially la subdivision administrative des (Îles) Tuamotu-Gambier), one of the five primary administrative divisions (subdivisions administratives) of French Polynesia.
The Gambier Islands (Gambier), together with the islands in the eastern part of the Tuamotus (Anaa, Fangatau, Hao, Hikueru, Makemo, Napuka, Nukutavake, Puka-Puka, Reao, Tatakoto and Tureia), form Îles Gambier et Tuamotu Est, one of the 6 electoral districts (circonscriptions électorales) for the Assembly of French Polynesia (Assemblée de la Polynésie française).
The commune of Gambier is made up of the Gambier Islands (with uninhabited Temoe Atoll 40 km east of the main Gambier group), the uninhabited Acteon Group to the west (Matureivavao, Tenararo, Tenarunga, Vahanga), and the atolls of Marutea Sud, Maria Est and Morane. This group of islands and atolls covers an area of 35 km².
Although these archipelagoes is administered as a single municipality (commune), the main village is Rikitea, on the largest Island of Mangareva.
The enclosing coral reef is broken by only three passages to the open sea. Besides Mangareva, the other notable islands of the group are Akamaru Angakauitai, Aukena Kamaka, Kouaku, Makapu, Makaroa, Manui, Mekiro and Taravai (). These are, like Mangareva, volcanic in origin. A number of others are actually coral islands, including Kauku, Papuri, Puaumu, Totengengie and the Tokorua group.
The islands are located at ., and are approximately 31 km² (12 mi²) in area. The total population in 2006 was 1,103 The primary town is Rikitea, located on Mangareva. The highest point in the Gambiers is Mt. Duff, on Mangareva, rising to 441 m along the island's south coast.
There was a time (approximately the tenth to the fifteenth centuries) when the Gambiers hosted a population of several thousand people and traded with other island groups including the Marquesas, the Society Islands and Pitcairn Islands. However, excessive logging by the islanders resulted in almost complete deforestation on Mangareva, with disastrous results for the islands' environment and economy. The folklore of the islands records a slide into civil war and even cannibalism as trade links with the outside world broke down, and archaeological studies have confirmed this tragic story. Today, the islands can support a population of only a few hundred. For a more detailed on the specific reasons behind the demise of Mangarevan population see Jared Diamond's Collapse.
The Gambiers served as a logistical staging base for French nuclear testing activity in Mururoa. During this time, the French military dragged chain through some of the coral reef beds to cut a wider and deeper channel for deep draft vessels. Subsequently, the reef fish population became infected with a disease which makes most of them inedible to humans (consumption produces symptoms including painful rashes, sensitivity to light and itching which can persist for weeks and recur occasionally).
Additionally, during the above-ground testing, local islanders were not provided with adequate protection, being housed in a sheet metal warehouse structure, with open ventilation to the outside. Many locals allegedly suspect that they were exposed to high levels of radiation, and that their island continues to produce food that is not fit for consumption. Anecdotal reports of high cancer rates continue.
French military vessels visited the area (as of 1993) every six months collecting specimens of water, food, human hair and other material, as well as taking detailed accounts of births, deaths and other demographic events, presumably for on-going research into the effects of the nuclear testing. The results of this research are not known to be published anywhere. Many islanders resent this secrecy and suspect it is because they are experiencing serious consequences of the nuclear testing on Mururoa.
Until the French government releases more data, the truth of these allegations will remain unknown.
The local islanders believe that the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was related to these issues.
The Rainbow Warrior was scheduled to visit Mangareva to take environmental and human samples for independent analysis. Many residents reportedly believe that this is a primary reason why the French government chose to destroy the Rainbow Warrior, rather than to permit public examination of the effects of the testing program. (Source: Stephen Midgley, interviews and research on site, January to July 1993)