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Environmental risks in the context of Overseas France : management, social acceptance and conflictuality

Thierry Nicolas et François Taglioni
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les risques environnementaux dans des contextes ultramarins français : gestion, acceptabilité sociale et conflictualité [fr]

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1The eleven inhabited territories across the three oceans that constitute Overseas France are characterized by their being exposed to hazards whose consequences may be particularly devastating. The largest disasters – in terms of human or economic damage – ever recorded nationwide often took place in one of those territories. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms, floods and landslides have triggered catastrophic events which have caused the deaths of dozens of thousands of people since the beginning of the 20th century, and have had a deep impact on the economic and demographic trends of many overseas territories.

2At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, faced with the recurrence of such events, overseas territories have seen first-hand the shift from a hazard-oriented approach to an approach in which research and risk-management policies center in on vulnerability exposure. This new way of understanding risks, which is less focused on the knowledge of natural phenomena, has furthered the development of an institutional logic mainly based on the establishment of frameworks defining the specific modalities of spatial planning and the improvement of individual behaviors before, during and after a disruptive event. Over the past three decades, many legal and regulatory texts have been produced, whose focus is on the delineation of hazard zones as well as on raising awareness and informing overseas populations. Among these laws, some have become symbols of a paradigm shift: for example, the “Barnier law”, voted on February 2, 1995, introduced risk prevention plans (RPP) in communities falling under what is known as “legislative identity” (“identité legislative”) (as per Article 73 of the Constitution, which applies to overseas departments) and whose spirit has been widely used in communities enjoying a broader autonomy (Arnell et al., 2018).

3Even though the legal and regulatory arsenal has expanded and the actions aiming at reducing disaster risk now abound, there is no denying that extraordinary events bring about such crises overseas that they may challenge the trust populations have in risk-management policies. The contentious situations sparked by catastrophes – such as the tensions that affected the French part of the island of Saint Martin in the wake of Hurricane Irma – are so many tokens of how limited our way of tackling overseas risks is. This special issue proposes to identify the lesser-known risk-management policies implemented since the late 20th century in territories subjected to major natural hazards. Consisting in seven articles, this issue examines the topic through the examples of Mayotte, Saint Martin, Marie-Galante and what is known as “continental” Guadeloupe.

A memory of risk caught between dilution, alteration and bias

4Among the blind spots in risk-management policies, memory plays a major part. Admittedly, memory often eludes researchers and appears to be quite ambivalent. Indeed the memory of past events, and particularly that of disasters, may validate preventive information and science-inspired narratives, but it may also, conversely, be at odds with the purpose of reducing the disaster risk. In the first case, memory may be of benefit for inhabitants, enabling them to better face a similar type of hazard. Bearing a memory of first-hand experience of the phenomenon generally works as a positive influence on the inhabitants of a given territory when it comes to facing the hazard anew. In the second case, the memory of past events experiences alterations that prevent inhabitants from behaving adequately in case of an emergency. It turns out that memory may erase and shuffle the sequence of events because some victims would rather not rekindle traumatic experiences (Ferrer, 2018). As an opening for this special issue, Olivier Gillet et al. propose an article in which they examine volcanic risk in Guadeloupe, highlighting how the Soufrière eruptive crisis in 1976 is still scarred by the memory of tensions between the displaced populations and those living in the host communities. The individuals who have experienced that crisis report the trauma of being evacuated and voice a strong reluctance at the prospect of living through such an experience again. The memory of risk may also undergo dilution. Significant demographic changes may be one of the causes for such dilution. In their article, M. Rullier and G. Hubert point out that “the recent arrival of a part of the population of Mayotte precludes the preservation of memory transmission when it comes to localized dimensions (for instance, sea-level rise and erosion in a neighborhood)”. They echo Duvat’s analysis (2008) of Saint Martin in the wake of the massive influx of immigrants in the 1990s. Additionally, even though this case is not examined in the issue, memory may be altered by habituation and decreased alertness, which make people overlook danger (Pagney Bénito-Espinal, 2019). Thus, the tragedy that occurred in Doubs, Guadeloupe, a hamlet by Les Abymes, where five people drowned in January 2011 while crossing a river in flood, is symptomatic of how locals play down risk (Pagney Bénito-Espinal, 2019).

Inadequate and counterintuitive behavior : calling into question the culture of evacuation

5Another blind spot of overseas risk management policies is the way people behave in times of crisis. Authorities have often stressed the fact that individuals assess risk in a rational and objective manner (Leneveu et Laville, 2012). As O. Gillet et al. point out in the Soufrière case, “the ORSEC plan (French national emergency response plan) has established that Saint-Claude and Baillif – the towns that are the most exposed – shall evacuate first, while the inhabitants of other towns are ordered to stay home so as not to disrupt the evacuation.” But even though multiphasing may appear as a “logical” tactical solution for quick evacuation, the authors emphasize that in practice this procedure is hard to enforce.

6When Hurricane Irma hit Saint Martin, the uncertainties regarding the evacuation procedures were made obvious. Many inhabitants living in the French part preferred to stay in their homes or on their craft rather than take cover in one of the shelters indexed by the prefecture (Nicolas et al., 2018). By comparison, in Cuba, under the authority of the civil defense, about a million people living in precarious housing or in areas exposed to floods were displaced in anticipation of the storm. It seems like the culture of evacuation is struggling to be permanently incorporated within the French tradition of risk management, which doesn’t necessarily encourage displacing populations. Recent mass evacuations of populations, overseas as much as in Metropolitan France, are scarce. The complexity of the operations, which require in particular a good coordination between several institutions and local authorities, contributes to making evacuation a last-resort solution.

Distrust in risk-management policies

7The question of inhabitants’ distrust in risk-management policies is a recurring one among the most salient items in this special issue. Even though such policies aim at being participatory, to overseas citizens, they may seem completely out of touch with their everyday lives, or even ungrounded. That feeling is sometimes heightened by the fact that institutions don’t systematically communicate in the vernacular or lingua franca, nor use the locally-developed social codes. Two articles trace out this distrust and analyze its motives. In the first article, D. Crozier et al. review the protests that have peppered the review of the natural Risk Prevention Plan (RPP) when it came to the part dealing with marine submersion in Saint Martin. The authors remind us that the situation was so tense that in December 2019, the power struggle against the State ended with riots and the Saint Martin Workers Union’s blockading the island for eight days. Nonetheless, it would be reductive to consider that overseas populations only lash out at the State and its devolved powers. The second article, which examines Guadeloupeans’ distrust in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, also mentions it. In this article, J.-P. Bellanger describes the grievance with regard to the local representatives, whose speeches often consist in promises that aren’t kept.

The difficulty of taking into account new environmental risks

8Since the beginning of the 21st century and the appearance of new hazards, risk-management policies have become even harder to implement in French overseas territories. Overseas inhabitants must now deal with new phenomena whose impacts may be quite harmful. One such example is the tsunami hazard, which is constantly reassessed, especially since the December 26, 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which reminded the world of the damage and loss such a hazard could cause. In Mayotte, interest in the tsunami hazard increased after a unique seismo-volcanic crisis linked to the May 2019 discovery of a new submarine volcano, Mount Fani Maoré, some fifty kilometers off the island’s cost. According to F. Léone et al., in spite of the progress made by recent studies, in particular those of the Laboratory for Geography and Territorial Planning in Montpellier (LAGAM), focusing on prevention and population safety, there is still room for improvement. In case of a tsunami, one of the main concerns is the ability to evacuate the population in the best conditions possible, in a context where fears that one’s belongings may not be safe during one’s absence are real. According to this study, the cultural integration of the tsunami hazard should also be developed, through a shift in the representation of the hazard and access to people who are socially, culturally or linguistically isolated.

9F. Menez et al. investigate on the risk of Sargassum beachings and aptly point out that even though it is labeled as a “new” risk at an institutional level, from a legal standpoint, it is not yet taken into account as a major natural risk nor categorized as a natural disaster, due to the fact that it isn’t restricted to specific areas and that it doesn’t cause direct fatalities. In Marie-Galante, the harmful effects of the beachings spur the populations to condemn the ways and means of the measures taken by public authorities, but they also bring about paradoxical feelings : the authors indeed show that the warning procedure in Capesterre, which makes the risk visible beyond the town, paradoxically builds a reputation that contributes to making the said town less attractive.

The lessons learned from the calls for projects on risks in overseas territories

10Finally, in this special issue examining risks, it is worth studying the lessons that may be learned from the research projects carried about overseas. Research in the field of risks is more and more often understood through the lens of the collective work financed by European funds (FEDER), national funds (ANR) or by regional governments’ own funds. Disasters are often the starting point for large-scale projects which take the shape of lessons learned (RETEX). The key lessons that emerge, as underlined by F. Léone et al. in the last text of this special issue, include the need to search for systemic causes, to reinforce horizontal grassroots co-constructions, or even develop local professional training on risks. According to the authors, a scientific Post-mortem should also learn from its own experience and from its frictions in the field (with public authorities and local populations alike). Adding to this, the modalities of transferability of sensitive data in societies subjected to recurring environmental crises must be looked into more thoroughly. For example, the ANR project Sarg As et CLD focuses on the concentrations of arsenic and chlordecone in the juices released by decomposing Sargassum. While the researchers who are part of this consortium hold information on the threat posed by the concentrations in arsenic to be found in the leachate of those brown algae, the lack of well-defined communication patterns prevents them from making the result of their work accessible to the general public. Scientific communication plans must be set up so that a limited dissemination of sensitive data isn’t perceived as a form of disinformation.

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Thierry Nicolas et François Taglioni, « Environmental risks in the context of Overseas France : management, social acceptance and conflictuality »EchoGéo [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2023, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Thierry Nicolas

Thierry Nicolas is an Associate Professor at the University of French Guiana. He is part of the MINEA Laboratory on Migrations, Interculturality and Education in the Amazon.

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François Taglioni

François Taglioni is a Professor at the University of Reunion Island.

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