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L’objectif de cette étude est d’explorer les relations complexes entre d'une part le tourisme international et d'autre part la production et l'échange de 'nature' dans des pays tropicaux. L'étude est basée sur des données recueillies à travers une approche ethnographique des valeurs esthétiques, économiques et symboliques attachées au récif corallien de l'île de La Réunion, dans l'océan Indien. L'analyse de ces données montre qu'à partir du moment où les imaginaires collectifs de l'Occident associent les coraux à une valeur 'magique', un processus d'institutionnalisation internationale s’engage dans le but de protéger, préserver et rendre accessibles au tourisme les récifs coralliens. Ceci implique des problématiques importantes liées à la mise à l'épreuve des systèmes de communication et d'échange des sociétés dans les pays tropicaux. L'étude explore d'abord la signification des valeurs spirituelles et religieuses qu'attribuent les sociétés occidentales aux récifs coralliens. Ensuite, elle discute l'institutionnalisation de la nature tropicale par des organisations internationales ainsi que le problème de l'existence de différents systèmes de gestion foncière à La Réunion. Enfin, l'étude déconstruit la politique de mythification du récif corallien mise en œuvre par des institutions locales à La Réunion et examinera la signification de 'protéger l'environnement' en tant qu'action communicante définie par les systèmes de communication et d'échange réunionnais.

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1This paper aims to explore the complex relationships between international tourism and the production and exchange of 'nature' in tropical countries. It is based on data gathered through an ethnographic case study approach on the changing aesthetic, economic and symbolic values attached to the coral reef in the tropical island of La Réunion, Indian Ocean. The paper will show that, from the point where the collective imaginaries in the Western world associate a 'magic' value with corals, an international institutionalisation process takes place in order to protect and preserve coral reefs and make them touristically accessible. As a consequence, through the attribution of an exchange value, coral reefs become economic and symbolic resources for communities in La Réunion integrating them into an international system of social relations and exchange. This raises issues related to the way the new value associated with this particular form of tropical nature challenges the existing communication and exchange systems in La Réunion. The paper is organised in six sections. The first explores the meanings of the spiritual and religious value Western societies attribute to coral reefs. The second discusses the institutionalisation of tropical nature by international organisations. The third analyses the problem of competing land and natural space ownership systems in La Réunion. The fourth deconstructs the mystification policy of the coral reef operated by local institutions in La Réunion. The fifth examines the meaning of protecting the coral reef as a social practice embedded within the local communication system in La Réunion. The sixth discusses the findings within the conceptual framework of tourism and globalisation theory.

1. Tourism and the Magic of the corals

2The use of the notion of 'magic' may seem eccentric in the context of an anthropological approach to the mainly Western social practice of tourism. In social anthropology, magic is defined as "the purported art of influencing the course of events through occult means" (Willis, 2003, p. 340). In the context of this study, magic will be analysed as a world of ideas and practices embedded within tourism analysed as a total symbolic and social system of Western and, as a consequence of its international extension, global society. I suggest beginning this approach by describing a highly personal and subjective experience of coral reefs in La Réunion where I arrived in 1995 to study at the university in Saint-Denis. Based on this description, this section aims to discover and analyse wider collective patterns framing this individual experience and the meaning of tropical nature in the Western imaginaries.

3In November 1995, together with British and German fellow students I hitchhiked to Boucan Canot, a beach situated on La Réunion's west coast. One of the students had brought a diving mask and a snorkel which he lent me, telling me to watch the corals not far from the beach. Swimming in the water of the Indian Ocean, I was impressed by the physical experience of snorkelling: I could see and breath under water! At Boucan-Canot, the sea is open and quickly five to ten meters deep. With two of my friends, we challenged ourselves to dive to the ground and bring back trophies in form of mussel shells. I was less impressed by the aesthetic aspect of the corals which appeared grey and, as I learnt later, were dead for their larger part. Some time later, I accompanied a friend of mine to a windsurfing class the university's sports club organised at L'Hermitage beach. Here, the water was hardly a meter deep, with literally hundreds of purple sea-urchins and strange black worms in the shallow water close to the beach. The wind was very strong and, when my friend let me try his board, I accelerated abruptly and made a big jump, head and arms first, in the water. My arm was bleeding and, later when I cleaned the wound, I discovered little white stones under the skin. My friend told me a whole panoply of stories about corals that penetrate the skin moving through the body and killing people when they reach the heart. I put this in the domain of urban legends, but was intrigued by what corals actually were. On one of the following week-ends, I went back to L'Hermitage, this time with my own goggles, snorkel and palms, and swam into the lagoon. It was a hot sunny day with a clear blue sky and a light tropical summer breeze. After some ten meters, I reached the first coral colonies, strange buildings of organic forms, looking like petrified plants or forests inhabited by various multicoloured fish, which I passed at less than a meter distance. The sunlight breaking on the moving surface of the ocean created a game of multiple fleshes and bright reflections. The ears filled with water, the angle of vision widened by the goggles, the warm water on my skin, my body felt light just under the surface and the visual experience of the corals was very much amplified by a set of physical sensations. I felt like 'being somewhere else', far away, like passing through another world, with different sets of movements and colours than anything I had ever seen before.

  • 1 This sentence has been used, in a similar formulation ("We come from the sea"), as the title of one (...)

4Since then, I have tried to make sense of this experience and, as I discovered later, the fact that I share it with many other people, especially from Western countries. Due to its collective – but not universal – nature, I felt that this experience can be analysed through the conceptual framework of what Durkheim ([1894]1982: 51) defines as a 'social fact': "manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him." According to this hypothesis, the perceived beauty of coral reefs and the sensation of 'floating' Westerners regularly describe in relation to the physical experience of diving are prescribed through the normative frameworks and interiorised symbolic worlds of Western society. The difficulty to verify this hypothesis is implicit to the impossibility to know what is actually going on in the mind of a person while experiencing the 'coral world', and how this links to a collectively shared mental order or imaginary. Under water, especially during my later approaches of diving on coral reefs with air compressed bottles, I could observe hardly more than gestures, people smiling under their mask or making signs with their hands. The only data I could gather consisted of post hoc descriptions, of narrations produced after diving, recorded on the boat back to the harbour or transcribed through various forms of travel literature. The majority of these discourses have in common to describe a colourful exotic world apart compared to forests or picturesque plants; a world structurally opposed through its elements and attributes to the world of organised social existence. A discourse by a diving instructor illustrates this recurrent opposition: "Life has originated in the sea1. Now, the sea is the last space of real wilderness. The fish do not care about man at all." Another describes diving as an interior dialogue: "You can feel your body, you feel your physicality. This creates a distance, an external vision of the ordinary world."

5Historically, corals are present in the European social space and imaginaries since at least the Hellenistic epoch. According to the Greek mythology, corals are blood drops petrified in the sea when Perseus cut off the head of the Gorgon, a mythical figure that turned humans into stone (Hansmann & Kriss-Rettenbeck 1966: 41). This narrative well translates the use of corals as amulets and elements in sacral sculptures, supposed to protect against the 'evil eye' and black magic, by the Egyptians, Romans and throughout the European Renaissance (ibid.).

6With the technical evolution of visual media, especially photography, in the 19th century, images of corals in their original geographical context started to know a wider distribution (Saville-Kent, 1893 quoted by Pockock, 2004). It has been argued elsewhere (Picard 2004b) that the very nature of photographic processing - the reflection of light provoking a chemical transformation of silver crystals - implies a strong analogy to earlier forms of capturing the 'magic power' of sacral objects and relics by using a mirror. In this perspective, photographic images initiate a democratisation process allowing a large European middle class to access the 'magic' of corals and, in a wider sense, of tropical nature. This democratisation process is continued in particular through the documentations, still photographs and books by Hans Hass and Jean-Jacques Cousteau in the mid-20th century, and, at the colour photography by Leni Riefenstahl in the 1970s.

7Yet, the development of tourism, initiated by the Grand Tour of young European aristocrats and the organisation of mass tourism by Thomas Cook (Turner & Turner, 1978), set off an inverse spatial practice. While material objects, plants and animal samples had until then principally been brought from the tropics to Europe to be exhibited in churches, curiosity cabinets, acclimatisation gardens and the later natural history museums, botanical gardens and zoos (Blanchard et al., 1995), tourism operated an inverse geographical flow. The physical body travelled to and through a selection of geographical spaces situated outside everyday life. Yet, the symbolic patterns underlying both types of flows - material objects and tourists - remains constant; in both cases, an organised and historic world of social existence is symbolically opposed to an ambivalent and highly uncertain exotic space, recurrently, a semantic variation of the heaven-hell paradigm (Said, 1978; Shields, 1991; Lecouteux, 1994). The search for and experience of this exotic space, which appears to be one of the driving forces of modern mass tourism (Cohen, 1988), has been interpreted, by anthropologists, as a ritual space permitting Western society to festively recreate and enact its complex and contradictive cosmogony (Graburn, 1989). In this sense, so-called 'nature-based' forms of tourism are fundamentally based on the myth of nature as an 'authentic' space and dramatization of the idea of evolution (Urbain 1991; Hennig, 2002). Through its particular liturgy, tourism permits a re-enactment of this myth and recreates the systems of symbolic continuity making meaningful the oppositions of the everyday social and biologic existence (Picard, 2004b). In this sense, diving on coral reefs is a particular expression of this liturgy, able to make tourists experience - and believe in - the 'power' and 'magic' of tropical nature.

8The collective definition of tropical nature as a "center out there" (Turner, 1973), a quasi religious space of 'beauty' and 'original authenticity' codified in the Western worldview made tangible through the tourist practice explains well the powerful reactions in Western countries, when a massive coral bleaching occurred in the early 1980s. This raises issues both on the meaning of environmental movements struggling for the protection or preservation of tropical nature and, implicitly, the moral, legal and socially accepted ownership of tropical environments. These issues will be treated in the two following sections.

2. Environmentalism and changing values of the coral reef

9The protection and preservation of 'tropical nature' has been an object of major international concern and political discussion since at least the 1970s. In that historical period, a vision of the world close to being deprived of oxygen and natural resources was diffused in particular by Western action groups and journalists writing about the rapid deforestation of the Amazon rain forest. This vision and the concerns about the objective problem related to the exploitation of resources triggered a collective anxiety regarding the future of life on earth. This anxiety led to a series of international conferences and the ratification of, most prominently, the 1992 Rio declaration on the preservation of biodiversity. Ratified by most governments of the world, this declaration is constructed upon a set of 27 principles. The first of these principals stresses that "human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development" and that "they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature" (UNEP, 2003). The third specifies that "the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations" (Ibid.). Both principles implicit an ideological discourse on the human defined by its opposition to nature and future generations. The spatial and temporal framework underpinning this discourse hence appears to promote a cyclical time concept where the future is symbolically integrated in a holistic conception of the present world. This seems to represent a break with the linear eschatology of neo-classical thinking and the capitalist logic of accumulation and growth. At the same time, this reformulation partly resolves the dilemma of time and, in particular, of death. According to Morin (1970), all human societies create symbolic systems reaffirming the individuality of people and collectives beyond the physical death of the body or the extinction of a group. In this sense, the anticipation of the needs of future generations implies an intergenerational exchange: contemporary action is to be judged by the future generations which hence become a powerful social institution permitting the symbolic continuity beyond time and death. Acting in accordance to the needs of future generations and, in particular, preserving natural environments become means to prolong one's individuality beyond time. While the principles expressed through the Rio declaration primarily translate systems of ideas, it is now interesting to see how these ideas are to be put into action.

10One of the principal appendixes of the Rio declaration consists of an action programme called Agenda 21 (UNEP, 2003). Chapter 17 of this action programme plans the implementation of so-called integrated management models in order to protect the marine environment at various local scales. In La Réunion, different French governmental institutions including the Regional Environmental Agency (DIREN), the National Forest Office (ONF), the Departmental Agriculture and Forest Direction (DDAF) and the Departmental Civil Engineering Direction (DDE) introduce these frameworks during the 1990s. A new French legislation commonly called 'littoral law' (loi littoral), voted in January 1986, gives these frameworks a legal status and a legitimate power. As a part of this law, national and local political institutions are asked to elaborate a Maritime Zone Valuation Scheme (SMVZM) which integrates the various needs and utilities of the littoral. This scheme is integrated to the Regional Development Scheme (AGORAH, 1995), the principal legal document defining the use and the discontinuities of space at La Réunion's regional scale.

  • 2 Other inputs are produced in particular by the CLOE and the University of La Réunion.

11Yet, the major remaining problem is proper to the large number of institutional competences related to marine and littoral space. Several paragraphs of the marine environment chapter of Agenda 21 are concerned with the protection and preservation of rare or fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves. Paragraph 17.30.a.V. stipulates that states should assess the need for additional measures to address degradation of such marine environments by both human and natural sources. In application of this paragraph, in 1995, the Regional Environmental Direction (DIREN) in La Réunion asks a consultancy bureau to carry out a vulnerability and sensibility study of the island's maritime zones. As a result of this study2, the creation of an institution is suggested in order to manage the most vulnerable maritime zones of the island. In 1997, the Parc Marin is born, a non-profit association composed of several governmental, regional, departmental and communal institutions, local associations and university institutes. The proclaimed aim of this new institution is to manage and protect the maritime and littoral zones of the island's south and west coast (Parc Marin, 1999a).

  • 3 Respectively organised by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) and the World Bank

12The next problem to be solved is how to manage the marine space which in La Réunion became subject to major controversy. Paragraph 17.73 of Agenda 21 states that coral reefs and mangroves "often serve important ecological functions, provide coastal protection, and are critical resources for food, energy, tourism and economic development" (UNEP, 2003). A succession of similar utilitarian approaches to the environment are discussed during the two major conference series concerned with coral reef protection during the 1980s and 1990s3 (Ryland, 1982; Pendleton, 1995; Hatziolos et al., 1998; Colwell, 1999; Cesar, 2001; Carr & Mendelsohn, 2003). In the absence of alternative institutional management models, a majority of the English speaking countries consequently adapts neo-classic micro-economic approaches conceiving natural space as a profit generating capital (Serageldin, 1997). Paradoxically, in the same period, the argument to protect coral reefs as an economic resource for tourism does also appear in the discourse of environmental militants in La Réunion. Tourism is not considered as a 'negative impact' anymore, as it was during the 1980s (Mespoulhe, Troadec & Martin, 1994). With the development of new forms of tourism and tourist philosophies in the 1990s, the symbolic antagonism between environmental preservation and touristic exploitation disappears to a certain extent. The advertisement slogan of the German tour operator Studiosus (1999) "Gathering impressions without leaving traces, experiencing the magic of the world without altering it, preserving beauty for our children" translates well the idea of a new tourist 'product' and consumption process. Ironically, La Reunion's environmentalists inverse the logic praised by tourism economists implying that an intact coral reef will generate tourism income. They claim the further development of tourism, which they argue makes necessary a better protection of the coral reef.

3. Ownership of and political control over coral reefs

13The implementation of a management model considering natural space as an economic asset raises the central issue of ownership. Who owns coral reefs, and who is entitled to economic wealth generated?

14Throughout time and space, the ownership of land has been defined through different forms of written or oral law. In the Western democracies, the former absolute reign of the monarch has been substituted by different forms of written land law. In many cases, these laws give a special status to the traditionally royal or communal domains of the waterfronts, the rivers, the forests and the mountains, which often remain under public control. The implementation of the European land law systems in different colonies has frequently led to ambivalent situations characterised by the existence of different parallel legal systems (McAuslan, 2003). La Réunion is part of the French national territory and the French civil law is naturally applied. One of the principles of this law, dating back to the time of French monarchy, attributes the ownership of the seafronts and rivers to the public domain. This principle legally empowers the departmental representative of the French central government, the prefect, to police these spaces.

15However, the social practice is more complex. Historically, La Réunion's plantation society is to a large extent based on the colonage, a feudal mode of land attribution, exploitation and control implemented by the French East India company in the early 18th century. The governor of this company, officially representing the king of France, attributed large land concessions to mainly French immigrants. These concessions were usually delimited by the waterfront, the mountain crest and two centrifugal valleys. While these concessions were first temporary, most of them were transformed into definite land titles in the early 19th century. In the colonage system, the land concessionaires lent parts of their land to colons who, in exchange, had to return a proportion of their crop, usually 30%. The colons perpetuated this system by lending parts of their land to sub-colons. As a result, until recently, the distribution and structure of the agricultural land clearly reflected the social hierarchy and structure of the plantation society. The most fertile and productive land, situated on the islands North-East, West and South-West on an altitude of up to 800m, hosted the sugar mills and worker camps which became the principal rural centres of the plantation society. The less fertile land of the hot western littoral, the mountainous interior and the rainy east coast was populated by a marginal, often proletarian farming population (Defos du Rau, 1960; Benoist, 1983). The sandy dunes of the west coast hosted a couple of villages whose inopportune inhabitants survived of small farming, fishing and occasional agricultural or other manual work for the colons of the sugar cane domains situated in the hills above the littoral. The only important economic use of the littoral by the land concessionaires consisted in the exploitation of dead corals used to produce calk. While, since the early 19th century, local aristocrats adopted the European bath and holiday fashion and established holiday houses along the white sand beaches of the west coast, for most of the island's proletariat the sea represented a space filled with diverse dangers (Serviable, 1983; Ross, Bertrand & Tessier, 1998). From the 1960s, an important middle class emerged in La Réunion often adopting the sea and beach related leisure fashions of the island's upper-class. At the same time, an increasing number of immigrants arriving from the French mainland settled on the island's west coast. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the fishing villages of St-Gilles, L'Hermitage and La Saline become major seaside resorts. As a result, two types of population today occupy the land. The social and cultural difference between these populations is witnessed in particular through opposed conceptions and practices of the lagoon. Space of leisure and authentic nature for the recently established population, it is used primarily for its fish resources by the other.

16An open conflict between these populations and their respective practices emerges when, in 1999, the sub-prefect of La Réunion's western circumscription, Anne Gras, advises a stricter application of fishing rules in the lagoon. This move comes as a result of the ecological assessments and lobbying by the Parc Marin association stressing that illegal fishing in the lagoon contributes for a large part to the degradation of the reef. In the early morning of the 27th of January 1999, gendarmes of the nature brigade fine more than thirty fishermen for not possessing permits and confiscate their equipment. A few hours later, at 8pm, during the morning rush hour, a crowd of a hundred fishermen and their families start blocking the national route passing through the village of La Saline. The fishermen claim that fishing in the lagoon is part of their tradition and refuse to leave the road until their fines are being waived. In addition, they ask to talk to the sub-prefect directly. In the meanwhile, long traffic jams are being formed on either side of the place of protest. At 12.30 am, anti-riot squadrons arrive and disperse the crowd using tear gaze grenades (Floch, 1999).

17Anthropological work later shows the existence of a socially embedded complex system of coastal land management and control (Tremblay, 2001) which is largely resulting of the paternalistic relations of the feudal colonage system. Perpetuated by the fishing communities, this allowed to attribute and control fishing 'concessions' in the lagoon and to build fishing teams. The contestation of this system by the institutional authorities - who by the way largely ignored its existence - led to the violent protest described above. On a political level, fishing in the lagoon since then becomes a major battle horse for political forces in the island, especially those contesting the central power of the French governmental institutions. At the same time, the Parc Marin in collaboration with the Regional Fishing Committee (CRPMEM), different environmental lobby groups and the local fishing associations continues to try to integrate the various interests to a common natural reserve project (Parc Marin, 1999b). The next section aims to analyse the strategy employed by and the ideology underlying the communication policy of the Parc Marin.

4. The coral reef as a “local heritage”

18The proclaimed aim of the Parc Marin is to generate a social dynamic towards a concerted and integrated management of the island's most vulnerable marine spaces, in particular its coral reefs. The practice of this association is organised by different tasks including the education of various users of the maritime space including fishermen, tourists, bar owners, hotel managers, school classes. This education is operated through a number of communication tools (brochures, signposts, discourses) which are based on a similar core text describing the biology of corals and the various utilities attached to their preservation. Two written documents with a wide diffusion will be used to analyse the discourse underlying this core text. The first is a poster which has permanently been placed in the pathways through which different users of the marine space access the beaches and the lagoon. This poster has also been distributed to tourism offices, hotels, schools, community centres and sports clubs. The second document consists of a little coloured brochure usually distributed during the education events.

19The poster is composed by both images and textual elements. The title is separated in two parts: "The coral reef, that's a world on its own… But a fragile world that we must preserve." In the upper part, short texts accompanied by little pictures explain the particular role or function of a selection of animals living in the lagoon. In the lower part of the poster, another series of texts describe the biological value of the reef (highly diversified ecosystems), different human and natural reasons for its degradation (pollution of water through the use of pesticides in agriculture, trampling on the reef, fishing outside the allowed fishing periods) and the imperative to protect it ("The coral reef is our heritage. Each of us is hence beholden to preserve it. All together, let us protect our reefs."). The background of the poster is composed by a large aquarelle image of the lagoon motif. This image is structured in three horizontal parts: under the water, the water surface and the sky. Through its focal point between the sky and the sea, the image situates the viewer standing upright in the middle of the lagoon. Before further going into a detailed analysis of this poster, I would like to introduce the second document used in this approach, a brochure titled The Marvellous World of the Coral Reef (Gabrié, 1999). This brochure develops a succinct narrative on the life of corals and the geology of reefs.

20"The reef, veritable city of corals, is populated by a multitude of animals living amidst the corals. The corals which look like curious sculptured stones are made of thousands of miniscule animals. These strange animals which construct the coral are called polyps. The polyp is an animal with a soft body in shape of a little only some millimetre long bag. Its mouth is surrounded by numerous tentacles and it eats minuscule animals. You have never seen a polyp? That's normal; they only go out by night. […] When the polyp touches a rock, it starts constructing a base. Then, it constructs a calk wall around itself, a little loge which is called the chalice. This loge forms its skeleton and its house. It protects it and prevents it to get taken away by the courant. The polyp never stops building. Once it has finished its loge, it will close it by a floor and restart building the next level. The polyp never lives alone. Once it has settled on a rock, it creates a twin polyp. This phenomenon is called budding. As each new poly will start budding, a big family is very quickly being formed. All joined together, these polyps construct a veritable building of several levels of whom they only occupy the last one. This building is called a coral colony or simply the coral. […] In the past centuries, the water level of the oceans has increased and the coral colonies have continued to build on each other in order to stay in the sunlight just under the water surface (the polyps can't live in the darkness). In the meanwhile, the sand the waves have taken behind reef has formed beaches and the ground of the lagoon. This is how the big coral reefs of St-Gilles and La Saline have been formed." (Gabrié, 1999).

21The poster clearly opposes two worlds separated by the water surface. The figured element is constituted by a heteroclite symphony of colourful corals, sand and various coloured fish. On the second plan of the image, slightly blurred people and beach umbrellas are visible on the beach, on the left of the image. Two other equally blurred persons are snorkelling on the water surface. The image hence inverses the conventionalised composition classically used in European painting (Roger, 1997: 66f): The traditional sacral element - figural representations of saints and later monarchs in the centre of the image - is substituted by a representation of an underwater natural space. At the same time, representations of humans are integrated in the décor of the image. Through both its text and its pictorial semiotic, this image transforms the 'world' of the coral reef into a mythical parole. The discourse underpinning the texts of the poster and, with more significant detail, of the brochure, make this hidden world intrinsically meaningful. The hero of the story, the polyp, is associated with a range of narrative archetypes including the foetus (signified by its body shape, its size, its initial softness, the development of a skeleton), the noble savage (signified by its hospitality, its social behaviour, its tendency to create big families, its being of lightness) and the assiduousness of its work (it never stops building despite the risk of being swept away by the courant). The décor of the story is created through references to the myth of the city (signified by the presence of a multitude of different beings, the diversity and chaos of the coral colonies described as buildings) and the creation of an oasis in the desert of the ocean. Finally the story situates the coral reef in a historical time-line communicated through explanations on the geographic history of the reef, the rising of the ocean and the creation of the lagoon.

22The narrative used in both the brochure text and the imagery of the poster can be read like a myth where a particular concept of humanity is communicated through the elements, stories and heroes of a fantastic - here - animal world. In this perspective, the narrative of the 'coral world' can be analysed through its underlying communication system which, according to Barthes (1957: 193), is not defined by the object of its message but by the way it utters it. The narrative is constructed by a number of basic oppositions. The great frame of the story is defined by the confrontation between the hero, the polyp, and a group of anti-heroes, the humans. The polyp incarnates different appealing narrative archetypes; it is sensible, social, hospitable and assiduous and builds cities and societies. The anti-hero, in the contrary, is considered to be a constant risk to the sensible world of the corals, destroying "in a second" what took years to grow, spoiling the beauty and purity of the lagoon by illegal hunting and pouring off polluted water. We hence find again the quasi-constant opposition accompanying this study between an innocent, pure and authentic world of 'nature' and a historic somehow 'guilty' world of human existence.

23At the same time, both narrative worlds are clearly situated in the geographic space of La Réunion which structurally links them to a contemporary social reality. In the sense of Lévi-Strauss' structuralist method to analyse myths (Lévi-Strauss, 1976), the symbolic systems of oppositions implicit to the myth relate to and make meaningful systems of opposition structuring the social world. Furthermore, by suggesting different action models, the discourse of both the poster and the brochure builds a normative framework. A deliverance is possible by acting well and by preserving the world of the corals for the future generations. The alternative is to be a poacher, which not only defines a status of social exclusion but also prohibits the symbolic access to the beauty and authenticity of the coral world. The myth is more than a form of language, more than a metamorphose of the biblical narration. The story of the lost Eden rather becomes a communication tool serving the political aim to constitute the coral reef as a sacred space. The use of familiar plotlines and narrative archetypes aims to capture the attention and to attribute affective values to the natural space, to integrate the coral reef as a part of the collective identity, as the ("our") 'local heritage' of La Réunion. In this sense, the coral reef is defined as a sign of regional social identity produced through the social-spatial oppositions within a wider, extra local system of exchange.

24At the same time, the plotlines and narrative archetypes used in the narratives created by the Parc Marin presuppose what Barthes (1957) calls a 'significant consciousness' through which the audience reading the brochure text or gazing at the poster understands its communicated message. Yet, in the social-culturally heteroclite context of La Réunion, the existence of a unique 'significant consciousness' corresponding to the communication system employed by the Parc Marin is far from proven. The next section will examine the dialectics between the coral world drawn by the Parc Marin and the communication systems observed in La Réunion.

5. The permanence of communication systems in La Réunion

25According to the pioneer anthropological and geographical works by Defos du Rau (1960), Benoist (1983), Bonniol (1988), Ottino (1996), Vogel (1980) and Watin (1991), the organisation of La Réunion's rural society is structured by a resisting and today largely metamorphosed system of symbolic functions which, according to these authors, are historically linked to the values and social systems of the plantation society. This is best illustrated by what Ottino (1996) defines as an almost obsessive "thirst for earth", a social quest to access land property which in the context of the plantation society represents the principal means for social ascension, symbolic recognition and economic independence and security. According to Ottino (ibid.), most of the social action and role models within the rural society were functions of this central social quest. The works of Benoist (1983), Bonniol (1988), Wolf (1989) and Watin (1991) demonstrate that these models are operated through different economic, matrimonial and paternalistic strategies, in particular the search for preferential social and kinship alliances based on wealth, political influence and phenotype criteria (Bonniol 1988) and the social compliance, hygiene and wealth communicated through the domestic garden (Ghasarian, 1988; Watin, 1991; Niollet, 1999). According to research on the social and institutional transformations in La Réunion (Cambefort, 1988), with the decline of the plantation economy, these patterns have largely metamorphosed in the context of La Réunion's new administration and service sector driven society. Ottino (1999) raises the hypothesis that the traditional form of 'thirst for earth' has transmuted into new forms of social and professional participation, in particular the role of civil and public servants providing a similar degree of independence, security and social status as land property did formerly. In this new context, a central role is attributed to education. The work of Simonin, Watin and Wolf (1993) shows how paternalistic strategies traditionally observed in the plantation society are now being transposed in the new social space created by the school system, with, for example, parents trying to achieve privileged relations with selected teachers and other parents.

  • 4 Between 1989 and 2002, the number of tourists grows from less than 100.000 to more than 400.000.

26The rapid development of the tourism sector since the early 1990s and the consequent presence of a quasi permanent tourist population in the island4 enlarges the local systems of social relationships and gives them new meanings. This is particularly well illustrated in the local development scheme elaborated during the 1990s, redefining formerly "worthless" spaces like the hot and try west coast, the coral reefs, the volcano or the crevassed interior and south-east of the island as 'local heritages' (AGORAH, 1995). The aesthetic value of landscape hence becomes a new form of economic exchange good largely substituting traditional land values like fertility or accessibility. At the same time, these new values and the new systems of geographic discontinuity they imply are introduced by different medias in the local public sphere (Watin & Wolff, 1995). A new imagery associated with the island as a 'beautiful' and 'authentic' place is diffused in particular by journalists of the local newspapers and television stations (Idelson, 1999), but also by local artists (de Bollivier, 1999), new forms of tourist art craft and clothing, advertisement campaigns by local supermarkets and the organisation of local and folkloric festivals (Picard 2003, 2004a). The introduction of this new imagery seems to change the aesthetic aspect and social practices of social space in La Réunion. This change is expressed in particular through a new ethno-geography valuing the 'natural' and 'savage' spaces of both the island's interior and its littorals which are discursively opposed to the 'impure' and 'dehumanised' spaces of the island's cities and suburbs (Picard 2004c). The symbolic pattern underlying this new form of geography is ritually reaffirmed, in particular, through the Creole week-end picnic (Florent, 1998) and the organisation of different sportive events (Chateaureynard & Lapierre, 1996), which take place in either the island's mountainous interior or its littoral zones.

27The social appropriation of these new spaces seems not to translate a fundamental semiotic transformation but rather a metamorphosis of traditional communication systems projected in the 'body' of a new type of space. According to Watin (1991) and Simonin, Watin and Wolf (1993), social control in La Réunion's rural society is traditionally exerted through the 'regard of the quarter', a powerful communication system established at small residential scales. The rationale of this system is to avoid the disgraceful and shameful gossip of the quarter and to raise one's image by staging wealth, beauty and social hygiene. As a consequence, each family tries to conform to a normative framework of aesthetic, moral and hygienic values related to the appearance of family members (clean, beautiful and expensive cloth; preferential social and kinship relations with 'important' persons) and domestic space (clean and expensive car; clean and beautiful garden; rare flowers and vigorous fruit trees; ostensive Sunday feasts and drinks). With the emergence of new social systems opposing the island as a whole to a touristic alter, the communication system of the 'regard of the quarter' is, in some cases, spontaneously transposed in the new context. It has been observed that individuals and groups working in tourism or tourism related sectors conceive touristic natural space as vehicles to communicate within the newly created public sphere of the island. The arrangement and protection of natural spaces according to the norms of both touristic and institutional discourse becomes what Habermas (1987) defines as a 'communicative action' allowing participation in this enlarged social space. A driving force behind this action model is to avoid the accusation of 'not having one's domestic space clean' and to promote an image of social and economic inclusion. In analogy to the domestic garden, the natural environment close to a quarter or residential area becomes a space of non-verbal communication, now between the local residents and the rest of the island. The rationale of the domestic garden is hence projected on a larger scale enclosing the island as a whole. Protecting the natural environment becomes a signifying practice embedded within the largely persisting communication system of the 'regard of the quarter'. In analogy with the social strategies underlying what Ottino (1996) defines as a 'thirst for land', protecting the environment becomes a means to gain social status and eventually economic independence.

  • 5 I observed several cases among whom a famous French singer lodging at a resort hotel on La Réunion' (...)

28At the same time, a parallel logic and myth of tropical nature appears, expressed in particular through diverse rituals of rebellion. In the context of the political and social tensions linked to the institutional will to protect and preserve the coral reef, a harpoon hunting association is created by fishermen of La Saline in order to defend the lagoon as what the association defines as "a traditional hunting ground". Also, illegal fishing in the lagoon sometimes becomes a new form of tourism and leisure practice whose thrill lies precisely in its illicit nature and the performance of a ritualised act of solidarity with the local 'underclass'5.


29The underlying principle of this study is to approach international tourism in its total social, economic, political, geographical and symbolic environment. In the sense of Mauss (1973), the term 'totality' defines the complex articulation and interdependence of different fields of social existence; economy is not considered as isolated of - but as interdependent with - the social and the symbolic. Applied on the international tourism phenomenon, this conceptual framework aims to understand touristic exchange and production processes through their relations, at different social and institutional levels, with the political, the aesthetic, the religious and the social (Lanfant 1980; Lanfant et al. 1995). In tourism anthropology, this kind of approach classically focuses on the liminal aspects of tourism, interpreted as a form of 'sacred journey' or contemporary pilgrimage (MacCannel 1976; Graburn, 1989; Wagner, 1977; Turner & Turner 1978; Viard, 1986; Selänniemi, 2003). In this study, religious and magic aspects of coral reefs have been approached through the social practice of tourism, with the result to show an institutionalisation process taking place in order to preserve coral reefs as highly spiritual spaces enacting the ideas of 'authenticity' and 'original beauty'. However, the one-dimensional approach of touristic encounters and preservation policy frameworks would only partly allow an anthropological analysis of the total and transnational nature of the tourism phenomenon.

  • 6 The pattern of symptoms through which a doctor diagnoses a diseases and which he/she has learnt dur (...)

30Since the 1970s and 1980s, sociologists and semioticians have expended much ink on the systemic and global nature of the tourism phenomenon, focusing in particular on the political economy underlying tourism as a global production process. In this sense, tourism related global exchange systems are analysed through the colonial and neo-colonial contexts of so-called 'developing' or 'peripheral' countries. Using Wallerstein's (1976) framework of world-systems characterised by a global division of labour tasks and the projection of the European class model on the global economy, Nash (1989) in the late 1970s defines tourism as a capitalist extension of Western centres towards non-Western peripheries. With the end of the cold war in the late 1980s, a rethinking of such neo-Marxist theories takes place making them less polarised on uni or bi-lateral relations of political and economic domination (Lash & Urry, 1994). However, the academic focus of most sociological enquiries on international tourism clearly remains the study of production processes which are typically analysed through their relation to power, control and ownership (Hollinshead & de Burlo, forthcoming). One of the most influential works here comes from Urry (1990) who reduces tourism to the production and consumption of mainly visual signs. Borrowing from Foucault's post-structuralist approach of the medical gaze6, Urry calls the pattern of 'symptoms' through which he thinks tourists engage with people and spaces, the 'tourist gaze'. The obvious weakness of Urry's approach is that it focuses on mobile and highly volatile patterns of signs, on imageries. Yet this does not say much about the symbolic meanings of the touristic 'consumption' of such imageries and, on a broader level, on the anthropological meanings of the transnational exchange and communication operated by tourism.

31A series of other influential historical and political sciences approaches, mostly without explicit link to the tourism phenomenon, suggest theorising the globalisation of exchange processes through systemic studies of international or transnational communication and social identification networks. Using both Barth's (1995) notion of 'constructed ethnicity' and Baudrillard's (1970) notion of 'social differentiation', authors like Appadurai (2003), Huntington (1998) and Featherstone (1990) propose to analyse different systems of global multi-lateral relations through their implicit political symbolic economy. However, these approaches and the important academic and public controversy they have generated during the 1990s rather focus on the production processes and the use of particular cultural identity patterns within internationalised systems of communication and political economy. In any of these approaches, the anthropological concept of 'culture' is reduced to a sign-commodity or social identification and communication pattern, produced and exchanged within the networks of what is commonly conceived as a 'global market place'. Yet, the focus is not made on the actual focus of anthropological enquiry – the meaning of such global communication and exchange practice for and within different scopes of community – but on the political and symbolic oppositions created by and the violence related to these forms of global relationship and governance.

32This study has shown that the objects and spaces used to communicate are not of primary concern for an anthropological approach of global integration as they are subject to aesthetic fashions and fast changing ideological doctrines. What appears more important, and this is the basic result of this study, is to understand the way different communication systems adopt imageries and doctrines in a context of global institutional and social integration. In this study, I have focused on the appropriation of the coral reef by two in their structure largely resisting communication systems. One on hand, the coral reef through its aesthetic compositions, the tourist practice of diving and various attached discourses embedded within the symbolic world of Western society actualises the mythical discourse of Eden. On the other hand, the protection of the coral reef and its definition as a 'local heritage' are operated through the rationale behind the 'regard of the quarter' implying a powerful social control system in La Réunion. If 'magic' is a socially constructed notion defining an purported art of influencing the course of events, the coral reef plays a central 'magical' role in both communication systems. For Western tourists, corals as a particular form of tropical nature seem to embody a way to reaffirm a symbolic continuity beyond time and space; for Réunions, they seem to become a formidable way to communicate social inclusion and economic wealth, which ultimately appears to represent a means to achieve social accession.

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1 This sentence has been used, in a similar formulation ("We come from the sea"), as the title of one of the pioneer diving books, published by the Austrian diving pioneer Hans Hass (1958).

2 Other inputs are produced in particular by the CLOE and the University of La Réunion.

3 Respectively organised by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) and the World Bank

4 Between 1989 and 2002, the number of tourists grows from less than 100.000 to more than 400.000.

5 I observed several cases among whom a famous French singer lodging at a resort hotel on La Réunion's west coast going harpoon hunting in the lagoon together with local fishermen at two in the morning. Yet, the systemic nature of this observation is not proven and would need further investigation.

6 The pattern of symptoms through which a doctor diagnoses a diseases and which he/she has learnt during university medical studies. Cf. Foucault (1994).

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David Picard, « Coral garden economies: international tourism and the magic of tropical nature », Études caribéennes [En ligne], 9-10 | Avril-Août 2008, mis en ligne le 15 août 2008, consulté le 19 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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David Picard

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change Leeds Metropolitan University Leeds Grande Bretagne,

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