The last five months has seen some of the biggest economic, social, political and ecological disruptions in the history of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, once viewed as the peaceful and stable ‘Singapore of Africa.’
As new discoveries continue to be uncovered about the global ship fuel scandal that could have led to the oil spill in Mauritius last summer, activists involved remember the moments of hope and solidarity that accompanied the grassroots response to the spill.
This has now sparked a large social movement on the island that is disrupting the existing political structures of the country, much like the youth-led ‘Arab Springs’ of a decade ago across the Middle East.
The giant Japanese Bulk Carrier Wakashio operated by Japanese shipping giant MOL, remained stranded on Mauritius’ coral reefs for 12 days at the end of July. The country heard assurances from the ship owners, the private salvage company appointed by the vessel’s insurers, and the Mauritian Government that the situation was under control. Then the massive spill occurred on August 6.
In the absence of a coordinated plan or sufficient resources from the shipping company, local volunteers were forced to step up to protect their island.
While some volunteers focused on saving some of the world’s most endangered creatures trapped in nature reserves surrounded by oil, others looked at protecting the coastline from the oil.
The self-organized grassroots movement involving local fishermen, residents and community groups who designed, built and rolled out several miles worth of oil protection booms. These booms were hand stitched using materials from local hardware stores and filled with dry leaves from the sugar cane harvest.
Local community groups had even discovered that the unique properties of human hair could prevent the spread of oil. When they had run out of hair in Mauritius, they had then reached out internationally to contact hair dressing shops in France and Australia to send over batches of cut hair to trap the oil and act as giant sponges in an effort to prevent the oil from being absorbed deep into the sandy beaches and the internationally protected coastal mangrove forests of South East Mauritius.
Five months on, amid Christmas celebrations around the world, many of those in the poorer fishing villages in South East Mauritius continue to face tremendous hardship as they are prevented from fishing in the once pristine coral lagoons of Mauritius. These poorer communities have not yet received any comprehensive health assessments of their exposure to the oil, nor have they received the funding promised to make up for lost income due to the oil spill, as they are in the informal and secondary layer of workers impacted by the oil spill (e.g., food suppliers to the hotels, beach hawkers, tourist car rental firms). They are not even aware of what chemicals were mixed to make up the oil that was leaked – an experimental type of fuel called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil which was only introduced into shipping in January 2020.
One of the most active groups in the region during the oil spill was a local Mauritian community group called Rezistans ek Alternativ. They had helped with the spontaneous building of the artisanal oil protection boom movement. Their spokesperson, Ashok Subron, described how this movement sparked a glimmer of hope for the island nation to build back better following the oil spill.
And then what happened when the powerful oil and shipping interests linked to the Wakashio began interfering into the domestic affairs of the island nation.
1. Who are Rezistans ek Alternativ?
Ashok Subron: We are an eco-social movement in Mauritius. We are well known for standing up for environmental issues, particularly in protecting Mauritius’ beaches and unique ecology. We are also known for speaking up against sectarianism and promoting a more united and peaceful pan-Mauritian identity among our multicultural population.
We also work closely with labor organizations on social issues. In particular with ocean-related worker organizations, such as fishing and tourism boat captains, workers in the tuna fisheries industry and seafarers. Our work covers trade unions who represent around 25,000 of the Mauritian workforce.
2. What was your initial reaction to the grounding of the Wakashio on July 25?
Ashok Subron: We were deeply shocked and disturbed. This turned into fear and anxiety as the giant ship sat on our coral reef for 12 days
We were deeply shocked that the Wakashio was directly approaching the shore of Mauritius and took the direction it did toward the Mauritian coast and hit the reef without any action by the Government.
Putting the public interest first was not at the forefront of decision-making by the Government. This raised many concerns among the people. For the first time, the people of Mauritius realized we had one of the largest ocean territories in the world (in the top 20 largest ocean zones), and yet one of the largest ships in the world could point itself for several days and hit our reef without the country being able to do anything.
We were deeply disturbed that for 12 days before the oil spill, the Government abdicated its responsibilities to other powers and darker interests. No matter what agreement was signed with other parties [referring to the agreement signed with the vessel’s insurers], the Government has a duty to protect its citizens and the environment. We were also deeply shocked and disturbed by the inaction, amateurism and opacity of the Government during the whole process and even until now.
But we did have one window of hope from the solidarity that developed locally and internationally in the early days of the response to the oil spill.
The critical moment was on August 6. That was when our biggest fears started to materialize, and it was the moment that brought us all together.
3. How did the local community respond to the August 6th oil spill?
Ashok Subron: We were initially shocked that the oil could have been allowed to leak from the ship. But seeing the Government and private contractors not taking the actions they needed to, we immediately started to work out what we could do. As a result, I can describe the oil spill response as happening over three phases.
The initial response occurred in the first few hours and days as we worked out what we could do and what we were dealing with.
The second phase was the wonderful six weeks of collaboration, ingenuity and solidarity as the community took over control of the oil spill response from the Government authorities, and started building trust and transparency with the community. We built a movement that was so much more effective than the top-down approach the Government and their international consultants had attempted initially.
And then came the darker third phase, that has been marked with a complete lack of transparency and the exclusion of the local community during the clean up phase.
Let me explain each in turn.
Shock and disbelief – phase 1
The leakage started in the morning of August 6. We were all in shock, and had been waiting for a response from the authorities. Over the course of the day, none came and oil continued to flow from the ship.
Our community activists couldn’t sit still and watch this happen to our island. We needed to do something to save our coral lagoon.
After researching online and contacting international organizations, one of our activists, David Sauvage, had the idea of building home-made, artisanal booms. It would at least give us a chance to protect the coast than watching all the oil leak onto Mauritius’ pristine coastline.
By the end of August 6, oil was already washing up along our shores and still leaking from the Japanese ship.
There was no protection in place over the course of the first day of the spill, and a major shortage of oil protection booms. We had no idea whether the artisanal booms would work or not, but we had to try.
Rezistans ek Alternativ activists deployed on the night of August 6. Taking the plans from David Sauvage, our activists called the owners of local hardware stores in Mahebourg late at night to open up and asked for key construction equipment, nylon ties and sugar leaves. It was fortunate that the sugar cane harvest was happening in August, and so we had abundant supply of excess sugar cane leaves we could use from local sugar factories.
By 4am on August 7, we had designed our first home-made oil protection boom. As the sun started to rise – which is the time the local fishermen would usually be heading out to the lagoon to fish – they and the local inhabitants of Mahebourg came by to help with the boom-building efforts.
After seeing the oil wash up on the shore all day on August 6, with no protection by the authorities or international consultants brought to the country, we had to act. Our beaches had been golden and sandy just the previous day, and were not drenched in thick, black, lumpy oil that stuck to everything and was suffocating all life beneath it.
We had no idea how to stitch such large booms, but local fishermen had this knowledge. They taught us how to stitch the home made booms to withstand the pressures of the ocean.
Large nylon ties from the construction industry were bound together to form the main structures of the oil protection booms.
By August 7, the local community had come out and were collectively helping us build the booms, with the local fishermen who are used to sewing their nets, teaching us how to create binding ties that would withstand the ocean waves.
Empty and clean plastics bottles were used to assist with the buoyancy of the booms, to ensure they did not sink once saturated with water and oil.
August was the time of the annual sugar cane harvest. Local farmers and volunteers were able to collect bales of dried sugar cane leaves that we could use to stuff inside each oil protection boom.
Hundreds of volunteers helped stuff the sugar cane leaves into the booms, and within an hour, we could complete the construction of each boom.