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The Land Question: Baie du Cap Poses the Question: Who controls the land?


Thursday 1 December, there was a joint Press Briefing by LALIT and Baie du Cap inhabitants. Unusually it was held in the remote coastal village of Baie du Cap. We were not sure if any journalists would come. “Remoteness” is a one-way street! And it is often way outside the comfort zone of the Press Empires. Three brave journalists – all women, curiously – were present to cover the event. Baie du Cap people, Kersley Louis, Jimmy Desalles and Stenio Laide together with Lindsey Collen and Ragini Kistnasamy from LALIT spoke at the Press Briefing. It was held in a seaside kiosk right on the edge of the sea, speakers looking in the direction of the South Pole and journalists towards the particular bit of land that is bringing into question the entire “land question”: it is two related bits of land, symbolizing the joint State-Private Sector nature of the real estate scams being put into practice: first, it is a bit of State Land giving on the coast road and beach, opening out on to the second bit, the rolling hills of an enormous swathe of Sugar Estate land. The Press Briefing was also an “event” in the sense that there were other people present from regions with similar or related issues, who were present as part of the movement being built. They were there for both solidarity and to learn from the struggle in Baie du Cap .

 An ongoing campaign

Lindsey Collen outlined how LALIT’s joint work with Baie du Cap people began when they invited LALIT to send a delegate to participate in a demonstration on 28 February this year against the MonRoze project. Which we did. That led to a number of meetings to understand the precise situation, and to put it in the broader picture.

 In fact, what is happening in Baie du Cap today, she said, is a good introduction to the “real estate” land speculation that has become the only supposed “development” in the country, and what this means to the people – of Baie du Cap and more generally of the entire country. The real problem, she said, is who controls the land. How on earth can the bosses of two sugar estates, like St. Felix and Bel Ombre, get it into their heads that they can destroy the jobs of hundreds of cane labourers and sugar mill workers, and then use the land in order to make a one-off quick buck by selling it to millionaires from abroad?

 Lindsey unveiled a LALIT map of Moris, on which members have done a mapping exercise which shows that the scale of this is well beyond just St. Felix and Bel Ombre. It is a new form of colonization of Mauritius, she said. Colonists from Europe, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere come as settlers, like those colonists that the Israels State sets up on Palestine’s land, buying the land and a villa, and living from then on in a gated community. The map was made from information from different members of LALIT branches all over Mauritius, and also from the experience of people who have attended the 24 or so neighbourhood meetings on the land question that LALIT has held literally all over: from Baie du Cap to Roche Noir, from Bambous Verieux to Black River, and inbetween. The map shows how the capitalist class, with the help of successive governments from 1995 onwards, have just sold off land to the highest bigger, and often just gone ahead and poured concrete on to what was agricultural land: in schemes with all sorts of appellations that Governments, one after the other, have offered, like IRS or Real Estate Scheme or Property Development Scheme or Smart City that are, in fact, nothing more than a bundle of permits and tax concessions, allowing the land owners to act in this utterly irresponsible way.

 “Selling the family jewels”

The sugar estates have been allowed to just launch into this spendthrift selling of the family jewels, the land of the country, instead of being guided, or if necessary forced, by the State to use the land to create productive jobs, produce food products, build houses for the masses of the people who live in the country.

 She said the mapping was not complete, but represented the beginning of a realization of just how much land is now already taken up with these villas behind barbed wire, these golf courses with armed guards, and how much more is threatening to go the same way. It must be stopped, she said. In addition, she unveiled another map prepared by LALIT members, called “political mapping”. It is a table showing Government after Government, naming and shaming the relevant Ministers of the PT, MMM, MSM, PMSD, ML, and their roles in dishing out permits and tax concessions in this destructive manner. From as early as 1996, LALIT began its campaign to rally people behind a program to force the sugar estate bosses to diversity and thus create jobs in the fields, in the factories, in the research centres, and in the commercial sector for marketing them. Our campaign is for “Democratic control over the land, and also over work, housing and food security!”

 Petition to Minister of Environment

Kersley gave details of the collective letter that inhabitants of Baie du Cap had sent the Minister of Environment, opposing the Integrated Resort Scheme (IRS) project once the hillside had been torn apart by bulldozers. The letter was in March 2016. This  MonRoze IRS project cuts like a stab-wound right down the middle of the coastal village of Baie du Cap. The village is completely disfigured, cut into two, its past desecrated and its future pawned. Kersley explained that he does not understand how such a project ever got an EIA permit. State Land and even buildings declared “national heritage” (the old police station and civil status office)  now have red signs put up by the bosses reading “private property”. He pointed to the sign which shamelessly proclaims government property as “private property”, for all to see.

 The IRS promoter has literally torn open the side of the hill, leaving an open wound that cannot heal. He has put up a huge, long, high wall starting at the Royal Road along the Coast and going up to the foot of the mountain behind the inhabitants’ houses. This has completely blocked the road access of the 20 or so families living on the right of the wall (if you look landwards). They live in anxiety that their leases will not be renewed as they come up for routine renewal. All indications of State care for infrastructure has completely disappeared, as if the Government is announcing abandonment of the people living there. Three or four families have already been forcibly removed. They had lived there for decades and were busy formalizing their state leases. But the promoter somehow got them to leave. What kind of development is it that takes no care of the people who live on the land? And when the promoters are criticized, they mention a couple of servant jobs as an “add-on”. Meanwhile, the Government does not put in drains that are essential for safety. When there are heavy rains, land, soil, big rocks, all descend. And there seems to be no plan to ensure the inhabitants’ security, he said. Road access, as we mentioned is blocked. So for many families, you have to go up 75 steps. And then some more uphill climbing without steps. Kersley took the journalists on a site visit. It gave an idea what it’s like to bring your weekly shopping home, or to get someone sick to hospital.

 Cut off from the mountain and the river

Jimmy spoke of the way, when this IRS project came and blocked road access that people have now been cut off from their usual access to the mountain, to the source and river – places that were part of their daily lives. The source has been fenced off – obviously this is illegal, and even all the Authorities who have visited say it is, but so it remains. The source has been fenced off and supplied with a pump and a pipeline, all this installed by the promotors. A bit of rotten water escapes and causes a hideous smell in the village. Jimmy said that, as a fisher, he can no longer go and look for wild bamboo in the hills as he used to in order to make his fish traps. Baie du Cap inhabitants can’t go on walks like they used to, or jogging up to the mountain. The entire village is without sports facilities, or even a Primary School. The Promoter has destroyed the Civil Status building and removed the doors and windows from the Police Station, a heritage site made out of curious small hewn bricks and dating from 1905. Nobody even knows where the doors and windows are now. The bosses are a kind of joint project between sugar estate bosses and French capitalist clan.

 Where is production? That is what will bring work!

Stenio said how this kind of “development” of IRS’s, hotels and villa to supposedly create work is just a farce. It is not the aim of the project. And the work is not productive. The few jobs that are created always end up  being given to people from a distance away. Bosses do this so that industrial disputes don’t get into the village itself, where they would be at a disadvantage. Stenio gave, as proof of this that in the Bel Ombre development at St Martin, there is very little employment, and what there is does not go to people from there. In other words, the promise of jobs is not even a bribe, but a trick. They also make other offers like permits for fish mongers and green grocers to supply the villas. But all this is not productive work, he said. We in Baie du Cap want proper jobs, we want to make things. Before they sacked nearly everyone, Bel Ombre and St Felix sugar estates employed hundreds of people. The free zone factories in the South have nearly all closed down. People in Baie du Cap, he said, want work that creates things.

 The Land Question

Kisna took up the Land Question that Lindsey had mentioned in her introduction: who exactly controls the land? she asked.

 The Bel Ombre and St Felix sugar estates control the land in this area, she said. So, that means they bear the responsibility for developing the land in a way that creates productive employment. For example, she said, they could plant food crops on a large scale, use the infrastructure of the old mills for factories to preserve and transform the food products. This would create all kinds of employment. This would help towards food security. And it would also, when exported, bring in foreign exchange in a sustained manner, allowing more productive development in the future. It is outrageous that the Government should participate in the sugar estates’ attempts to maximize windfall gains by selling off the land that nurtures all of us to millionaires from abroad. The Government is, however, doing just this. All manner of facilities are offered – fast track permits plus subsidies, mostly in the form of exemption from any form of tax, just to give more value to the sugar estate land owners. Then, the Government does worse. It permits, even encourages the Sugar Estates to pour concrete on to and into agriculatural land. The Government is allowing the sugar estates to seal our futures into concrete. We must not allow this to happen. The Government must force the Estates to diversify and to produce something. Instead in Baie du Cap, it cedes State Land illegally to promoters who are forging ahead with this destructive economic strategy.

 A movement

Present, at the Briefing, as we mentioned, were also representatives from many regions where other groups are opposing this kind of savage development that destroys the past, the present and the future. Others have bought houses from the State and then found there are irreperable problems with them, like asbestos walls in EDC housing, or faulty uprights in CHA housing, as is the case in places like Rose-Belle and Cite Richelieu, respectively. Other people present from Curepipe have defended people against the Government destroying their houses built without authorization on State Land, while others from Bambous Verieux live in a village that is caught in a vice between an IRS squeezing them off the land that has always nurtured them, and private fish farms squeezing them out of the sea that has also always nurtured them.

 Journalists experience

Journalists asked questions, and sought details. The photographers with them captured a glimpse of the reality of this awful economic strategy in action: dividing a village in two, dismantling and taking over State property, closing down access roads and rivers, leaving a bleeding gash in the mountainside. Everyone present, when climbing the 75 steps, and then some, saw the conditions that people face in everyday life as well as the dangers of a land-slide if proper drains are not constructed.