On Wednesday, 242 fishermen of Grand Sable, Ville Noire, Cité La Chaux (Mahebourg), Bambous Virieux and Old Grand Port gathered at the Old Grand Port Social Centre for a first regional assembly of Lavwa Peser (Grand Sable to Mahebourg coast). This assembly had been preceded by 3 months of joint fishermen-LALIT regional (Curepipe-South) meetings in each one of these villages to debate what kind of political demands are necessary for the survival and development of artisanal fishermen
Ocean Economy, Marine Resources, Fishing and Shipping Minister Koonjoo had agreed to come to this Assembly to respond to fishermen demands after being presented these demands in a meeting delegates of Lavwa Peser two weeks earlier. On Tuesday, Grand Port delegate Marco Bergue received a call to inform him that the Minister had to attend a conference in Colombo and would not be able to make it. The Director and Assistant Director of the Ministry's Fishing Department would come instead.
The Assembly was presided by hosting delegate of Grand Port Lavwa Peser, Marco Bergue. LALIT militant Rajni Lallah opened the assembly with a brief outline of the politico-economic context bringing a new situation threatening artisanal fishermen's survival nationally and regionally. She spoke of:
The new reality of government-supported gated luxury villa communities/hotels/golf courses invading coastal areas owned by sugar estates next to where fishermen live and work are threatening artisanal fishermen in different ways. Threats of:
(b) invasion and/or destruction places where fishermen traditionally foraged for bait;
(c) taking over lagoon areas where fishermen anchor their boats.
(d) taking over the land fishermen and their families live on. In Cité La Chaux for instance, there is already talk of an international company preparing plans for a gated villa complex in the area where fishermen live.
She outlined that new economic politics based on the needs of fishermen and their families instead of agricultural land destruction and selling it off to billionaires from abroad is necessary. She outlined LALIT's main demands for food production development – food production based on artisanal fishing, on food plantation and setting up processing factories to create massive employment and real development based on what working people need. In this region, this would mean transforming State-owned Rose Belle Sugar Estate into a food producing “estate” and measures to force private sugar estates into job-creating food production. She also presented the visuals prepared by LALIT showing to what extent coastal regions are being taken over by colonial gated luxury villa estates, what this means for village inhabitants, and how land could be used for food production and for working people's development. (More on LALIT's demands and the visuals on our website: http://www.lalitmauritius.org/modules/documents/files/LalitMauritius-d395771085aab05244a4fb8fd91bf4ee.pdf).
The Assembly was very lively. Each delegate of all village committees there presided each demand theme in the assembly. The first demand presided by Marco Bergue was about the need for new artisanal fishing cards to be released. Artisanal fishermen need these cards to be able to qualify for Bad Weather allowance and other State facilities. These facilities (such as loans to buy boats for off-lagoon fishing) have become all the more important as the lagoon area becomes almost impossible for artisanal fishermen to survive on. Artisanal fishermen are on the verge of disappearance altogether because of this.
Fishing Director Soondron admitted that registered artisanal fishermen had decreased from 2,400 to 1,925 and that no new artisanal fishing cards had been issued in the last 10 years. Young fishermen, women and older fishermen who had applied for fishing cards in the last 10 years rose up and testified on how they had applied for fishing cards and had been kept waiting for years and how they depend on fishing to survive. Delegates had drawn up lists of young (and older) fishermen who had applied for cards and had never received a reply. Lavwa Peser also stated our stand against new regulations announced by Minister Koonjoo in the meeting with delegates two weeks ago that would annul fishing cards of 65 years old and over fishermen.
Director Soondron took all the lists of fishermen who had applied for cards over the years, applications, he said, that would be considered. He announced that there were 300 new fishing cards being released nationally, that would be distributed equally in each region of Mauritius and said that as many people who depend on fishing for a livelihood as possible would be alloted cards.
Director Soondron also admitted that the State understood the importance of food transformation industry and that such development was being currently considered by the State.
There was lively debate on the importance of village inhabitants gaining democratic control over real estate and aquaculture companies. Especially after Director Soondron stated that aquaculture companies were given a list of fishermen in the villages near to the aquaculture site and were told to “consult” fishermen (which everyone there knows notoriously results in paying off fishermen one by one instead of anything resembling “consultation”).
Delegates also denounced the impossible-to-get fishermen's loans presented as a way for artisanal fishermen to buy boats that would enable them to fish outside the lagoons: the Development Bank of Mauritius a land contract (that most fishermen do not have, living on State land leased land) required, the rate of interest starts off at 3%, but becomes 6%, and two guarantors are required (two guarantors that fishermen find impossible to find). The government tells artisanal fishermen that the solution is to fish outside the lagoons, but does not give support for them to be able to do so. Director Soondron said that the Development Bank of Mauritius is not supposed to ask for land contracts as guarantee and stated he would arrange a meeting with the DBM to clear this up.
The assembly ended with fishermen of all the joint LALIT-fishermen village committees walking around in small groups discussing what had happened in this assembly having gained dignity and confidence you can only find in collective struggle. A new form of organisation for fishermen is born.