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Lindsey Collen at the University of Mauritius opens up the land question

22.09.2017

 In the context of research week on the theme of “Connecting Research to Industry and the Community”, Lindsey Collen was Guest Speaker for the Faculty of Social Studies and Humanities, at the opening event. She was asked to speak on the Faculty’s theme: “Human Values, Rights and Justice: Rethinking the Fundamentals.” Coincidentally, she has been a guest at two other Mauritian Universities in the past few days.


 LALIT has pleasure in publishing the notes to which Lindsey Collen spoke at the University of Mauritius on Wednesday 20 September:


 Because of the unprecedented crisis in Mauritius, which is not unrelated to a series of world-wide crises, I will start on the pertinent second half of the title: Rethinking the Fundamentals. We know that Mauritius, although billed by the IMF and World Bank as the first in this-that-and-the-other-thing in Africa, and even in the world, is an unhappy place. The number of intra-familial murders in the past few weeks is the tip of the iceberg of the crisis within the family. All the different Ponzi and quasi Ponzi schemes have hurled thousands of families into money crises. Ongoing debt plagues the vast majority of families, tied to a lifetime of paying back on a house or on studies. Later I will touch on the insecurity of work, and therefore income, and the overcrowding of housing, that add to the turbulence of the times we live in.


 So, what are the fundamentals that we as social scientists and researchers in the humanities need to rethink? I suggest that we look at things that everyone agrees are important: three interlinked realities: land, work, food. And in the Donald Trump times of so-called “post-truth” and “alternative facts”, we are bound, as academics to be ruthlessly honest in our research so as not to be drawn into the world of appearances, of being manipulated, of collusion.


 I will start with the simple question: What is a “country”? More precisely formulated: What constitutes “a country”?


 The answer is simple, and it overlaps on one point with the three “fundamentals”. A country consists of a geographical space – its land and its sea – and of the people who live there, mainly its citizens. So, we will start with the intersecting issue: land.


 The land


From 15 September, that is to say, last Friday until the end of the month, Mauritius is at long last coming right now to the end of its historical role as provider of sugar under a protected colonial regime. We are right now as I stand here before you at the end of the sugar protocol.


 This means Mauritius “identity” as a sugar outpost for Europe is finally be over. The land could be freed up for proper production. King Sugar is dead. But the crisis is that this is not the case. King Sugar has become King Cane. Cane still rules the land.


 Successive Governments have thrown all the European union capital grants, all the compensation for this dislocation, all the so-called “accompanying measures” designed to re-structure the entire Mauritian economy into doing no more than restructuring the sugar industry into the cane industry. Only a social pathology of our minds, only the colonial legacy in our heads, could have allowed us to let this happen.


 Over 20 billion rupees has been thrown away, blown to the sugar bosses. They have used it for the crime of closing down jobs (Blueprint for mill workers, and Voluntary Retirement Scheme for labourers). The sugar oligarchy is now diversified into cane, and instead of employing 55,000 workers, employs 5,000 – over just one generation.


 The industry produces sugar in Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Cote Ivoire, Uganda; the industry imports one quarter of the sugar it refines through a reverse-gear VRAC; and importantly, until today as I stand here, the cane industry still monopolizes the near totality of the arable land here.


 And this, and here is the crisis, in spite of not employing people, in spite of not paying Tax Sorti lor Disik anymore, and not even, from this year, paying the CESS tax. The sugar sales bring in very little foreign exchange now. But the industry continues to hog the land. It continues to make food security a real unconscious traka for anyone who is not brain-dead. One only has to look at Donald Trump’s childish, bullying, populism bordering on fascism, to know that war is a real danger. Last night he threatened what is anathema in the UN: to destroy a member state. War is on his agenda.


 Four sugar cane estates own nearly all the arable land, and contribute next to nothing to food security, to jobs, foreign exchange, or tax. That is something we all know. I am not saying anything new. It’s just that we are somehow not allowed to put it into question.


 Island?


And while talking of land, we have another fundamental problem. When the intelligentsia talks of Mauritius, it is not uncommon to hear ourselves calling our country “L’Ile Maurice”. In fact, the Republic Passports in 1992 had to be thrown away and reprinted because the State, itself, ordered copies that actually said “Ile Maurice”. So, we have the fundamental problem of having a country that we call “an island”, and inside this island, there are other islands, like Rodrigues and Agalega, to name but two, and even whole archipelagos of 65 islands that are “dans l’Ile Maurice”. Children have to handle this kind of grammatical, logical farce. Such cognitive dissonance cannot be good for us, as thinking people. It does so happen that the more we say it the happier those colonial powers who still colonize it (Britain, USA, France) are.


 So, we do not have stable boundaries yet to our country, since Independence. The last and present Government have finally put two cases before the UN system – at UNCLOS and then this year a UN General Assembly resolution to send the issue of decolonization to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.


 A Nation of Home Owners?


In Mauritius, the land question has another corollary. This urgently needs research from the intelligentsia, too. And it needs positions to be taken. Statistics Mauritius, and all Ministers, regularly brag about 89% of Mauritians, or 9 out of 10 Mauritians, being home-owners.


 Now, in LALIT, we felt this to be a rubbish figure, if you want to estimate housing problems – which is one of the main reasons for the intra-familial dramas and tip-of-the-iceberg murders we referred to – or how many houses the State needs to build for people. The definition the State uses is the following: they ask you if you pay rent. When you say “no”, you become a happy home owner. Now this cleverly masks the biggest problem: with the strange Napoleonic “forced inheritance” laws, the small village house or site house, ideal for the grandparents and their 4 children in the 1960s, has now been informally subdivided twice, or three times, and is occupied by, say, 16 families – each new nuclear family has, in turn, built on a kitchen and a shower and lives in one room. None of them have the land deeds in their name. The most brutal male in the family is the one who wins when there is intra-familial conflict.


 So, this housing shortage, is another effect of this monopolization of the land by the sugar bosses.


 Small?


And we compound this effect by repeating – rather too often – and I quote “Mauritius is a small Island”. As if being small excuses everything. Well, if it’s so small, the whole of its big tracts of arable land should even more urgently be put to the general use. The land should all be used food crops and animal husbandry, factories to process the produce of the land, an export market, employment at all levels, and also for new housing and amenities.


 As sugar goes bankrupt, sell off the land?


But, what do we in fact see?


 As sugar estates go bust (and they are going bankrupt), they pretend they only just found out, all of a sudden, what was happening, and they get the State to use public funds to subsidize them. It was decided a week or two ago, to subsidize the planters 10% of the price of sugar (dipping into the SIFB money), plus to remove the CESS tax. Anyway, all this, is not enough. So, what successive governments have done is to give every permit and waive every tax under the sun, in order to get the sugar estate bosses to float their new cane industry by selling off the land of the country. So, you artificially pump up FDI by selling off the country’s “jewels”.


 And we end up with this new form of colonization.


 You can buy permanent residence. This, for the price of a flat. You can, if you put down more money, even buy citizenship. So, that is what is happening to our country. To the land, and to the people.


 And the sugar bosses are just selling off the whole country.


 So, before we succeed in getting Diego Garcia and Chagos back from the first form of colonization, the State, in cahoots with the cane bourgeoisie, is selling off the little land there is, in a new form of colonization.


 And if any one complains, it is about the shrinking beaches. That is a problem, but it is not the central problem. The central problem is the irresponsibility of not using the vast tracts of land under cane for diversification, and industrialization of the produce.


 To get back to this “small island” business that poses another serious problem of cognitive dissonance, just as the “island” that contains “archipelagoes” does.


 Mauritius is, it so happens, the 18th biggest country in the world. (2.3 million square Km of territorial waters and land).


 The Sea


And this brings us to yet another crisis.


 The tuna factories, and fish processing that employs some 8,000 workers, are threatened with shut-down.


 The Mauritian state did not use any of the over 20 billion Rupees from the E.U.(lamone lakonpaynman) money towards a fishing fleet, for employment, foreign exchange and food. No. So, the fish processing depends on fleets of French, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean ships that the Mauritian State gives permits to fish the sea here. And now, these companies have, this last month, announced blithely that they do not have fish to sell to the Free Port fishing industry in Port Louis!


 Seychelles, by contrast, has a fine fishing industry. It creates jobs, it contributes to food security, and it brings in currency. Mauritius, no. While it is the 18th biggest country in terms of its sea, it contents itself to have no fishing industry. There is a lot of talk-talk-talk about “blue industry” for cooling and what not, but the obvious thing to start with: a fleet of ships? No, this is not what the State used all its capital from the EU for. No, this is not what the State encourages the capitalists to invest in. It encourages all capital to go and self-destruct in IRS, PDS, RES and Smart Cities.


 The people


People know when they do not have work. And it makes them wild. It is humiliating. It is debilitating. And it enrages people.


 7.4%, 7.8% or seven point something % unemployment?


Here again, there is social research crying to be done on the unemployments statistics.


 The official figures dance around 7.2% and 7.8%, and just as, long ago, academics in Europe debated how many angels could dance on the point of a needle – I joke not – they now talk in Mauritius about this figure for unemployment as though it were a serious issue.


 In fact, the definition of “in employment” is working one hour a week.


 When LALIT criticized the Government, Statistics Mauritius put out a paid Communiqué saying that it was an ILO figure. Well, it would be better if our intelligentsia looked at what the ILO was measuring at the time they brought in this figure. The ILO is an organization that pre-dates the United Nations. It dates from 1919. The statistic of one hour a week in the cash economy was designed not to measure unemployment, but to measure the rate of movement of the peasantry into the cash economy, into selling labour power, or even selling bred ziromon for an hour a week. One of the reasons Trump was elected was that the “rust belt” workers detest the USA’s way of keeping statistics, and Trump lampooned this (with equally false statistics, I may add).


 So, again, the figures are being used so as to mask the truth. We need to re-think this “fundamental” too. Not only that, but there is another new reality that people in the intelligentsia often want to avoid: there is this generalized criminalization of working people: it is so easy to get a conviction, particularly if you can’t afford a lawyer – by being drawn into a fight, using an illegal substance, fishing illegally, trespassing somewhere, theft, and so on – then you cannot get a job. So, society creates an underclass. We do not even tell people what they are supposed to do when they are not allowed to work anywhere.


 These are fundamental issues: who has got a house? who has got a job? And who hasn’t? How can we, as part of the intelligentsia, let the official figures go unchallenged like this? The definitions for both housing and for unemployment are clearly ludicrous. Social statistics are for exposing social reality, not for masking it for the State.


 Human values, human rights, justice


So, let us draw the strings of my talk together now. I was asked to speak on human values and human rights and justice. These are all important parts of civilization, but they are always grounded in social reality, in economic reality, in political reality. They do not exist up in the air.


 The role of intellectuals – like you and me – is to give the useful facts, organize the useful statistics, prepare the useful analyses on the fundamentals: work, land, food. The values and the rights, the justice, come during the process of seeking an equal control over of these basic fundamentals. We are not talking about equitable distribution. We mean the struggle for equal control, totally democratic control, over the production on the land, over what the sea can give us, over the jobs created, over the food produced. Happiness, too, comes from the process of seeking equal distribution of these.


 It is hard to say this, in times when greed is glorified, aggression and war often passes for peace or for aid, repression is often posited as the panacea. But human rights come, not from some convention or charter in Europe, but from our struggles here where we are for control over decision about land, jobs, food.


 And I’ll finish on something up-beat. You may wonder how Mauritius can still have free and generally excellent education, free and generally excellent health care, universal pensions, free travel in buses to pensioners and those with a disability. How come? And how is it that we are perhaps the only country in the whole world that has these things? We got them through ongoing struggles – mainly the huge August 1979 and September 1980 struggles that made the bourgeoisie and the State tremble. They are still scared. Only the IMF ventures to mention doing away with these. Any Government that has tried has immediately lost the next by-election, or municipal, or general election. That is another thing to study: August 79 and September 80, led at the grassroots by LALIT branch members, and then the All Workers Movement that LALIT members co-ordinated from 1996-2000 and that opposed the neo-liberal onslaught.


 So, to come back to the IMF and WB claims that Mauritius followed their conditions and that explains any relative “success”. It is just not true. The Mauritian State took the loans, and then was unable (fortunately) to impose the conditions. So, the answer lies in struggle. But, the intelligentsia has a role. We must help by bringing out the truth: facts, statistics, analyses that help. We need to oppose the lies that mask the truth.


 And today with nearly 20 universities in the country, it is easier to speak out. Let’s all commit ourselves to seeking the truth as best we can, and proclaiming it aloud.


[Some points were contracted in the speech due to time constraints.]