Ram and I woke up early, dressed ourselves in something not unlike PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and went out to the atemoya tree armed with a long stick cut from the fig tree. We tied a bit of cloth like a mask around the end of the stick, poured some kerosene on to the resulting cloth ball, and lit it with a match. While the wasps were still drowsy from a good night’s sleep (they really are quite tame in the early morning), we aimed the fire at the end of the stick at the wasps’ double nest that we had noticed yesterday. Luckily we had spotted the two nests. They were very near where some of the fruit was hanging. And wasps, busy as bees during the daytime, would have likely mounted a collective attack – even during the quiet of the lockdown – had we had the misfortune to disturb them.
So, I did my exercises early, too. I miss our Tuesday exercise group at Gran Rivyer at the LPT Hall. We do the ATM (awareness through movement) exercises that you do lying on your back, and that allow you to move all the moveable parts of your skeleton without that much effort, and with no pain. They keep your back and neck, hips and shoulders, knees and elbows in good nick. So, that’s another group of friends I miss dearly in the lockdown.
Then, I glanced at my mobile phone. A LALIT member had put up a message on our social media group. Members of the National High Level Committee on Covid 19, which brings the entire state apparatus together, are all on self-isolation. This is according to Press reports (including on Inside News, Radio One, Le Mauricien) to the effect that a communiqué was issued to the press just before midnight last night by the Government Information Service (GIS). We have not been able to find the said communiqué on official sites, other than on the MBC. This means not only the Prime Minister, but also the Ministers of Health (Jagutpal), Foreign Affairs (Bodha), Tourism (Lejongard), Commerce (Sawminaden), Agriculture and the Attorney General (Gobin) are all concerned. Apparently the secretary to the Health Minister, who they have had contact with, is reported to be Covid-19 positive. Others on this committee include Dr. Zooberr Joomaye and Dr. Catherine Gaud.
In addition, the National Communication Committee members, too, are on auto-isolation. This includes all the top advisors like Rudy Veeeramundar, Jean Paul Arrouf, Sherry Singh, MBC director Ramsurrun, Ken Arian, Akilesh Roopun, Kavish Pultoo, Jameer Yeadally and Dr. Gujadhur.
And meanwhile, world-wide, everything is put into question. How will the pandemic play out? Nobody knows. How will the different nation states go about the tentative return-to-work? Nobody knows. Will the virus keep coming back? Nobody knows. Will there be a second wave? Nobody knows.
And, equally importantly, how does each capitalist economy continue during the lockdown, and then afterwards? Nobody knows. Will each nation state just go on bailing out the big private companies with our collective money (public funds), as they go bankrupt, one by one? Will it just go on paying the wage-bills of big companies? What will happen to international trade – even air freight, and shipping, to begin with? Nobody knows.
And not knowing how long all this will take, LALIT took an initiative yesterday to write to the Minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security, to call for measures to ensure food production and food security. This is the most important issue now. Even Jean Claude de l’Estrac and Lindsay Riviere (alongside Dev Virahsawmy) finally took up this issue (See L’Express today). I am including the letter written by Rajni Lallah for LALIT, for anyone who missed it, and also Minister Maneesh Gobin’s reply both from Wednesday, i.e. the day before yesterday:
Dear Minister Gobin,
It is during an epidemic that we are all forced to see the mortal danger of our over-reliance on imports for our basic food. Air freight is down to near nil. Ships only circulate as long as their crews remain well and as long as borders remain open. We need at once to move to local production on a massive scale of the 6 basic kinds of foodstuff:
1. Staples: this needs to be a mix of rice – Vita showed the way – and maize and potatoes (already widely produced), breadfruit and manioc – Sarjua has shown the way for milling flour from these.
2. Dairy produce: We cannot afford not to increase our very low milk production.
3. Poultry – eggs and chicken. This is fairly developed.
4. The State must at once organize for a national fishing industry. Seychelles has shown the way.
5. Vegetables and fruit: These need not only to be produced, but also to be preserved as part of canning, freezing, freeze-drying and also transformed into diversified foods (i.e. even humble tomatoes can be canned whole, canned diced, made into juice, soup, rogay, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and mixed with other foods into ladob in cans or jars, as well as being sun-dried, freeze-dried.)
6. The meat industry, if fishing is increased, can remain modest, including venison, pork, beef, and goat.
But what do we see? At the front end of the COVID 19 pandemic, everyone is already aware of the precarity of basic staples, and many have resorted to panic buying and even hoarding. There are even shortages and price increases even for local vegetables. We could ignore our vulnerability, or pretend to ignore it, before the epidemic. But no-one can ignore it any longer. Everyone agrees now: food security is a priority in the short term, the medium term, and long term.
Yet during the lockdown, while most small planters have been able to get to their respective plantations, their workers have often not been able to, not having been issued permits. The State has not been able to organise a distribution system that supplies supermarkets and local shops with whatever vegetables were left in the fields, while new planting is sporadic.
And in the big picture, it is now evident to everyone that small planters do not have the means to ensure food security on a national scale. This much is clear now.
We know that you, as Minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security, were one of the first Ministers to prepare for the onslaught of COVID 19 in Mauritius.
On the morning of 18th March, some 12 hours before Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth announced the first case of COVID 19, you met with representatives of tablisman/ex-tablisman (the biggest agricultural land-owners in Mauritius), with the head of the Chambre d'Agriculture, with representatives of the Public sector: Agricultural Marketing Board, FAREI, Rose Belle Sugar Estate, Landscope Mauritius to discuss how to map out a plan for food security. With all these representatives present, you held a press conference right after the meeting to announce that “Leta pu pran tu mezir pu asir sekirite alimanter”. You stated on your Facebook page “Il est chagrinant de constater, dans un pays tropical comme Maurice, que beaucoup de terrains sont abandonnés ou bétonnés.” We could add that it is chagrinant that while sugar clearly has no future, most good land is still being wasted on sugar cane.
After the meeting, Medine CEO (now ex-CEO) Thierry Sauzier announced that Medine would use its land to ensure food security (Defimedia 18 March 2020). Over a week later, Medine issued a Communiqué to announce that Thierry Sauzier is no longer CEO. Why? We do not know. Was it because Medine owners disagreed with you and Thierry Sauzier’s food security strategy?
On 18th March, you pledged that your Ministry “is acting proactively and will ensure that meetings be held regularly with stakeholders so as to communicate effectively important information to the public as the situation evolves”. (Government Information Service 18 March, 2020).
Yet 20 days have passed, and the public has still not heard from you. Does this mean that your food security plan has been sabotaged by sugar estates? We do not know because we have not been kept informed. How has the situation evolved? What measures are you taking?
The same day you held your press conference, 18th March, LALIT, having campaigned for food security for 36 years, aware of the impact of COVID 19 on food security, called for specific measures to ensure food security. Our demands were, a few days later, taken up by other organisations. As concerns food security, the main demand of LALIT together with 6 union federations and a national women's association: CTSP (Reeaz Chuttoo), MLC & AWF (Haniff Peerun), ACSEF (Vinod Seegum), FPBOU (Deepak Benydin), GSEA (Radhakrisna Sadien and Muvman Liberasyon Fam (Ragini Kistnasamy), calls for is this:
“To assure food security over time, one-third of all sugar estate land (either “plennter” or “antreliyn”) be used for food crops, while each estate or ex-estate immediately sets up a food preservation factory to preserve and transform the crops, ready for production just as the first crop is harvested. This is essential work. If the sugar estates do not obey Government, their land must be requisitioned and nationalized to this end.”
The MSIRI has a clear idea, arpent by arpent, of what land can be used for what produce. The first harvest will, we realize, given that there are sufficient seeds available immediately, take at least three or four months.
If the sugar estates, or ex-sugar estates, and all big land owners do not agree with a food security strategy, it is obvious what must be done in this period of crisis. And this is not only to ensure food security for everyone, but to create jobs for all:
In the short, medium and long-term, thousands of jobs must be created to replace the ones that are being lost and will be lost. The big land-owners must take on agricultural and mill/factory workers in the new food industry. And Rose Belle S.E should play a key role in this transformation by showing the way. (A 2014 BDO report has already outlined a detailed plan to transform Rose Belle S.E into a food-production unit.) If the other estates do not take on workers, they must immediately cede interline cropping or “plennter” to small planters. And if they still do not co-operate this way, their land must be requisitioned.
All that is needed is the political will for this to become a reality. There is nothing like a crisis to create this will.
We call on you, as Minister in charge of agriculture, the food production industry and food security to take matters into your own hands. If laws need to be changed in order to force land owners to produce food, or to lease their land for food crops, or on refusal to commandeer land, you are in a position to bring such laws before the National Assembly.
Rajni Lallah, for LALIT
Here is The Minister’s reply:
“Dear Ms Lallah,
“I write to acknowledge receipt of your mail and thank you for the very valuable suggestions you have put forward. I assure you that Govt is leaving no stone unturned to help planters and breeders. I look forward to meeting you to discuss further once the curfew is withdrawn.
It was not a meeting we requested but an announcement of immediate food production policy. It is as if the Minister is unaware of the urgency. It is as if power is not in his hands, when it is. As if he knows that all will be hunky-dory soon, some kind of wish fulfillment. As if he is capitulating to Business Mauritius’ occult pressures to get back to business-as-usual (“pressures” referred to in lexpress.mu breaking news yesterday). As if he does not have the power to give instructions to the big land-owners and fishing vessels.