Mauritius has a reputation for stability and the quality of its democratic politics. Massive protest action is relatively uncommon in the country. But the government’s handling of a major oil spill —with devastating consequences for the island’s biodiversity, health and economy—has resulted in protests, threatening this consensus. In the most significant of these marches, more than 100,000 people marched in the capital, Port Louis, on August 29. The second march, on September 12 in Mahebourg, the site directly affected by the spill, had 25,000 participants according to police estimates; organizers argue that the figure was twice that number, if not higher. The protesters demanded change and the resignation of the government, especially Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth.
What resulted in this mass mobilization? On July 25, the MV Wakashio, a Panamanian-flagged vessel travelling from China to Brazil and carrying 200 tons of diesel and 3,800 tons of heavy oil, ran aground on the coral reefs of Pointe d’Esny, on the south east coast of Mauritius. The lagoon off this coast is situated near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park, which is a wetland of international importance. For 12 days, the nation waited for the government to take action to prevent an environmental disaster. To pacify the worried population, the police announced on August 5 that efforts were being made to stabilize the ship and said that it was not sinking, but was resting on a sand bank. However, precipitated by bad weather conditions, the first signs of cracks in the hull were reported that same day. The following day, the ship began leaking and an estimated 1,200 tons of oil spilled into the pristine lagoon. The spill puts numerous species around the lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg at risk, with dire consequences for the economy, food security, and health in Mauritius.
The government has been criticized for its slow response: Only on August 7 did it declare the incident an environmental emergency. Images of the oil spill—of the polluted beaches, rivers, and mangroves—made global headlines. In a live interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Jugnauth was questioned on the delay in taking action and whether he owed the people of Mauritius an apology. He responded that authorities had relied on the advice of international experts, and said that bad weather conditions had hindered operations to pump the oil out of the ship. This explanation was widely criticized by local environmentalists, civil society groups, and the public at large.
Although Jugnauth has commissioned a formal investigation, his government has been accused of not being transparent in the handling of the clean-up operation, which has angered many. The government appears to be hiding behind the advice of select international advisers while not being open to other offers of support. Anger is also brewing against the Japanese shipping company, Nagashiki Shipping, the insurance industry, and the international community who seem to pay little heed to the plight of ordinary Mauritians whose livelihoods have been compromised. A few measures have now been taken: The captain of the ship was arrested by the Mauritian police and charged with endangering safe navigation. The Mauritian government banned the sale and consumption of fish and seafood caught from the south-eastern lagoon after samples from the area returned positive tests for traces of hydrocarbons. And a large area (125km2) on the south-east and east coast of the island have been declared off-limits. What remains unknown is exactly how much oil spilled into Mauritian waters, the toxicity of the oil, and whether chemicals were used in the clean-up operation.
In the days after the oil spill, civil society groups stepped in and took immediate action to salvage the damage in whatever way they could. Volunteers from all walks of life and across the country arrived to help. While no one had previously experienced an oil spill, they all appreciated that something had to be done urgently. Volunteers created and placed in the ocean makeshift absorbent barriers with dried sugarcane leaves stuffed into fabric sacks, and tubes made out of tights and hair. Given the oil-absorbing properties of hair, a national hair collection effort was organized with hairdressers across the island joining in solidarity, offering free haircuts. The actions of the population defied an order from government asking people to leave the clean-up to the authorities. Jugnauth then went so far as to describe the volunteers as “nuisible”, implying that their actions were doing more harm than good, angering the public even further.
The marches were led by the social activist Bruno Laurette, and included citizens from all ethnic, religious, and age groups, together with children and the disabled. The march received wide-ranging support from leftist groups, such as Rezistans ek Alternativ, environmental groups like Aret Kokin Nou Laplage and Eco Sud, as well as trade unions. (Leaders and members of opposition political parties participated in the first march, but in their capacity as private citizens.) Both marches mainly comprised citizens who were not affiliated with any particular organization, but who wanted to express their discontent with the government’s handling of the crisis.
For island nations such as Mauritius, the sea and the ocean are interwoven with the identity of the people, as well as being a key determinant of their livelihoods. Inaction at the level of the state, the secrecy surrounding the spill, and the mishandling of such a major crisis served to catalyze public anger and trigger historic anti-government protests that are worth following closely in the months to come.