The Human Side of an Oil Spill: Insights from Mauritius
“Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.”
Mark Twain, American writer
Anyone who has had the pleasure, or rather a privilege, of visiting the Republic of Mauritius, or has read about it, can testify to the words of Mark Twain. With its pristine lagoons, white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, sumptuous resorts, and rare biodiversity, Mauritius is indeed a paradise. And no, these are not the only things which make Mauritius an ideal place to live in the entire world. It has to do with the Mauritians which thrive in peace and harmony in spite of a highly diverse and multi-religious population. They welcome everyone with open arms and hearts.
In 2020, it seems even the heavens could not have escaped the destruction and remained untouched by the tragedy. As the world was combating the COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous consequences for the people and the economy, the island nation of Mauritius was battling with another calamity, what is now referred to as the Mauritius Oil Spill – one of the worst ecological disasters that the nation has witnessed in its entire existence. What followed was totally expected: government’s inaction and citizens’ fight for the environment and justice.
Aerial picture taken on August 16, 2020, shows the MV Wakashio bulk carrier that had run aground and broke into two parts near Blue Bay Marine Park, Mauritius the day prior on 15 August.
Source: Forbes/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
After looking at the environmental and ecological impact of the Mauritius Oil Spill, this article is an attempt to understand the social consequences of a never-seen-before oil spill.
The Disrupted Social Lives
Not very long ago, on the 25th of July, the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, carrying 4,000 tons of oil, ran aground on shallow reefs off the south-east coast of Mauritius. The wreck of the bulk carrier ship began leaking oil in front of a nature reserve island (Ile aux Aigrettes), a couple of kilometres from a marine park (Blue Bay), and close to an internationally important wetland area (Pointe d’Esny Ramsar Site).
Ever since then, the fragile ecosystem of Mauritius has been in jeopardy.
“Mauritius is a biodiversity hotspot and much of the island’s unique wildlife depends on intricate connections between the reefs, lagoons, seagrass meadows and mangroves, so pollution in one habitat can have a devastating ripple effect.”
But like most disasters, there is a human cost of this catastrophic oil spill as well. As explained in a report submitted to The Harris Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland, titled as From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards Future Strategies and a Decision Support Framework for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response in Offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, the public health can be compromised due to oil spills and transference to food chains. Surveys conducted in the oil spill affected communities have shown increased post-spill rates of generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress
disorder, and depression as well as emotional upsets due to intrusive recollections of spills such as unexpected negative pictures and thoughts.
“Torn by the barren and undistinguished surroundings, people are left with a dethroned attitude, jobless and shattered after the demonic unleash of The Wakashio on the Southern coast of the island made in heaven. Left behind is only a stagnant environment with whispers of pain and solitude. Crashed with our reefs and killed the heart of our marine park, The Wakashio, what have you done? You have been a lethal injection to our lagoons. Clear and transparent waters, there is nothing that we can still scrutinize as such in these coasts now. MV Wakashio, stoned-hearted as your iron stern, you fragmented the life of our marine biodiversity into pieces and left none to be amazed anymore.”
As told by Arvin Bansy, a young Mauritian photographer, to Forbes
After 52 years of its independence, Mauritius now boasts of a high-income economy. The country has developed infrastructure for the growth of tourism, financial activities, transport, Information Technology (IT), etc. However, even today, a significant section of the population continues to rely on the oceans for subsistence and employment. In her article for The Conversation, Rosabelle Boswell, Professor of Ocean Cultures and Heritage, Nelson Mandela University, mentions that the artisanal fishery is vital in providing employment opportunities and protein to over 4,000 households in the coastal regions.
“From my experience, the villages most affected by the oil spill are amongst the poorest areas of the island and have many Creole inhabitants – the descendants of African and Malagasy people – who form one of the most vulnerable communities in the country.”
Rosabelle Boswell, Professor of Ocean Cultures and Heritage, Nelson Mandela University
For a country like Mauritius, the beaches and the oceans form an integral part of its culture. The huge uproar among the Mauritians over the mishandling of the situation is nothing but a testament to the fact how important water bodies are; economically, socially, and culturally.
A Wave of Protests like No Other
“As you probably all know, on the 26th of July, the MS Wakashio got stuck on the coral reefs off the beautiful coast of Pointe-d’Esny, in South Mauritius. From this point, ecologists have been warning the government about the risks of an oil spill, and the authorities have done nothing but trying to reassure us with empty words. Even long before that, experts have been warning about the passing of ships on this side of the island, which can be extremely windy and make it dangerous in case of breakdown.
Furthermore, Mauritius has already lived through wreckages, however with much fewer consequences, which did not make the authorities more careful about those issues. It was only a matter of time since such a terrible catastrophe would happen. Thus came the 3 long weeks of contemplating the coming disaster with a particular numbness from the Officials.
We’ve heard countless times that there wasn’t going to be any oil spill, that the cracks on the Wakashio’s hull won’t worsen. Even on the 6th of August, when we actually saw a “dark liquid” coming out of it, they tried to reassure us by saying that it’s only some motor oil and that there wouldn’t be much more spilling. Turns out there was more.
Finally, even when we actually saw an enormous trail of oil spilling out and coming into the lagoon, our elected officials ensured us that it was not going to turn into a black tide. And yet again, it did. Like the Beirut explosion, the Mauritius oil spill is a catastrophe that has been foretold but wasn’t avoided because of a government marked by corruption and sheer incompetence. And like the Beirut Explosion, even if on a much lesser scale of disaster, it caused a sense of frustration, of revolt, and of anger against elected officials who do not act like such.
The Mauritian people are not so prone to demonstrations, until a few years ago when the collective Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz (Stop Stealing Our Beaches) started a movement against the creation of yet another monumental luxurious hotel on the fragile beaches of Mauritius. Today, the anger has spread, which led to a demonstration like never seen before in Port-Louis, the capital, on the 29th of August. The streets were filled with Mauritians of every ethnicity, united by their mourning of the 14 dead dolphins who washed up on our coasts.
Mourning for their reefs who have been dying for years. Mourning for their country who’s never had a decent leader for decades, a leader who cared more about their jewel of an island and their people, and less about gaining more power and money. There were even a few hundred Mauritians demonstrating in Paris, London, Luxemburg and Perth.
For people around the world, this demonstration wouldn’t look like much, but for Mauritius, the 29th of August was a day in History, a day that better not be ignored by our joke of a government. There is so much more to say about Mauritius, about its beauties, about its people, about its issues and politics, about this country so often forgotten beside a few beaches and hotels. But for now, I said all that I needed to, I got out what I needed to. Thank you for paying attention to my small, beautiful and unknown island.”
These are the moving words of Eric Brousse de Gersigny (18), former Director of Operations, LearnBlue Global. Recorded on the 30th of August, 2020, these words resonate with every angry, frustrated Mauritian. And there are ample reasons to say so.
As soon as the MK Wakashio started oozing out oil, volunteers from all walks of life came to the rescue and worked tirelessly to contain the damage, even as the government wondered how to respond to this crisis.
Large-scale protests in Mauritius
And then, after witnessing the government’s inaction, inability, and unwillingness to act decisively to minimize the damage caused due to the oil spill for months, around 75,000 Mauritians took it to the streets to register their anger and disappointment in what is now seen as one of the biggest protests the island nation has seen in recent years. Not just in the country itself, the Mauritians from all over the world mobilized support for the citizens’ movement.
Protests in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius
Source: Forbes/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Another massive protest took place on the 12th of September that saw the participation of over 50,000 residents of the island nation, with over 100,000 watching live protests online. As reported by Forbes, protests were also seen outside embassies around the world where there is a large Mauritian diaspora, especially France, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Italy.
“In speeches made on the main stage, the protest organizers called for greater rights for nature, more effectively run public institutions, greater democratic accountability and more transparency over the oil spill cleanup operations and rehabilitation plans.”
Writes Nishan Degnarain, Development Economist focused on Innovation, Sustainability, and Ethical Economic Growth, for Forbes
Protesters in front of the iconic Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Mauritians demonstrating in Luxembourg
Mauritians gathered in front of Forrest Chase Square in the center of the city of Perth in Australia
Indeed, these protests were a unifying force for the entire nation; a watershed moment like no other where everyone knew that something had to be done to protect the environment. If anything, the entire episode of the Mauritius Oil Spill sheds light on how even an individual can play a major role in the process of change, how the citizens still have the power to hold their governments responsible for mishandling the crisis, and how governments can no longer afford to neglect the ecology.
LearnBlue Global’s #SaveMauritiusReef Campaign
After successfully running the #SaveMauritiusReef campaign for over a month, we got immense support from the international community. Our petition to raise awareness about the Mauritius Oil Spill and hold the government accountable was signed by 1,413 people from all across the globe.
Through our social media channels, we created and posted content around the oil spill so that the netizens can learn about the issue, which otherwise has been missing from the mainstream media. Our co-founders and team members worked tirelessly to raise funds for the cleanup process at the site of tragedy.
And as we formally close our campaign, we are certain that our efforts were worth it. The entire process has further strengthened our belief in the abilities of Gen-Z to usher in positive change in the world and solve the greatest problems of our times. Now, we can say even more loudly that the change begins with us! #ItBeginsWithUs
The author acknowledges and appreciates the efforts of Eric Brousse de Gersigny for providing his testimony and relevant content for the completion of this article.