New Internationalist

Ropes in the water

Issue 403

In her last Letter from Mauritius, Lindsey Collen finds trouble beneath the surface of a picture-perfect scene.

Illustration by <b>Sarah John</b>
Illustration by Sarah John

An early-rising tourist could be forgiven for seeing only peace. The sun hasn’t risen from behind dark-green mountains yet, but the sky is already a luminous blue and the lagoon, flat as a mirror, is a gentle grey. The Black River Bay, huge and calm, is ever-so-slowly waking up. The police station only a hundred metres inland is oblivious. A fisher’s pirogue, newly painted white with its proud red line along each side, its mast tilted back at the perfect angle, is being poled to the edge. Another is being untied lazily from its moorage. Tourists might sense nothing but tranquillity in the air. Two or three people, nondescript they might think, talk quietly, or just sit on the storm drain, gazing at an almost imperceptible reef. Other little groups gather on the beach. A tourist might pick up nothing in particular in the tones of their voices.

A couple of pirogues start up their outboard motors, move into the lagoon and turn them off. The Coast Guard are still fast asleep.

Fishers employed on the big, shiny fibreglass boats and bright orange catamarans that take tourists out deep-sea marlin fishing slowly walk the jetty, carrying the fuel, the drinks and the plastic food baskets aboard. They call to each other nonchalantly.

In all, 22 pirogues, one by one, engines off, line up in the lagoon as if in formation. Between the pirogues lies heavy rope, strung from one to the next. An early-rising tourist might think it was just nets.

But it’s a demonstration. A protest. A blockade. The tourist boats can’t leave the jetty now. A quiet air of satisfaction sets in all around us, like a smile. Imagine that much cooperation. It’s a silent protest. Almost invisible. No posters, no slogans, no shouting. But there it is.

Ram and I are there, invited by the fishers. Witnesses, they said. And if there’s trouble, maybe advice.

One day a few months ago, a tourist fishing company had trucks unload huge piles of rocks in front of its premises, between the sea and the highwater mark, which is common land. The company intends to construct something in concrete. Already, no-one can walk past any more. Fishers can’t get to where their pirogues are moored. They have petitioned against this illegal occupation of public space. The Village Council supports them. They have even won a Court Order.

But rocks put anywhere by powerful men are not easy to get removed.

‘Damn! Look, the tourist boats are reorganizing,’ a fisher suddenly exclaims to Ram. ‘Must have spoken to their clients on their mobiles,’ Ram says, ‘getting them to wait for pick-up some place else, instead of the jetty.’

The fisher signals the speedboat in charge of running messages amongst all the pirogues in the protest, to come to the water’s edge. They make new plans. ‘Hop on!’ says the skipper, so I do. We speed from pirogue to pirogue, reorganizing the formation. The blockade is further out now, barring the entire gap in the reef that boats have to pass through to get into the open sea. The rope now stretches from the coral shallows at one end, linking 22 pirogues across the whole bay, to where we tie it to a casuarina tree.

Tourist boats sail up, clients on board now. They try to find a way through the blockade. They can’t. Two big catamarans come and try. They can’t either. One skipper seems to consider forcing his boat through. Then hesitates. What if his propeller gets caught in the rope? Or worse still, what if he damages a fisher’s pirogue?

Three or four coastguards eventually wake up, amble down to the lagoon and get aboard their Zodiac. They whizz here and there, trying ineffectually to persuade the fishers to stop the blockade. ‘You tell them to remove their rocks, instead,’ a man on a pirogue replies.

When I’m back on land, police officers arrive at the water’s edge. More representatives of the State. They are looking for elected representatives of the fishers. ‘Why don’t you negotiate?’ they ask. ‘Get those rocks removed first!’ the representative replies.

The company loses thousands of dollars in trade just on that one day. The press deplores the bad publicity for tourism.

We don’t know where this particular confrontation will lead. Meanwhile, all over the land, as economic ‘imperatives’ roll out, people who thought they were voiceless create ever more imaginative protests.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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