More or less everyone in the world know about what happened in Mauritius after a Japanese ship ran aground on the reef just off Pointe d’Esny beach, on the south-east coast of the splendid African island, very close to the Blue Bay Marine Park, overwhelming priceless biodiversity. It is not yet clear why the ship was there, nor why Mauritian authorities intervened rather mildly in the early days. The crew was immediately rescued, but his captain and his deputy were arrested about four weeks after the crime. Contrary to what has been heard and read, the ship in question was not an oil tanker, but a cargo ship, this indicates how generally large ships are extremely dangerous for the environment (much more than cars, which are already not a cure-all). Perhaps above all because the situation was becoming clearly dramatic, the Mauritian people, coordinated by some associations and NGOs, immediately moved to combat the oil spill which, day after day, was advancing to the island’s soil. Barriers have been created to stop the advance of black gold that drives the world crazy. These floating barriers, filled with straw, sugar cane and even hair, were undoubtedly useful in this grueling and arduous battle, but they could not be decisive. In the meantime, environmental protests in Mauritius (but also by Mauritians around the world) have rised, but definitive solutions, if there are any, are slow in coming.
This is why I decided to interview a person I admire a lot (and for this I admit that I am quite tense for this interview). She is Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, the first female elected president of Mauritius, but before that, scientist, researcher, biodiversity expert, professor and winner of numerous scientific and academic awards. Perhaps this is also why she was able, with her political activity, to pursue an activity focused on preserving the environment (but not only).
So here the questions I asked her and her answers:
We are not able to understand the extent of what happened after the fuel leak from the cargo ship, what will be the effects on flora and fauna?
On 25th July 2020, the MV Wakashio, bearing Panama flag but Japanese-owned hit our coral reef. Oil started to leak on 6th August 2020. It hit the South East part of the island next to 2 Ramsar protected sites. The Marine park of Blue Bay is home to unique plant and animal species and the Isle of Aigrettes is home to rare birds and animals and represent over 30 years of painstaking conservation effort. Mauritius is best known for the extinct bird – The Dodo but we have some strong success stories. We brought back from the brink of extinction several birds and animal species like the Mauritian Kestrel, the Pink Pigeon amongst so many other species. From an international perspective, we have contributed 7% of the global salvaged fauna. It would appear that the 300.000 gallons of oil, spilt in that lagoon over the past 42 years, is now washing up the shore and has covered up the mangroves. The latter is yet another ecosystem that has been impacted and we know that they are the breeding ground for crabs, small fish and birds as well. There is a race against time to clean up as the longer the oil stays in or near the waters, the longer lasting will be the damage. The mangroves will die over the next 6 months if we do not clean up now. We still do not know the full impact of the damage to our marine park just yet as a full survey has not been done yet, but judging by past oil slicks across the world, the news are generally not good. The news are not good for another reason is that this oil is new and the environmental impact of that oil in tropical waters has not yet been done.
Little is said about it abroad, but I think the reaction of the Mauritian citizens is a wonderful example, what is your opinion?
Little has been said internationally because we are a small country and do not have the same powerful voice of bigger nations. The Mauritian public is still reeling from this very first oil spill. Having said this, there has been a popular march in the city of Port Louis when we started seeing dead dolphins and whales washing up our shores. The march garnered over 150.000 people and is a first for our country. Over 50 of these animals, which we consider as our friends, are now dead. This is the tip of the iceberg as we are still yet to assess the impact of this oil on not only plant and animal life but also on humans. The evaporation of this oil and inhaled by local residents is causing trauma and health issues to the local people. Another march is being organized on the 12th September to highlight the plight of people on this issue amongst others.
What could be the short-term solutions and what the long-term ones?
The short and medium-term priority will be to thoroughly clean up the beaches and get rid of the oil remains. The long-term monitoring will give us a better picture on impact of the degraded oil on plant and animal lives. One thing that we are very conscious of is that whatever remains in that sea will end up in our plates one way or the other and also in other food chains. This is why we are making a call to the international community to help us with the science so that when it comes to establishing our claims, we will have solid evidence on the damages done to our environment.