There is fighting over the beaches in Mauritius as some activists are accusing South African-born developers of land grabs for an upmarket resort. The developers, however, say it will create a couple of thousand much-needed jobs. CARIEN DU PLESSIS went digging in the sand.
Beach, please. Sheltering from the hot sun under a Flamboyant tree with flaming red flowers, in a square opposite the Jardins de la Compagnie in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, a group of 40 or so very vocal activists gathered last Wednesday. “Aret kokin nu laplaz!” they shouted, demanding an end to the “theft” of their beaches. Also, “our beaches don’t belong to South Africans”, they said.
At issue is a feeling that the Mauritian government’s policy of encouraging a glut of large-scale development by foreign companies is depriving the locals of their natural resources.
On September 3 the Mauritian vice-prime minister and minister of housing and lands, Showkutally Soodhun, published an advertisement on page 23 of the local paper, L’Express, deproclaiming and withdrawing as a public beach “PG Bel Air Public Beach situate St Felix”, popularly known as Pomponette beach.
The activists, who dubbed their group after their slogan, Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz (AKNL), will be challenging this in court next month.
The deproclamation is meant to allow for an upmarket development in the relatively undeveloped south of the island by Seychelles-registered Pelangi Resorts with the Mauritius-registered promoter and developer Clear Ocean Hotel & Resorts Limited. Or so it appears.
Unhappiness over foreign ‘beach grabs’
“We have less and less beaches open for public access to Mauritians, because the government, and the previous one, are giving increasingly our beaches to hotels, and more so to foreign owned hotel promotors,” said Yan Hookoomsing, one of the activist leaders for AKNL.
“The government has just deproclaimed a huge expanse of public beach very popular with Mauritians. I mean, you go there, every weekend, especially in the summer, it is packed, and people are not even aware that the beach has been deproclaimed.”
To add insult to injury, activists claim, a native tree planted by a Mauritian on the beach has been claimed by Pelangi and incorporated into their logo.
“It is so much iconic of the land grabbing struggle here,” Hookoomsing said. “Twenty years ago people planted a native tree here, ‘le veloutier’, which is disappearing, but it is very typical of our beaches.”
Photo: Mauritian native tree, ‘le veloutier’. (Photo by activists)
Mauritians consider this “little tree” as a powerful symbol of resistance against natural calamities, and the shady tree is a popular gathering point.
Did the Mauritian government flout its own law?
Hookoomsing claimed the deproclamation of the beach and the licence to the developers had been decided without consulting the public. “It was unilateral, top down. The minister has been contacted in complete opacity by some promoters, they arrange their deals between four walls and that’s it,” he said.
In so doing, the activists claimed the government has flouted the country’s Planning and Development Act, which stipulates that large new developments should only happen in designated tourist development zones.
The National Development Strategy, which came into effect in 2005, has designated that part of Mauritius as the South Coast Heritage Zone, “and it says black on white you cannot put any hotel on the coast because that has to be preserved”, Hookoomsing said.
In a later e-mail he quoted extracts on page 123 of the document, which state:
“The South Coast Heritage Zone (covering an extensive area from Blue Bay to Baie du Cap, inclusive of Surinam, Souillac and Bel Ombre) […] incorporate[s] strategies to protect the natural environment. It is proposed that within the South Coast Heritage Zone, the existing coastline is preserved and that only limited tourism development should be permitted in and around existing centres, where inward investment can contribute to development clustering and thereby sustain local economies.
Development in these Zones should generally be focused as follows:
South Coast Heritage Zone:
While most of the island, and especially the north, is a well-developed and buzzing tourist hub, much of especially the south-west is still wilderness. You won’t find the beach in question in most tourist guide books.
One of the big worries is that the mere 10% of the Mauritian coastline assigned as public beach would decline even further.
Private bungalows and villas with seafronts take up 43% and hotels and golf resorts take up 20% of the coast.
“This particular area of the south coast, we had nearly two kilometres of public beach,” Hookoomsing said.
With the deproclamation of Pomponette beach, 915 metres of this was lost, while St Felix beach next to it has lost about 600 of its 990 metres, which means there is less than 400 metres of public beach left on this stretch, he said.
“People are not aware of it because you won’t see a demarcation in the sand saying okay, this beach is still a public beach, that beach we are giving to promoters (developers).”
According to Mauritian law, beach areas between the low tide and high tide marks still belong to the public, and while this means that anyone is free to swim in the sea or walk on the beach anywhere on the island, picnics under the trees behind the public beaches are prohibited on deproclaimed areas as hotels were leasing that land.
Hookoomsing also said that by the time permission was granted for the project – Midas Acropolis Company Ltd obtained an environmental impact assessment licence in May 2007 for the building of a five-star hotel there and this was transferred to Pelangi in 2014 – this beach had not yet been deproclaimed.
The activists have lodged a case on this matter at the supreme court, which is set down for next month (January 2017).
Let them eat sand
Due to the pending court case, the ministry spokesperson, Ruquyya Kurreembokus, said they couldn’t respond or give further information because “comments made or any info provided to the press will give rise to prejudice”.
Last month minister Soodhun, annoyed at the protests, said the development was crucial to job creation on this island of 1.3-million inhabitants, where just over 7% are unemployed.
“What will people eat, sand?” he snapped.
At a press conference in September announcing the development, he said the beaches going to the hotels were too dangerous to swim in anyway.
“We’re giving the bad beaches to the hotels, and keeping the good ones for us,” he said, adding: “The beaches that will house the hotels are isolated and dangerous. People have died there and their bodies still haven’t been recovered. When you want to go to the beach, where would you want to go? Somewhere dangerous or somewhere you could die?”
Referring to Pelangi’s multibillion-rand project of a five-star hotel and “the first luxury villa vacation resort” in Mauritius in St Felix, the minister said it would create 1,650 direct and 2,950 indirect jobs.
The hotel, which will be operated by “one of the world’s leading hotel operators”, according to the site, will have 152 suites, three restaurants, a 250-seater conference facility, while the vacation club will have 164 modern two-bedroom condos, 42 two-bedroom “marina condos” and 11 ultra-luxury four-bedroom beachfront villas.
Pelangi’s side of the story
Pelangi CEO Miranda Hartzenberg – a Mossel Bay-born former arts teacher – rubbished the protests, saying her company only meant well and they’ve already sunk millions into the Pelangi Hotel and Resort at St Felix project, reported to be worth R5-billion.
First, Hartzenberg, who did the design for the resort, said the company is not South African, although two of the three directors are. “The professional team is from all over, and the divisional companies are all from Mauritius,” she said in response to e-mailed questions.
Hartzenberg said the complaints about Pelangi “claiming” the “le veloutier” tree were “absolute rubbish”. At best, it seems, there was a misunderstanding.
The design on the Pelangi logo “is only a leaf and I’ve always been under the impression it is a palm leaf. This story came because we wrote on our Facebook page that we will be keeping the tree. There is only one of these little fat trees on the site. The rest are all non-indigenous trees and I already have a permit to remove these.”
The logo was designed in 2010 when Pelangi was eyeing another site.
“It has no specific meaning but I thought it was pretty. Not even the name I chose (Pelangi) means anything specific,” Hartzenberg said.
She also said the public consultations were already done when Midas applied to develop a hotel there. “Why didn’t they cry then about the beach? It’s only because they think we are South Africans. I’ve already been living in Mauritius four years and I put every cent I own into this project.”
Hartzenberg said she suspected some competing hotels were behind the AKNL protests.
She said the environmental impact assessment was done, with public participation, in 2007 and was transferred to Clear Ocean in 2014. “All we did was to transfer the licences to the new company, which is highly legal and was checked and approved in Cabinet,” she said. The project is also 100% green.
“It will be built 30 metres from the high water mark. We won’t touch the beach, and in fact we had to move the hotel back another 13 metres because of erosion. We’ll be building a desalination plant and will therefore supply our own water.
“There is nothing irregular about this project, and it is, in fact, a lot more green and environmentally friendly than any other of the current projects in Mauritius.”
Hartzenberg also claimed that many Mauritian public beaches were litter-strewn, including the one where the Pelangi resort would be, and that hotels kept the beaches cleaner.
She said the local fishermen and a local NGO supported their project because it would create jobs.
Finally she said the deproclaimed Pomponette beach had nothing to do with the Pelangi development, which would have access to 17 acres on four other beaches. She didn’t specify the name, but she said the area in question had been rezoned a while back for a hotel development.
Activists, however, are adamant that her information was wrong. They dug up the Hansard of a parliament sitting on November 15, where the minister confirmed the Pomponette beach was meant for “hotel site 3” where Clear Ocean will be developing.
Even though plans for this were devised in 2003, the public beach was only deproclaimed this year – as per that notice in the paper.
Going local in Mauritius
Another issue is that the market for large resorts and hotels appears to be saturated. Activists have been arguing in favour of more smaller, local guest houses and holiday apartments, saying there’s been less than 70% occupancy of resorts in the past year.
The trend has also been for more independent travellers to come to the island, outside package travel.
“It is our beach, our right, our nature, and if we don’t act they are going to take all of the beaches to make hotels, and we have enough hotels,” said Oormila Sahodree, a 23-year-old activist from AKNL, who was born and grew up not far from Pomponette beach.
“We can make more community projects where we encourage people to build small studios and apartments where tourists will go and stay, and the money they give to the (local) landlords will go to the village itself, not like in the hotel where they keep the money for them,” she said.
Officially it’s already policy to encourage this kind of development – it was one of the current government’s election promises – but activists claim new hotel developments surprisingly still get special treatment.
“There are other existing hotels, we are not against that, but we are against constructing new hotels. When you see new construction going on there (in the wilderness areas), you feel like they are going to take everything and what is going to be left for us Mauritian people, because it is our only way to relax, to spend our days with our family.”
Photo: A protest was held on 30 November in Port Louis. Oormila Sahodree addressed the participants.
Sahodree said La Gaulette village was already an example of the success of the policy of community-orientated tourism, where building materials for developments are purchased locally, and where tourists give business to the local restaurants and shops.
“We are not against tourists coming, it is just the fact that they are taking our beaches to make hotels,” she said.
Pomponette isn’t the only beach where this kind of encroachment has happened. Activists also cite Blue Bay beach in a marine park area with a lagoon popular for snorkelling amid pristine coral reefs and tropical fish, as an example of a deproclaimed public beach in a zone meant for conservation.
How to have a Fair Trade holiday
So what are the options for South Africans wanting to have an “alternative” holiday in Mauritius?
Hookoomsing has called on South Africans planning holidays to Mauritius to consider their options.
“We would like to appeal to our South African friends – I mean, I come to South Africa and I love South Africa, you respect nature, you’ve got loads of nature – to please help us, we don’t have a lot of space in Mauritius, and what we have, we have to share. Come to our public beaches so we can enjoy the beach together, but please don’t assist government in this policy of taking the beaches away from us just because they have these savoury deals with hotel promoters.
“If you want to come to Mauritius, go local, go to small guest houses. It’s the best way to have a nice time, a real time, authentic.” DM
Main photo: Pomponette beach. (Photo by activists).
Additional reporting by freelance journalist Deepa Bhookhun.
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