'No to coal' banner over bridge on the way to the power plant site. Photo: Naresh Roodur.
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Fighting King Coal in Indian Ocean paradise
Zaheer Allam in Mauritius
13th February 2014
A $395 million coal fired power station is planned for Mauritius - bulldozed aver the wishes of the population, official advice and the environment ministry. But as Zaheer Allam reports, there's still everything to fight for.
In a move as brazen as it is shocking, the government decided to ignore the report and the people's voice and proclaimed that it would build not one, but two coal powered plants.
Mauritius is a teardrop in the Indian Ocean. Much like the Bahamas, Hawaii and Maldives, it is promoted as the ideal romantic, tropical retreat; blessed with pristine beaches and beautiful landscapes.
Our small island is often featured as boasting the best resorts and hospitality on a global scale. Hence, it is of primordial importance to us to keep our star of an island shining bright.
In an effort to acknowledge the global climatic change, our governing bodies created the 'Maurice Ile Durable' (MID) initiative. Its main role was to act as a pioneer of sustainability by policing the current projects throughout various ministries so as to achieve a certain acceptable green standard.
Shamed by inaction
However, the MID, who supposedly carried the mantle of sustainability, was shamed by its inaction and silence in one of the most crucial energy decisions that our country faces - the proposed erection of a coal powered plant of 110MW on the sea shore in Pointe aux Caves, situated on the western coast of the island.
This project averaging 12 Billion Rupees (US$395 million) was first suggested in 2007 and subsequently opposed by our inhabitants. The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MESD) initially rejected the project.
But MESD suddenly did a surprising volte face and chose not to defend its stand in the face of mounting pressure from the coal power plant promoter: CT Group, a Malaysian company which oddly enough, enterprised mainly in printing.
Further research into the matter proved that the investment instrument of CT group is a company incorporated in the offshore jurisdiction of Labuan, well known fiscal paradise, and whose shareholders remain undisclosed.
1,600 tonnes of coal a day
In the initial plan, it was proposed that coal bought from Richard's Bay in South Africa would be stored in the capital city. Then 1,600 tons of coal would be transported daily via coal trucks on our already saturated roads.
This makes up for an astounding 54 coal trucks daily, approximately one every twenty 20 in transit on our roads. After much protest by local inhabitants, the proposal was amended to incorporate the erection of a $20 Million jetty, to be financed by the Government of Mauritius.
It seemed strange and uneconomic that the Government of Mauritius will be partly financing a project, fully erecting a jetty, and ultimately buy electricity at a higher price from a third party. Our scepticism and baffled questions were answered by our lawyers in a case lodged in the Supreme Court.
It was revealed that CT Group may have been printing campaigning materials for free for the ruling party, then immediately tendered the contract for erecting a coal powered plant as soon as said party came into power.
Playing the race card
In the face of such revelations, the advisor to the Prime Minister held a press conference, whose strategy relied on the creation of communal discomfort in the country to act as an antithesis to the campaign.
In an era of multiculturalism which is unfortunately built on certain communal and racial injustice, this tactic surprisingly worked to our advantage as people riled against the blatant attempt to incite communal unrest.
The said advisor, in the face of formal complaints, later proclaimed his statement as one that had been misinterpreted by the populace.
Little could we predict however that the inaction on the part of our government to back down would give wake to an upsurge of patriotism and ecological pride in the country.
The campaign takes off
Facebook and Avaaz provided us with a platform upon which one could freely voice out on the matter. From then onwards, we engaged with the media, other organisations sharing the same vision, as well as representatives of the local community.
What we construed to be a simple conversation between us and the populace soon grew into a campaign which incorporated various localities, high schools and universities across the country.
We realised that the voice of one individual could be easily drowned but the boom of thousands could not be so easily dismissed. The popularity of the cause thus grew and so did our conviction and confidence in it. This brought in an influx of resources and outside help but despite the mass frenzy, our government was still not swayed.
An upsurge of creative protest
Our campaign was on a roll and in the face of such public support, we started organising national protests and marches. We are still humbled by the scale of effort and dedication poured in by people from different walks of life.
There followed an unprecedented explosion of creativity in the way people explored avenues of expression dedicated to the cause.
We witnessed the birth of concerts lauding ecology as well as more literal translations such as international photos with dedicated messages and banners proclaiming "Say No to coal" hung from bridges and cranes not only around the island but also in major cities around the world.
Every person who contributed left their imprint in a way they cannot fathom.
A relentless backlash
While those measures were applauded by the public, they were not approved by officials. Our efforts were relentlessly backlashed. Fellow activists were arrested and jailed; our application for fundraising were constantly denied and somehow our court dates were always postponed.
However, even without the legal right to seek funds publicly or to fight our cause in the courtroom, we still managed to keep our cause very much alive. The support of the community was after all the most important incentive we needed.
In January 2013, despite our best efforts, the construction date was due to start - a single move which would lay to waste all our work so far. In a courageous and selfless endeavour, independent activist Jeff Lingaya, started a hunger strike the very next day, which lasted 13 days.
"The strike continues. Strike against dictatorship, against oppression, injustice, pollution, corruption. The strike will intensify ... This is the fight of all Mauritians". -Jeff Lingaya.
Our first big success
This brave action, in conjunction with the community support, finally resulted in some success. The construction delayed and the National Energy Commission (NEC), responsible for the review and re-alignment of energy related projects in a sustainable framework, was thus set up.
This represented a massive step forward for our cause, one which transcended the world of activism and integrated the sphere of policy making. It was a one of its kind situation on Mauritius.
However, after a long wait, the NEC report had concluded that a coal power plant defies the vision of a sustainable future for our island. This provided the leverage we needed to reinforce our position since this report reflected the expert opinion of researchers in the field ...
Adding injury to insult
However, in a move as brazen as it is shocking, the government decided to ignore the report and the people's voice and proclaimed that it would build not one, but two coal powered plants - by adding another 29.4 MW coal generated energy to the grid.
A few weeks ago, a campaign called 'Candlelight for ecological support' gained the attention of many in Mauritius and our Facebook page received hundreds of pictures saying "no to coal" from around the island as well as other countries.
We are now re-establishing communication with existing coal powered plants in the country to request a phase out plan and a switch to renewable energy, and working to reinforce the conviction of the people towards sustainable energy policies.
A collective consciousness
Through this journey, we always found a helping hand, resources where we least expected it, as well as renewed strategies to keep our cause alive.
The fight is far from being over. Our vision is crystal clear and our conviction unwavering. Who are we? We are not but one individual, of any particular religious affiliation or group.
We are a collective consciousness; a story merging the old and the new; a voice blowing from coastal regions to cities. We are the people and our future is only ours to decide.
Sign the Avaaz petition: No to coal power plants in Mauritius!
Acknowledgement: The fight against coal powered plants in Mauritius regroups the efforts of numerous groups such as: Plateforme Citoyenne, Resistans ek Alternatif, Azir Moris, CARES, KLR, MPL, and local academics, artists, independent activists & concerned citizens.
Zaheer Allam is an independent scholar born and raised in Mauritius. With a background in Green Architecture and Project Management, his interest lies in utilitarian urbanism and exploring avenues for cultural & ecological conservation.
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