A Mauritian Story of Trees, Water and Sustainable Future

From Intendant Pierre Poivre, Pope Francis, G7 & UN Climate Summit

By Raj Boodhoo

During the last leg of his apostolic journey in the South West Indian Ocean, after Mozambique and Madagascar, Pope Francis paid an eight-hour visit to Mauritius on Monday 9 September 2019. In his homilies, one of the global concerns that he flagged was the need to preserve forests and vegetation in an effort to fight the impact of global climate change. The world, scientists observe, is in the throes of a climatic crisis: global warming, rising sea level, violent cyclones and severe droughts. In the verandah of the State House, Le Réduit, the Pope blessed a number of endemic plants, which are going to be transplanted at various religious sites.

It is interesting to note the coincidence. About 275 years earlier, in 1745, Governor Pierre David not only built a country house at Le Réduit but also created an immense garden where plants from countries as far as the Americas were introduced. The nutmeg and clove plants brought by Pierre Poivre in 1753 and 1755 were also acclimatized there. It was at this particular place that Pope Francis found himself that September evening, addressing his message to people from all walks of life. During his visit to Madagascar on the day before, His Holiness had also expressed a similar wish for forest preservation there, the home of unique fauna and flora, where loss of wildlife had occurred through the destruction of native forests. Scientists have observed that human, plant and animal lives are interdependent and that all development has to be done in a sustainable way as not to compromise future generations.

Another remarkable coincidence is related to celebrations marking the 300th birth anniversary of Intendant Pierre Poivre, providing an occasion to Mauritians of this generation to reflect on his efforts to develop agriculture, produce spices and control deforestation to preserve the environment [1]. During his extensive travels in China, India and South Africa, Poivre had obtained considerable knowledge about horticulture, which he tried to incorporate in Mauritius. His visit to the Dutch Company Garden in South Africa in 1749 inspired him to establish a nursery for acclimatization at Pamplemousses Garden, founded by Mahé de Labourdonnais in 1735. Clove and nutmeg plants were grown and distributed not only to planters of this island but also sent to French colonies in the West Indies.

In 1768, Bougainville, who was leading an expedition to collect plants in tropical countries, arrived at Ile de France together with the botanist Philibert Commerson. Many exotic plants were landed. At the invitation of the Intendant, Commerson stayed behind and contributed to the creation of the Botanical Garden. Other private gardens existed at Mon Gout and Palma. Many plants were exchanged locally and sent abroad. Moreover, Poivre is particularly remembered for his forest preservation policy. He was against reckless deforestation through slash and burn, arguing that deforestation caused dryness of the soil and absence of rainfall. One measure of the important legislation of his time, the Règlement Economique (November 1769), required all land owners to plant trees on at least one quarter of their property.[2]

It is well-known that deforestation and transformation of the physical environment in Mauritius had started long before Poivre. During the 17th century, the Dutch carried out logging operations of black ebony trees for export. Their activities were disastrous to the island environment in many ways. The forests were the habitat of birds that were unique: Dodo, Blue Pigeon, Red Rail and others. These and other species disappeared when their habitat was disrupted by hunting and logging activities, and also by the introduction of monkeys, deer and dogs.

After his departure, the botanical and horticultural legacy of Poivre continued through the works of Nicolas Ceré, and later Louis Bouton and the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences. In 1837, W. Bojer published Hortus Mauritianus, a catalogue of 2000 native and exotic species.

But drastic transformation of the landscape occurred during British administration (1810-1968).The forest preservation policy of Pierre Poivre was stalled. Large-scale deforestation was carried out throughout the island to extend sugar cultivation. Wood was used to fuel steam mills, build Indian camps and for cooking. Roads and railways opened up new lands on the Central Plateau, more forests were cleared for cultivation. Large-scale importation of Indian labourers and their settlement put more pressure on land and water resources.

Unplanned development had an impact on the environment. Rainwater, no longer retained by forestlands, flooded the plains, causing soil erosion. Rivers started to run dry and water stagnated in pools, and drinking water became scarce. Infectious diseases, cholera and malaria, broke out killing thousands. Finally, in 1880, the Colonial Office appointed R.Thompson, from the Indian Forest Service, who recommended the acquisition of all forest lands on the Central Plateau (the main water catchment area and where most of the rivers have their sources). New laws were passed to acquire lands to protect forests, mountain and river reserves. Planters claiming that these measures caused the loss of property showed strong resistance, but in vain. Over 30,000 acres of land were acquired by the government on the Central Plateau and the Nicolière regions and a new policy for reforestation was established. Rainwater, intercepted by forest vegetation collects in the lakes, filters into the soil and fills the aquifers.

For quite some time, environmental issues have become an important part of the political agenda in many countries. Small island states such as ours have been witnessing floods and coastal erosion. At different world summits, heated discussions are taking place on the need for drastic policies. For example: a Clean Power Plan to limit the use of fossil fuel, coal and oil, aimed at diminishing carbon emissions. A green world with tree plantation and preservation of forests has also been proposed as a means to control global warming.

While Pope Francis was on his apostolic tour in the Indian Ocean, the G7 Summit was being held at Biarritz in France. Apart from discussions on world trade issues, representatives of leading countries focused on the preservation of the Brazilian Amazon rain forests, the lungs of the world as they are called, to tackle climate change. At the same time, fires were raging in the rain forests, causing a worldwide outcry. Present times are witnessing huge demonstrations for immediate action led by the youth across the world, inspired by Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist from Sweden. At the United Nations Climate Summit, New York, member countries, including Mauritius, have made more pledges to increase the use of renewal energy and strengthen tree plantation schemes.

Mauritius, since 1880, has strived to manage the remains of the island’s ancient forestlands. Today, State forests cover an area of about 22,000 hectares while private forests cover 25,000 hectares. Only 2% of the native forests remain. The Forestry Service and the National Parks and Conservation Service of the Ministry of Agro-Industry manage State Land Plantations, National Parks, and Nature Reserves and the islets. There is a yearly plantation project of 100,000 trees. Private enterprises, such as the Ebony Forest Chamarel, are carrying out a tree planting operation; 145,000 trees have been planted since 2007. Moreover, the Wild Life Foundation has been working assiduously for the preservation of birds that were nearly extinct: Pink Pigeon (Pigeon des Mares) and Echo Parakeet (Cateau Vert). All these public and private institutions have awareness programmes to sensitize people to the importance of forest lands. Moreover, these places provide recreational opportunities to local people and tourists. According to a recent survey by Afrobarometer in African countries, Mauritius has the highest number of people aware of climate change and its impact.

We have come a long way since the time of Pierre Poivre. Our local environment has gone through many ups and downs, but it can be remembered with pride that Ile de France/Mauritius was among the first colonies in the world, if not the first, to have expressed concern for deforestation and its impact on water resources and climate change [2]. Every country today, big or small, continents or islands have to engage in this grand challenge. The impact of global warming hangs over the world like the Sword of Damocles.


1.Ly-Thio-Fane, M. 1970 Mauritius and the spice trade. The odyssey of Pierre Poivre
2. Grove, R.H., Green Imperialism Colonial Expansion Tropical Islands Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism 1600-1860

* Published in print edition on 11 October 2019

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