For the last two weeks Mauritians have been expressing their different views on Les Salines, with around 7000 petitioning through Facebook against its destruction.
Les Salines saltpans consist of a vast area that appears black and white, which are actually small square partitions forming the saltpans and the salt crystals in them. Mauritius has a rich salt making tradition dating back to the early 19th century. Salt fields were found in different places in Black River, but the Les Salines is one of the biggest which is still functional. The site continues to be used for the same purpose for more than 200 years now.
The first saltpan was built at Les Salines around 1808 by François Fortier, in a geological depression below sea level. This facilitated the movement of water into the pan during high tide. After the success of this pan, additional pans were built and the business grew until about 1829 when the competition from Europe led to a fall in production. In 1842, Auguste Boileau managed to re-ignite interest in the local salt market by persuading a gathering that his salt was superior to that from Europe. Robert Koenig purchased Les Salines in 1907. He was the first to experiment with a system of terraces and valves. Later Koenig installed the first pump to assist the movement of water into and over the pans.
Salt, i.e. sodium chloride, is a mineral that naturally occurs in the sea and underground deposits which are the two main sources of salt. It is an ionic chemical compound with the formula chemical formula NaCl. It is harvested directly either from sea water or from rock salt deposits formed by the evaporated earlier seas that left a layer of rock salt, known as halite. There are three types of salt extraction: solar evaporation, rock salt mining and solution mining. Each one involves a specific technology and manufacturers select the most appropriate technique depending upon the particular topographic and socio-economic conditions in their area of operation.
In Mauritius we use the solar evaporation technique, which is the earliest method used to produce salt in the world. According to this process, seawater evaporates up to the saturation point in open basins, thanks to the action of the sun and wind, leading to crystallisation. Once the salt crust is formed, the excess water is eliminated before harvest.
Les Salines is the tangible witness of this specific salt production technology which marks human history in general. Salt appears as such a banal thing, especially when we just get it in supermarket without knowing the whole work, system and input behind it. But imagine our food without salt. Mauritius is fortunate to have these saltpans which are still being used, despite our salt in supermarket with label “Product from China”. We have been preserving our own tradition of salt production, not letting the giant markets swallowing us for years. Then why are we destroying it now?
“How do we get salt?” Do we want our kids to reply: “By giving money in a supermarket” or do we want our kids to reply “Sea water is evaporated in places like Les Salines to finally form crystals of salt”.
But I do admit that it is an irony that though Mauritius is surrounded by the sea, with a rich tradition of salt production yet the salt found in our supermarkets mostly comes from abroad. Why do we not promote local production? It is true that a few saltpans at Les Salines cannot produce for the whole population but there is scope for new technology to accompany the traditional methods, thus catering for the population needs locally while also retaining the heritage.
With salt production for more than 200 years marking Mauritian history, the saltpans are one of the unique characteristics of Les Salines. It is a landmark in the Black River landscape and in Mauritius in general. There are ways to preserve our heritage while making them sustainable and profitable.
* Published in print edition on 8 May 2015