Land for Liberation

By S.J. Reddi

While education is the most crucial factor for our liberation, land and sea resources also matter 

 “What should the citizens of the country ask for now? The answer is simple: more land for food security, more land for housing and more land for the well-being of the population. The new generation is looking for a better life and the right to access to it. Political parties and governments have been acutely aware of the tyranny of land ownership. In 1976 the MMM campaigned for the nationalization of 20,000 acres of land but when it had the chance to do something towards that objective in the Illovo deal, it did exactly the opposite. The 2000 acres of land allegedly obtained by the present government is still being awaited…”

As the plane circles round and round waiting for the signal from the control tower to land, any visitor would have marvelled at the vast acreage of greenery interspersed with villages and towns squeezed between plains and slopes. This is Mauritius, Paradise Island for some and for tourists and for many who dream for a holiday here. However, few would realize that in the villages and towns below has been played a tragedy of thousands of men and women who have had nothing else to give but their toil, sweat and blood.

The tragedy which is played over and over again in many families resulted from the tyranny of land ownership which has held hostage generations and generations of men and women to the present day. In the past, land grants were given to early settlers in lots of 156 arpents and the largest single area recorded at any one time was 4056 arpents. In 1804 the total area conceded was 313,000 arpents, or 72 per cent of the island’s area, which could be turned to productive use only by enslaving men and women and children who were brought on this soil to toil and die. By 1810 King Sugar began to rule and 40,000 arpents were under cane cultivation. In the 1850s, with Indian immigrants, cane cultivation had been extended to 110,000 arpents. By that time there were more than 180 satanic mills polluting streams and belching smoke causing mass mortality of fish in our lagoons during harvest time. As cane cultivation extended its grip on the economy, it devoured more and more men and women and more and more land.

In the 1830s, the white and the coloured owned owned 945 and 426 estates respectively, although admittedly the coloured held much smaller estates. But it was not long before the coloured would lose their land. The discriminatory policy of the banks at the time denied the coloured the credit facilities to import indentured labour: land without labour was of little use. Many sold their land or incorporated their lands in the neighbouring estates in the hope they could eke out a living for their families and descendants. Many must have completely lost their land as they left no direct heir and it was relatively easy for the notaries to transfer the land to the white proprietors through a fabricated private contract.

It must be noted that it was not until Ordinance 25 of 1888 that the Colonial government sought “to increase the number of notaries for Port-Louis by three avowedly to open the ‘notariat’ to all classes of the population, principally the coloured”. It was too late. They had already lost most of their land. They turned themselves into market gardeners for some time and eventually migrated to towns to become petty clerks or run small businesses. With emancipation, some slaves too managed to buy some land and became small land owners, but any hope that their number would increase were dashed to the wall as the owners of the sugar industry not only gave formal instruction not to sell any land to ex-slaves but successfully managed to lobby the Colonial government to prevent it from granting access to land to ex-slaves in order to create a small peasantry. There is no need to go in depth in the various methods employed to deprive the lower and middle classes of their land: these ranged from simple incorporation to unequal exchange like in the case at Bois Cheri where three acres of a small owner’s land was exchanged for one and a half acre.

The barriers put in the way of the lower classes concerning land acquisition and the high concentration of land in the hands of the few white settlers would enclose the lower classes — both black and coloured, and later Indian labourers, in small villages or forced them to occupy Crown Land on the outer fringes of towns and villages when there was no place to go. Indian labourers who had been slotted in the slave camps utilized small plots of land to supplement their inadequate wages. Faced with the same situation as the ex-slaves had met with earlier, those who left the estate camps after the expiry of their contracts settled in existing villages or towns.

It is true that in the 1860s and 1880s the shedding of marginal lands made available small plots of land to Indian labourers at very high prices in a triple strategy of recapitalizing the industry during periods of credit squeeze, to bind labourers to the estates for one or two generations and to increase the profitability of estates. The parcelling of land was intended to be millstones round the necks of labourers. It reached its peak in 1915 and the number of small planters reached 13,685 while share croppers reached approximately 2926. Small cultivators cultivated 36,690 arpents or 25 per cent of land under cultivation. In addition, about 4000 grew crops other than cane. By a wheel of fortune, the high prices of sugar during the First World War turned ownership of the small plot of land into a windfall for Indian immigrants. It was the land obtained prior to 1915 which helped their descendants to own a piece of land and build a small house. Except for a small minority of professionals who had managed to buy a lot of land of their own, most of the descendants of Indian labourers today owe their plot of land on which they had built their houses to the early proprietors at the beginning of the century.

If a considerable number of Indian labourers were lucky to obtain one to two acres of land where sugar estates had closed down especially in the north and in the east, it was not so for the majority of Indian labourers. For example, those living in the sugar estates near the new urban areas had to content themselves with only 50 toises of land. Meanwhile the population increased and housing became a major problem as there was no increased access to land. In 1931, Curepipe with only 3.5 square miles housed 1942; Rose Hill with 4 square miles had a population of 20,418; Vacoas-Phoenix with only 2 square miles had a population of 7818, and Port Louis had a population of 47657. In 1990 our urban areas had to accommodate 419,469.

As the population increased over the years, these areas like all the other villages and towns sprawled into makeshift tenements — the nuclei of many our deprived areas to-day. With no more land available, people pushed their buildings upwards and eliminated the waste space that had served as alleys or playing grounds for children. Areas like Camp Levieux, Plaisance, Goodlands and all our remaining villages became overcrowded like our towns; housing estates also became overcrowded and turned into slums with tiny alleys and roads responsible not only for traffic congestion but the social malaise of overcrowdedness. The squalor and lack of amenities have resulted into a stressful population. No wonder many dissolved in alcohol the least soluble of their problems. It brought no cure but it dulled their misery. There were drastic consequences to living under these conditions. Many deviated out of compulsion into crime and violence.

If many of our social problems are the result of urbanization, failure to obtain access to land by government from the sugar industry was a major cause. It is not true to say that the Colonial government remained indifferent to the situation. There is a limit to what a government could do when it is confronted by the powerful sugar lobby. Decades before, the Colonial government had realized that high concentration of land had baleful effects on the economy and society and sought to increase the amenities to the population while safeguarding the environment. Between 1880 and 1900, 29,000 arpents of private land were annexed to the Crown for forestation after being bought from private individuals.

Governor Bell started a housing scheme which became known as Bell Village. In the 1930s, during the great depression, with the increase in unemployment, Crown Lands were made available for the unemployed… In 1934 the derelict lands of the old Richelieu Estate became government property and were converted into allotment areas. Other areas were opened and 190 cultivators were provided with 251 arpents of land in seven centres including Richelieu. At Richelieu, government allocated small plots of land for housing and agriculture. In the 1940s, government subdivided one or two sugar estates to increase the number of small planters. But these efforts were not sustained in later years because this would have required the sugar estates to release at least some more marginal land which they were not prepared to do

In 1945 the Alfred Report on Estate Camps did little to improve living conditions of labourers. In 1948 a Land Settlement Scheme provided for approximately 827 families. The efforts of the Colonial government were very meagre and made little impact on housing problems.

Even in 1960, faced with such a national calamity like Cyclone Carol, no sugar estate came to the rescue of the population. In the 1960, the government had to squeeze the housing estates into tiny plots of Crown Land. The legacy of these housing estates is still with us. Even when people have improved their wages and sought social mobility, they were physically unable to improve their housing conditions and their children continue to live in housing estates piling up storey upon storey both in villages and towns because land was inaccessible owing to artificial high land prices.

One other major consequence of this shortage of land for the population was failure of agricultural diversification, particularly affecting food security. The sugar sector which had already sabotaged colonial food policy during the War and in the years which followed, further opposed any agricultural diversification. Even after Gorvin had surveyed all the country’s natural resources and recommended agricultural diversification, the resistance of the sugar lobby in 1945 put hold on such a policy. In the 1940s, the argument that food production would damage the soil and cause soil erosion was advanced to oppose agricultural diversification for food crops. The same argument was used recently to defend sugar cane cultivation but not to oppose IRS schemes.

Since the 1940s agricultural diversification had remained in the realm of rhetoric. Even in 1930 the Colonial Office remarked that little could be expected from the Department of Agriculture for small cane farmers, and we can add even less so for agricultural diversification. While the sugar sector and its allies concentrated on cash crops, the responsibility for food production fell on the shoulders of small farmers. In the 1940s, it was reckoned that 30,000 arpents of fodder or grazing were required to support a cow population of 25,000, but no plan could be put into operation without more land.

Since Independence a real start has been made towards diversifying our food production but we are far from attaining our objectives. Today the only interest that sugar estates are showing in agricultural diversification is to supply the hotels and dumping the rest of their produce in the local supermarkets.

The high concentration of land has been further intensified with the Illovo deal. The deal which has put land back into the hands of the big land owners while allocating most of the marginal land to government has simply reinforced small property owners for land speculation with some of the land sold at more than Rs 4 million per acre for land which before conversion was sold at Rs 230,000 per acre. If it is true that that the big proprietors had secured a deal out of nothing apart from the hotels and residential houses without mentioning the thousands of shares which went into the pockets of the few, the lower and working classes continue to desperately look for a small plot of land. Even after paying such huge amounts for small plots of land, the rest of the population have inadequate land for their well-being. Only a few are able to go into debt for a lifetime to buy a plot of land and leave the next generation to pay for the house. The majority continue to get choked into what are virtually village and town slums.

What should the citizens of the country ask for now? The answer is simple: more land for food security, more land for housing and more land for the well-being of the population. The new generation is looking for a better life and the right to access to it. Political parties and governments have been acutely aware of the tyranny of land ownership. In 1976 the MMM campaigned for the nationalization of 20,000 acres of land but when it had the chance to do something towards that objective in the Illovo deal, it did exactly the opposite. The 2000 acres of land allegedly obtained by the present government is still being awaited.

Meanwhile the housing conditions are transforming the family into a site of crime; intensified farming has resulted in increasing the doses of pesticide in our vegetables. Shortage of land has intensified our transport problems and our children lack sports fields and parks to make life tolerable. It is even more painful for those at the bottom of the heap for they are living in places which are rotting physically while coming apart socially.

Raj Virahsawmy conceptualized the movement of labourers from camps to villages as a form of liberation. We need a second liberation. Our villages, towns and housing estates have to break out from the prison which the tyranny land ownership has kept us in for generations. In the next 20 years we will need another 3240 hectares for housing and many more thousands of hectares for food production. Before these two items are placed high on the agenda of any party programme for the next elections, it is also important to remind the population that while education is the most crucial factor for our liberation, land and sea resources also matter.

* Published in print edition on 6 August 2010

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