By TD Fuego
To anyone who wishes to see, it is abundantly clear by now that the only people to benefit from IRS are the big landowners, when the entire population could, and should, have done so. For, land, like air and water, is a common good and is needed by all of us for survival
Mauritius grows sugar cane and prejudices, said Malcolm de Chazal. If he were alive today, he would no doubt have noticed that Mauritius still grows sugar cane and prejudices, but has added coast-to-coast concrete to its agricultural programme.
According to the FAO Price Index, food prices have more than doubled in the last 5 years and the trend is still upwards. We can infer from this that the days of cheap and plentiful food may well be over and, in future, the consumer can only look forward to rising prices and shortages, and even the complete disappearance of certain types of food.
There are several reasons for this. The crazy, indecent idea of using foodstuff to produce biofuels and the vagaries of climate, like droughts and floods on which we have no control whatsoever, are some. But, at the heart of the problem is the fact that, with a world population teetering on 7bn, there are simply too many mouths to feed. Any growth in population numbers results in an inescapable change in land use. More people means more land space is required for living quarters and, paradoxically, less land area for cultivation to feed the additional mouths.
But, prices are only one consideration, because that implies availability though at some cost. Perhaps, more important are the sporadic shortages of certain vital items, and therefore their inaccessibility to the small purse, that may become a permanent feature of the market in future. And, except for the rich and privileged few, we in Mauritius are small purse. Ultimately, as population impinges on farming land, some foodstuff may disappear altogether because they can only be cultivated in a specific area.
Against this background, it is salutary to note that we in Mauritius import 75 percent of what we consume and the remaining 25 percent contain a high degree of imported ingredients, from fertilizers to raw material. So, to us, the question of food security is very relevant. As of late, we have heard some hyperbolic talk about (hold your breath!) self-sufficiency in food. But, as usual, whilst gargling with these words to please the gallery, our policy makers have tended to do the complete opposite.
Growing concrete, not food
Besides the umpteenth hotel to house the 2m tourists the government aims to bring to our shores, we have ambitions to build 4k IRS villas, mostly on converted agricultural land. Bearing in mind that each villa occupies a minimum of 1.25 arpents, my schoolboy arithmetic tells me that is an equivalent of 5k arpents. Five thousand arpents of good, arable land lost forever under concrete! And that does not take into account the hundreds of acres needed for the adjoining golf courses and clubhouses and access roads. Remember also that the hotel/IRS occupants have to be fed — mostly with imported food.
On the other hand, just imagine how much food could be grown on those thousands of acres. By leasing just two arpents to the 7k “poor” families identified by the MoF, we could alleviate their poverty and boost our food production at the same time. A win-win situation, comme dirait l’autre.
It would not be so bad if those IRS villas had brought any lasting benefits to the country. From a simply financial perspective, the IRS project brings about Rs 15-20m per unit to cover building costs, of which half goes out to pay for the import of building materials. The remaining Rs 80m+ is probably kept offshore in the private accounts of the promoters, but the authorities insist in calling it FDI when in fact it is no more than pseudo-FDI, or should I say shadow-FDI. To anyone who wishes to see, it is abundantly clear by now that the only people to benefit from IRS are the big landowners, when the entire population could, and should, have done so. For, land, like air and water, is a common good and is needed by all of us for survival.
In the initial phase, IRS does create well-paid jobs, particularly in the building sector but, perversely, inflates the cost for labour in that sector for the local population. Then, after the building work is complete, the only jobs available to local people are the menial ones, like cleaners and gardeners, which pay a pittance. I personally know of one young lady who works in an IRS as a nénène for Rs 4k a month. Imagine charging a English Premier League footballer or an international film star, earning millions of Euros, a mere 100 Euros for a 25-day working month. They probably pay more than that in tips after a single meal to the waiter in a restaurant in the Champs Elysees!
Redistribution of wealth
The IRS could have been used not only to redistribute the wealth of the country, but also to elevate the pay and living standard of the working people of this country. As I have pointed out before (vide MT 27-Apr-07), we have been selling the crown jewels at knockdown prices. Villas that sell for MUR 100m here are sold at 3+ times the price in the British Virgin Islands. In other words, they could have been sold for much more and the extra billions earnt could have gone towards better infrastructure and enhanced social provisions. By just doubling the price of each villa, the IRS would have generated an additional Rs 400bn. That is an equivalent of 1.25+ of our annual GDP!
Also, by setting a reasonable wage for all those employed in the IRS, we would have ensured a better living standard for them. As other workers would have started to migrate towards these jobs, employers across the board would have had to increase their pay and condition in order to retain them. Thus, all workers would be earning better money. No more razing to the ground of perfectly good hotels and rebuilding at a cost of billions, on cheap public land, whilst throwing peanuts at the people who create those billions — that is the workers of the industry. And, everybody feigns shock, horror and surprise when a member of staff is caught stealing on the premises. Oh, dear! Reward him well and he would think twice for fear of losing his job and security.
But, if the IRS is a big consumer of land, there is another activity that eats into our stock of arable land. Everywhere you drive on the island, you will come across morcellements by the bucket load, often in the middle of nowhere. It is further estimated that there are at least 5k arpents of good, arable land lying fallow waiting for a morcellement permit. Because, whilst the price of agricultural land has gone up significantly, it is nowhere near the price that residential land can fetch. So, unsurprisingly, people abandon their agricultural activities and apply for residential permit. And, these seem to be granted without any thought about real need, suitability, infrastructure cost or impacts on agricultural production. And, we talk about self-sufficiency in food!
Anyone with a modicum of common sense knows that, being a small island, it is never going to be possible for us to be self-sufficient in food, in spite of what the politicians may want us to believe. But, we can try to produce as much of it as possible. As the PM pointed out in his speech on Independence day, it is incredible that we continue to import fruits and vegetables even though we are largely an agricultural society. As well as industrial farming, we could encourage the population to get back to working the kitchen garden of yore.
We should also negotiate with as many sources as possible for the supply of our staples. Like the gigantic floods in Pakistan and Australia have demonstrated, it would be foolish to try to get all our eggs from the same basket. One natural catastrophe and the whole notion of our food security is thrown asunder.
But when all is said and done, it would be nice to see green fields full of foodcrops instead of concrete jungles sprouting all over the island! As it is, good old Malcolm is feeling restless in his grave.
* Published in print edition on 8 April 2011