The Conspiracy of Silence around Land Dispossession

Editorial

A Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) was set up in April 2008 with the task of uncovering the realities about slavery and indentured labour in Mauritius during colonial days. Its report was submitted to the President of the Republic at the end of November 2011. To a question fielded by the then opposition in December 2011 on the actions that Government was proposing to take in light of the Commission’s recommendations, the reply was that, given that the report was voluminous, it would be desirable to examine its contents first and then take the actions that would be deemed necessary.

One could not expect the then government and those that have succeeded it to implement all of the recommendations contained in the report, but that they would at least proceed with those which were thought implementable at the earliest. Nothing much has happened since, except for the setting up of an inter-ministerial committee presided by Hon Xavier Duval with a mandate of looking into the implementation of the TJC’s recommendations.

One would recall that besides the sufferings and handicaps the former slaves and indentured labourers and their descendants had to endure down the years, as highlighted by the Commission, the latter also found out how unscrupulous notaries, land surveyors and other middle men wrenched away the possessions of those who could not defend themselves against the legal and commercial armada. The Commission did not recommend monetary compensation against all the abuses made by the powerful of those days in view of an identification problem as to who really are the descendants of slaves today.

There is also the impracticality of establishing the guilt of those who are sitting on huge fortunes inherited through questionable practices of those days — a problem compounded by the change of ‘ownership’ of those lands through legal means down the years. However it is suspected that a lot of land was seized unlawfully or “prescribed” against the helplessness of those claiming their ancestors were the true owners.

One may conveniently seek refuge in a legalistic approach and contend that the issue of land dispossession and redress is complex. But that would be tantamount to governments failing to live up to their constitutional and moral obligations to promote the norms of justice, fairness, and equity – and that would push the victims of land dispossession to resort to hunger strikes in order to get the government to act, as done some time back by Clency Harmon.

It’s not known where matters stand as regards the action of Mr Harmon, but the question of land dispossession has again come up in the context of legal action taken against Alteo Agri Ltd by the Kisnorbo family who allege that they have been dispossessed of 200 arpents of land situated at Olivia, in the district of Flacq, which belonged to their ancestor, Nicholas Mayeur. This case had been highlighted by the Truth and Justice Commission’s report as follows: “This fraudulous acquisition is transcribed in the ‘Bureau des Hypothèques twenty six years after as evidenced by N53/193, allowing enough time to plead prescription.” Justice Ratna Seetohul-Toolsee has ruled in favour of the Kisnorbo family to initiate legal action in this matter of “revendication” against the contention of Alteo Agri Ltd that it was time barred, as prescribed by the law for such action to be entered within a period of 30 years.

Another case ventilated by the Fabrique de Saint-Julien relates to the alleged dispossession of 25 arpents belonging to the Fabrique, and which today have come under the ownership of Alteo Milling Ltd. Besides representations made to the milling company, the matter has also been referred by the parishioners of Saint-Julien to the Catholic Diocese, which would reportedly privilege dialogue. This will hopefully produce a satisfactory denouement for both parties.

Land grabs by settlers and colons aided and abetted by administrative authorities during the heydays of colonial empires are self-evident on all continents. Red Indians in North America, aboriginals and Maoris down under, were dispossessed and parked in reserves while closer to us the Boers and Anglos pushed the native tribes of Southern Africa further north as millions of acres of fertile or reserve-rich lands feathered the nests of imperial grabbers. There was no easy answer with the end of colonial administrations as the cases of Zimbabwe or Madagascar illustrate.

We adopted the Mandela route of a TJC but have to make sure there is neither a conspiracy of silence, nor an impenetrable veil behind which are hiding those who pull the strings and direct governments to give in to their agenda. Protecting illicit land grabs under colonial administration, however complex the judicial issues, can hardly be in the national interest of independent nations or the general welfare of those people emerging from centuries of battering. Who are those who stand to gain from obfuscation of truth and do they wield such influence over the representatives of the people?


* Published in print edition on 27 August 2021

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