The Cry For Land

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

In the speech from the throne delivered on the l4th April His Excellency the Governor laid emphasis on the most efficient use of land and said that his ministers’ primary objectives would be “to initiate projects which will increase the productivity of the land so that it can support a larger population.” Commenting the speech on last Tuesday’s sitting of the Legislative Council, almost all the speakers – either from government or from opposition bench – stressed on the scarcity of land and made a stirring appeal for land.

Mauritius is a predominantly agricultural country. To produce foodstuffs, we need land in abundance. It will give employment to the thousands of unemployed. But the inevitable question which haunts us is where to get land.

The biggest landlords of this island are the Crown and the estates. By virtue of its being the ruler of the island, the Crown holds the right of ownership of catchment areas, mountain reserves, Crown lands, pas géométriques, etc. During the French occupation, the forefathers of several estate owners were allotted vast stretches of lands under the system called “concession”. These “concessions” were given free. It was meant to encourage the settlers and to attract others from France.

For about a century and a half, save for a few isolated cases, land did not change hands. Even after their liberation from slavery, the coloured community did not take to agriculture. Land reminded them of the whip of their masters which forced them to work on their lands. It is only with the advent of Indian indentured labourers that ownership of land began to change. Many Indian labourers after having served their terms of contract chose to stay in the colony. They fell back on the land which had a peculiar, almost intractable attraction to them. It was then that the parcelling of land known as “morcellement” started. Marginal and unproductive lands, which the landlords found uneconomical to cultivate, were parcelled out and sold to these labourers. After the great slump of the 1920s, the “morcellement” almost automatically stopped. Thousands of small planters who boughtland after the First World War five times their real value were ruined.

The great strike of 1937, which was started by small planters and later taken up by labourers, shook the estate owners. In order to clip the wings of the small planters and labourers, the estate owners resolved not to sell lands anymore, but to buy the lands of small planters back, if possible.

During the Second World War when money began to flow in the island in a continuous stream, there was a scramble for land. The small planters and ex-service men were prepared to buy land at any price. Several small estate owners who were in grave financial difficulty and manpower could not resist the temptation; they began selling or renting their estates at approximately five times their pre-war value.

They were guided by another assumption and were haunted by the post-War slump of the 1920s. They were convinced that after the Second World War the slump of the First World War would repeat itself. But the majority of the landlords, especially the big estates, did not sell their land. In the absence of a land legislation many planters who rented lands from them on the system of “metayage” were gradually dispossessed.

The unproductive lands were rented or sold to them. The yield of the crop bears testimony to that fact. In 1957, while the estates with factories produced 30.8 tons per acre, metayers produced only 13.8 tons per acre and small planters 18.8 tons per acre. No doubt in many cases unscientific methods of plantation and insufficient use of fertilizers contributed to the poor yield.

Most of the agricultural lands of this colony are in the hands of a few hundred persons or companies. Of the 20,721 planters without factories only 35 planters own lands more than 500 acres. On the other hand, there are 6,380 planters who own less than one arpent; 5,884 own from I to 2 arpents: 3,043 own from 3 to 5 arpents. On the other hand, the 25 factories which are managed by about a dozen companies own among themselves 99,552 acres.

Since 1945 the island has practically not been visited by cyclones. Except in the North the rainfall was very good. The new variety of canes, the 132-34, is excellent. The mechanization of labour and the advanced techniques in cane plantation – all these factors contributed to make the colony double its production. To whom that unprecedented prosperity has benefited? In the first place to the big landowners. While that class is growing richer and richer, the position of the poor peasant has not changed. The rapid growth of the population — the present density is of about 815 persons per sq. mile — has accentuated the hunger for land. It had lead to the inflation of its value. Land which was sold for Rs 300 per arpent will now easily fetch Rs 5,000. The rent has increased by about eight hundred to one thousand per cent.

Has the Government helped the small planters to tide over their difficulty to procure land? We fear that the help of the State has been insignificant in that direction. In 1954, 9,086 arpents of Crown Lands and Pas Géométriques were almost all leased to well-to-do people at an average rate of Rs 17.50 per arpent, per annum. Part of these lands are sub-let by the lessees to small planters at approximately Rs 300 per acre per annum.

The hunger for land cannot be assuaged unless a radical change in land legislation and in official outlook is envisaged. We propose that:

  1. A land legislation, as it exists in the UK, be immediately introduced to protect tenants.
  2. All unused Crown Lands and Pas Géométriques already leased be appropriated and patches of lands be compulsorily acquired from estate owners under the Land Acquisition Ord. 77 of 1952 and distributed to needy persons.
  3. 3.Government should release all reserve lands which in the opinion of able experts are not necessary for waterfall or for forest produce.

6th Year – No 245
Friday 24th April, 1959

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