By Karim Jaufeerally – Institute for Environmental and Legal Studies
Published in Le Mauricien, October 2016
The recent de-proclamation of public beaches in the southern coastline for the construction of yet new hotels has, inevitably and rightly aroused much anger and opposition from the public. With 90 kms of beaches, the hotel industry is far ahead of the general public with barely 45 kms. Furthermore, we should not forget that at least 52 kms are bungalow sites from which the public is also excluded.
It is clear that the Mauritian public is the “parent pauvre” as far as access to beaches is concerned. The disparity becomes even more telling when we realise that for each 100,000 tourists there are about 8 kms of beaches, yet only 4 kms of public beaches for each 100,000 Mauritians. It is a situation that can only breed conflict, resentment and even rejection by large sections of the public of the presence of foreign tourists in spite of the economic importance of the sector.
It would be a real change if our elected politicians were to understand the social value of public beaches given they provide cheap, accessible and enjoyable rest and play for a population hard at work during the week. Public beaches are obviously important for the psychological well being of the population and therefore for its economic productivity. Alas, it seems that neither Government nor the private sectors are aware of that aspect of life. The economic importance of public beaches goes well beyond their immediate monetary value.
The unacceptable scornful and disdainful comments made by elected politicians and private sector officials on this matter aggravate the situation and clearly demonstrate that they do not appear to comprehend that this conflict, if left to its own devices, can swing public opinion against the tourism industry with a risk of negative impacts on tourism revenues.
For them, the very fact that large investments will generate revenues, profits (hopefully) and employment is sufficient to justify everything and anything. Of course, the mantra of economic development and progress is regularly chanted by all. Indeed, even concerned citizens or associations feel the need to point out that they are NOT against development, but only oppose a given project.
A change of tune is now needed for it is becoming obvious that the mantra of economic development is being used to convince the population that the country absolutely needs to hand over at cheap prices prime lands to private investors who will reap profits while the environmental and social impacts are left for the public to pay for. This smoke screen must be cleared away by the winds of reason and common sense.
There was a time when the country badly needed to create employment and beach tourism was rightly perceived as being a priority. However, the development model chosen very quickly turned Pas Géométriques lands into cash cows for individuals or companies to make quick money. We all know about the indecent and obscure manner in which those lands were and are still given away cheaply.
The result has been urban blight of coastal zones, kilometres of bungalow or hotel walls blocking off the sea view, a disgruntled public regularly chased off its favourite beach spots and ensuing conflicts. It is an unhealthy situation created ex-nihilo by politicians and promoters that is no longer acceptable. This is why it is high time to say NO to ALL new construction of hotels or bungalows on ANY Pas Géométriques land.
A Green Belt Policy
A new model is required whereby the Pas Geometriques lands (81 metres inland from the high water mark) are kept free of buildings and transformed into a green belt planted with appropriate trees, shrubs and grasses turning these lands into a coastal garden declared public and accessible to all, locals and foreign tourists alike. The only constructions allowed would be toilets, barbecue spots, coast guard posts, boat houses, jetties and so on. Roads, Hotels, bungalows, restaurants, shops and cafes would be built beyond this green belt with direct and unrestricted access to the sea frontage. We call the above proposal The Green Belt Policy.
The advantages would be significant for the country. First of all, a considerable decrease in conflicts over beach access as tourists and locals would have equal and unrestricted access to the sea. There is no reason for this co-habitation to be problematic for many tourists already share existing public beaches with Mauritians with few reported cases of conflict. The presence of Coast Guards and regular maintenance by the Beach Authority would be both necessary and sufficient to permit peaceful co-habitation. By and large Mauritians are very welcoming to foreigners as is regularly emphasised in publicity campaigns for tourism promotion across the world therefore any objections to the above beach cohabitation by Government or the tourism sector would be disingenuous and contradictory.
Secondly, by a judicious use of land, large stretches of beach frontage can be transformed into resorts where small to large economic operators from beach hawkers, restaurant and shop owners to hotel promoters can make a decent living on tourism activities. With many operators having a stake in the matter, it might just be possible to promote policies and enforce regulations that limit the environmental impacts of tourism. For instance, it might be possible to enforce strict composting or recycling of wastes by all, ensure that where appropriate buildings would have solar panels for heat and electricity generation and water collection systems, in effect promote green building. Transportation can be made greener by having cycling lanes and proper pedestrian’s walkways, renting bicycles or electric motor cycles for short journeys.
Thirdly, an appropriately vegetated green belt increases the aesthetic value of the beach, limits beach erosion, provides shade, increases biodiversity and acts as a wind break. But also and very importantly acts as a buffer in case of cyclones and storm surges. With climate change now virtually unstoppable, it is the duty of Government to take all reasonable steps to minimise the impacts of extreme weather conditions on life and property. A green belt all round the island will do just that. Indeed, it can be argued that ANY further construction on the Pas Geometriques is environmentally unsound, economically restrictive and socially damaging.
We note that although in most coastal zones of Mauritius, the existing Pas Geometriques have been largely developed and hence the above urban model can no longer be implemented, the southern coast from Pomponette to St Felix is the last stretch where it is quite possible to implement a Green Belt Policy. We therefore believe that it is now the duty of Government before the People of Mauritius to implement a Green Belt Policy. Alas, politics being what they are, Government and politicians will not be interested in such a policy until and unless people send them a clear message and that message can only be: NO TO ANY DEVELOPMENT ON THE PAS GEOMETRIQUES AND YES TO A GREEN BELT POLICY.
We also believe that a Green Belt Policy might just be possible in Les Salines area which is largely undeveloped and where up to 5 hotels are planned. A master plan has been prepared, but as is the case in Mauritius, it has not been made public, as far as we know. The lands beyond the Pas Geometriques are private and apparently subject to inheritance litigation. In the name of public interest, Government could make compulsory acquisitions (with adequate compensations) and rework its master plan to accommodate the Green Belt Policy.
Many people, probably with obscure financial interests, will surely object to our proposals. However, if done in a clear and transparent fashion with adequate public consultations, it might just be possible to set up a Green Belt Policy for the good of all.
Institute for Environmental and Legal Studies