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«Trumping the Ethnic Card: How Tourism Entrepreneurs on Rodrigues tackled the 2008 Financial Crisis Carsten Wergin Social Policy Research Centre The ...»

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The group had invited the public via local newspaper to join them at the Senior Citizen Centre of Mt. Lubin, a village in the heart of Rodrigues. This was where I met their main spokesperson for the first time, Aurele André, a charismatic, politically involved Rodriguan, who had already begun to use local and national media, newspaper, radio, and the Internet to draw attention to the economic situation on the island. On that day, he was forced to leave early because of other commitments as president of the Rodrigues Rotary Club. André was also the director of the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve, which had opened in 2007 to reintroduce around 3,000 turtles to the island, and also to re-grow parts of its endemic forest on the reserve’s 18-hectare estate. As such, he was a particularly influential figure on the small island, where important decisions for its political, economical and societal development lie in the hands of only a few people.

There were about 20 persons at the meeting in Mt. Lubin, mainly entrepreneurs in the tourism sector and trade union representatives who discussed how to take their interests further. The most important decision that day was to organize a demonstration in the capital of Rodrigues, Port Mathurin, within the next couple of weeks to draw more attention to their problems. The other spokesperson of the group who I met that day was Maxy André. He was the president of the Association des Gites et Table d'Hôte. I visited him a few days later in his house for a personal interview. During our conversation, he received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s office and was told that Ramgoolam was to declare the upcoming demonstration a “non-event”. From his point of view, their appeal should not be directed towards the Mauritian government but their Regional Assembly, and in particular its then Chief Commissioner (CC) Johnson Roussety.

The demonstration finally took place on 13 June and was a great success. Numerous people told me that it saw the largest crowd ever mobilized on the island. The first issue of the Mauritian magazine Week-End after the demonstrations on Rodrigues showed on its title page a large photo of the demonstrators carrying a banner that read, Maurice: To Bizin Konsider

123C. Wergin

Rodrigues (“Mauritius, you have to care for Rodrigues”), and the headline, Rodrigues: Le Cri Du Cœur (“Rodrigues, the cry from the heart”). Of course, the organizers of ATR were satisfied. They met afterwards in the restaurant Chez Ram, whose owner invited everybody for dinner and drinks. This time, it was a smaller group that participated, made up of the same people that a few weeks later would travel to Mauritius for negotiations. During dinner, some were called on their mobile phones by different radio stations to give interviews. Sitting together allowed them to coordinate their responses, which also gave a more sophisticated and unified appearance to ATR.

On 22 June, ATR met with the CC. He made it explicit that the crisis on Rodrigues was connected to their conflict-ridden relationship with Mauritius. Roussety’s argument was that the financial constraints that were put on the Rodriguan budget prior to its application made it impossible to ask for additional funds, even in a time of crisis. He pointed out that the problem was more fundamental than the price of airfares; but rather that the Mauritian government did not respect the autonomy of Rodrigues. Nevertheless, the fact that a ticket to Mumbai, Chennai, or Bangalore in India was at 15,000 MUR (US$600), and a ticket to nearby Rodrigues cost 8,000 MUR (US$320), was simply not justifiable. Meanwhile, Serge Clair, the then opposition leader, had decided to meet with Prime Minister Ramgoolam in Mauritius.

This meeting was expected to have some positive impact; but it might also have given the Mauritian Prime Minister an opportunity to play Clair and Roussety against each other. When both fight over Rodrigues, Ramgoolam may have seen himself in a ‘divide and rule’ situation.

What seemed a business lobby in support of the local tourism industry, whose members were significant personalities within the social elite on Rodrigues, had by now turned into a broad political movement. ATR was partly made up of entrepreneurs who had supported Roussety and his promise of political change in the 2006 regional elections, after 25 years of OPR leadership. This support was now slowly fading. Similar changes were visible in regard to supporters of the OPR. Roussety’s then party, the Mouvement Rodriguais (MR), interpreted the critical position that the OPR took towards what the Société Civil in the form of ATR could achieve as opposition to the movement. Even Rommel Farla, the union representative within ATR who was traditionally with the OPR, admitted that Clair’s reputation had suffered from his apparent disinterest in their efforts.

Clair’s plan was to wait until the CC had put himself into a dead-end situation, without further room to negotiate with the Mauritian authorities. Roussety had taken Mauritian authorities to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the autonomy status was breached because of the rejection to pay 10,000,000 MUR (US$315,000) in compensation for Rodriguan fishers that were forced into early retirement. While the Mauritian Minister of Finance had urged the CC to withdraw his appeal, a decision on it was yet pending. This supported Clair’s argument that only the OPR was able to govern Rodrigues effectively, based on a professional relationship with Mauritius.

However, things were to turn out differently. In their meeting after the demonstrations in the restaurant Chez Ram, ATR decided to use the now national attention given to Rodrigues and their cause to increase pressure on local authorities. Letters for all members of the RRA had already been drafted with the demand for a special meeting. It was on 22 June that the group

124 Trumping the Ethnic Card in Rodrigues

met again, just before their meeting with the CC, this time in the hotel Le Flamboyant. The RRA had decided to approach the Mauritian authorities one more time. The CC would send his Departmental Head, Pritam S. Mattan, who was also responsible for tourism affairs, to Mauritius. The ATR decided to field its own delegation to accompany him.

Off to Mauritius

I boarded the plane to Mauritius together with the ATR delegation on 5 July. It was the ATR 72 to which the group makes reference in its name, the only domestic plane that flew on the trajectory between Mauritius and Rodrigues, operated exclusively by Air Mauritius. A press conference was scheduled for Monday before the negotiation with government representative Ali Michael Mansoor, Financial Secretary to Prime Minister Ramgoolam. He was responsible for stopping the transaction of 10,000,000 MUR to Rodrigues to support the fishers’ early retirement. He had already worked for the World Bank and, according to the expectations of the ATR members, he would be difficult to deal with.

The ATR delegation included Rommel Farla, who in his ordinary life drove a caterpillar and was the spokesperson for the Workers’ Union on Rodrigues. Other members of the group were Marie Louise Augustin Roussety, president of the Organisation Femmes Entrepreneurs, James Begué, president of the Rodrigues Council of Social Services, McGill Meunier, a tourism entrepreneur, and Jean Pierre Lim Kin, president of the Association Rodriguaise pour un Développement Touristique Intégré. He had his own business, JP Excursions, with which he organized sightseeing trips for hotel guests and as such had a direct interest in an increase in visitor numbers on Rodrigues. While for him it would not matter whether those were domestic or international tourists, this was different for another member of the group, Willy Auguste, owner of Hotel Mourouk. It was the international tourists who booked hotel rooms and less the Mauritians who came to Rodrigues to buy spicy piment paste and dried fish and octopus, and often did not stay in hotels but preferred cheaper, self-catered apartments. For Auguste, the current situation of the negotiations with the Mauritian authorities was worsened by the fact that the offer made by the government was tied to the demand that hotels owners on Rodrigues, like him, would need to agree to a 25% discount on their accommodation rates, exclusive to Mauritian visitors. This demand had already been passed on to ATR, but its members were forced to keep it confidential. In light of upcoming elections, the Mauritian government itself wished to break the news to its citizens after contracts were signed.

During our stay on Mauritius we lived in Rose Hill, a city east of the capital Port Louis, in a guesthouse called Sunshine whose apartments were mainly used by regional and domestic tourists from Rodrigues, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Two rooms in each apartment, each with a double bed, a large living and dining area, toilet and shower in separate rooms and a fully equipped kitchen for 300 MUR (about US$12) per person and night. The stay in shared budget apartments shows that the group came to Mauritius as visitors who had to pay for accommodation, transport and food, in contrast to government officials like Mattan, who lodged in a hotel paid for by the Mauritian authorities. Staying in Rose Hill, a large and poor workers’ town about 20km from the capital, and even further away from the beautiful sandy beaches and tourist resorts, emphasized the commitment of the participants to their project but

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also the difficulties they were faced with. It also hinted that, while hotel and restaurant owners on Rodrigues were in support of the ATR cause, this was obviously not the case on Mauritius.

On the first day, Farla took me on a visit to his friend, a leading Syndicaliste who “had taught him everything”; how important it was to fight for one’s rights and to create a forum through the work of unions. We spoke about his family who in his eyes was “really mixed”. His father was French, his mother Malagasy. She always forbade him to play with whites because she would fear that they would seduce him to go to Europe, only to later kill him there. Twice, he had the chance to leave Rodrigues. One time, a French woman wanted to marry him. The other time, two French policemen saw him climb a steep ravine and wanted him to join the French mountaineers. But both times his mother said no.

Farla was the only member of the group who talked about the particularities of Rodrigues with me. One example was a story related to the fruits he would eat as a child when his family had nothing else. In the 1960s there were still many fruit trees and also much rice cultivation on Rodrigues so that no one actually had to suffer from hunger. But according to him, the English cut down those trees to make Rodriguans dependent on imports. On a similar note, he explained that the concept of buying something was not well established at the time within the local population. This allowed for Mauritians to take advantage of exchanges like rice against fish, or money against precious land. However, today Rodriguans were, in his opinion, better equipped, intellectually and politically, as shown by the intervention of their Société Civil in the guise of ATR.

Later that day, we met with Maxy André and Willy Auguste and spoke about the arrogance of the Rodriguan CC Johnson Roussety. With regards to the 10,000,000 MUR allocated to the fishers, he was to have said that this would make the Mauritian Prime Minister “drop his pants”. It was such rumours that had made it difficult for Maxy and Willy to further support his government. They wanted to end the legacy of Serge Clair when they voted for Roussety. Still they expected more of him. But instead of change, there was talk about corruption, and that the CC had lost his temper too many times and ruined the relations with the Mauritian authorities, including Xavier Duval, Minister for Tourism at the time, who was known to like Rodrigues and its people, and to have a special interest in helping them.

According to Auguste, Duval would be happy to work more closely with tourism entrepreneurs from the island. When Ramgoolam was quoted that he does not want mass tourism on Rodrigues, this was apparently a statement made by Duval who knew about a possible sell-out of the island – of its most beautiful beaches and hotel spots to the highest bidder – under the Roussety government. Now the Mauritian government found itself in a similar position to these members of ATR. By supporting Roussety and his party, they wanted to oppose Clair who often blocked their promotion initiatives. But what they realized now was that Roussety was no better, in particular when for tourism promotion initiatives he sent his health secretary to South Africa to live in an expensive hotel; while Auguste, the tourism entrepreneur, joined him with one fourth of the budget available to him.

This was the political and social backdrop to the negotiations that would take place on Mauritius the following day.

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Negotiations: Trumping the Ethnic Card Ali Michael Mansoor was Financial Secretary to Prime Minister Ramgoolam. According to Farla’s friend, the Syndicaliste, he was the one with the real power in the country, with a monthly salary higher than that of Ramgoolam himself. He was a neoliberal businessman, and a key influence on the upcoming negotiations in which ATR was represented only by one of its members, Aurele André. He accompanied Mattan, the Departmental Head of Roussety, responsible for land rights and tourism development. According to André, the latter would have accepted the initial offer of 6,000 tickets, reduced by 30% from the standard fare, combined with a 30% reduction on Rodriguan hotel fares exclusive to Mauritians. But André refused. The fight for cheaper airfares had turned into a fight for Rodriguan Creole equality.

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