DR PARENIVEL PILLAY MAUREE
ARCHITECT AND TOWN PLANNER

With the present pandemic and the climate change hanging over our heads, are we using our land wisely, in a sustainable manner? Are we using our land according to its suitability and capability? Can we continue to build on our agricultural land to be sold to foreigners? Can we afford to lose our precious eco-systems?

After sugar and textile which are now facing difficulties, Government has lately started turning to the exporting of real-estates as part of our tourism strategy. The Integrated Resort Scheme (IRS), initiated by the Labour Government and re-packaged by later governments into the Real Estate Scheme (RES) and Property Development Scheme (PDS) format, is now being enhanced to attract foreign capitals. These involve converting large areas of private agricultural land which are considered less productive to residential and industrial use, and the construction of luxurious villas to be sold to foreign businessmen. One serious drawback now visible in the selling of land to non-Mauritians is the increase in the price of surrounding land, thereby fueling inflation and causing the erosion of the purchasing power of Mauritian nationals. Other socio-cultural impacts such as the increase in poverty and the squatting of public lands are also evident. To protect the environment, it is to be noted that the Mauritius Multi-Annual Adaptation Strategy 2006-2015 for sugar cane diversification has prescribed the following:

« Projects on conversion of sugar cane lands to IRS, residential zones and golf courses in the coastal areas should be allowed to proceed after completion of environmental assessment undertaken for the entire plan and involving in-depth site specific investigations of the quality of the receiving water bodies and analyze cumulative impacts of the proposed land-use options. »

There is no evidence that cumulative impacts have been assessed. Yet a number of IRS, RES and PDS are presently under construction. It is interesting to note that the New Zealand Prime Minister has recently turned down an offer from the private sector to embark into this kind of development.

Covid-19 and Climate Change considerations

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, climate change and environmental protection were of prime concern to the government. The Ministry of Environment started reviewing our existing laws so as to integrate the environmental issues deeply into our development assessment processes. Government understood that to drive a sustainable development, it was imperative to boost the economy and at the same time enhance the social and protect the environment, and to consider the three pillars of development in a fair and equitable manner.

However, with the advance of the COVID-19, there has been a change in direction. During these past weeks, government has started devising strategies mostly based on economic principles and to a lesser extent on social and environmental ones to rebuild our society. The increased debt vulnerabilities, unemployment, recession and the depreciation of our rupee against the main currencies have again become of increasing concern.  The strategies to safeguard the environment and reverse climate change are being kept on the sidelines although scientists are predicting that climate change impact will cause as much damage as COVID-19. The WWF reports that the key drivers for diseases that move from wild animals to humans are the destruction of their rich ecosystems as well as the trading and consumption of high-risk wildlife.  It is therefore of utmost importance that Government reviews its position in spelling out new strategies for future land use planning in order to address both climate change and future pandemics in an integrated manner. To address climate change and future pandemics, we need to plant more trees and become self sufficient in our agricultural products.

The Land Use Planning Profile  in Mauritius

The Land Use Planning Profile (LUPP) shows the percentage of land in a territory in terms of the different uses that the former is put to. Table 1 shows the land use by category for Mauritius from 1995 to 2005. The values for 2019 have been estimated based on observations.  An ideal situation is also prescribed.

It can be inferred that from 1995 to 2019:

(a) Agricultural land (Green Area) has decreased considerably from 46.3 to 34 % and is being abandoned and ultimately converted into built up areas and infrastructure;

(b) Forest lands, shrubs and grazing lands (Green Area) have decreased considerably from 30.6% to 18 %;

(c) Built Up Areas (Grey Area)  have increased from 19.5 to 33%;

(d) Land under infrastructure (Grey Area) has increased from 2.1% to 6 %.

Hence it can be inferred that in general the Green Area is decreasing and the Grey Area is increasing. However, according to the new agenda today it is imperative to increase our green area and curb and regulate carefully the conversion of green area into grey area.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 show the status of Land in Mauritius from 1995 (CSO 2008) to 2019. The ideal percentage for agriculture, built up area and forest land would be 35%, 35% and 20 %.

The following questions among others should be addressed seriously for our future LUP.

1.Shouldn’t we be very careful in further allocating land for built up areas which are nearing saturation? Can we continue allocating new land to IRS, RES and smart cities which have proved to be one-off and unsustainable developments?

2.Shouldn’t we consolidate our Agricultural and Forest land for climate change and food security?

3. Shouldn’t we be careful with future infrastructural development which should be planned in an integrated manner with other land uses?

4. Instead of developing green field land, shouldn’t we be going towards brown field development and regeneration of our existing urban areas with delocalization and de-centralization of offices to regional levels?  The work from home technique has proved its worth during the lockdown period.

5. Shouldn’t major projects be subjected to Sustainability Assessments taking into consideration the Economic, Environmental and Social issues in an integrated manner? Shouldn’t these assessments be carried out at more upfront level during policy stage (SEA) and not only at the project level stage  (EIA)?

6. In previous and ongoing disasters such as the COVID-19 and the Wakashio spill, we have seen that the Mauritian population is collaborative and creative. Shouldn’t we therefore be reviewing the administrative procedures so as to involve adequate public participation in certain major decision-making process, hence practicing a bottom up transparent approach? I shall recommend the Rational-Adaptive approach of New Zealand.

7. For effective Public Participation, it is important to delegate power to the local authorities.

Shouldn’t we be adopting a devolved government instead of having a coercive Central Government holding the reins in its hands?

As a last note, suppose that we have 2000 Acres of land suitable and capable for both agricultural use and building development. Taking into consideration present and future pandemics and climate change issues, we now need to decide whether to retain this land for agriculture or convert it into built up areas. What shall we do? Please bear in mind that once an agricultural land has been converted into grey area, the use cannot be reversed.

Glory to thee. Motherland oh Motherland of Mine! To enrich ourselves we shall cut you in pieces and sell you to foreigners!