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Why be optimistic about Mauritius after the oil spill?



Why be optimistic about Mauritius after the oil spill?

By Tal Harris, Greenpeace

The oil spill in Mauritius was the worst environmental disaster in the history of the small island nation. When the MV Wakashio bulk carrier began leaking 1000 tonnes of toxic oil into one of the most precious biodiversity hotspots in the Indian ocean, Greenpeace Africa was there to report, support the local protest movement and offer concrete solutions. 

What was the oil spill in Mauritius all about?

The Japanese bulk carrier, the Wakashio, was one of the largest in the world. While journeying between China and Brazil, it was approaching the southern coast of Mauritius and ran aground onto a pristine area of coral reefs, mangroves and other wondrous biodiversity. 

The leaking oil damaged the sensitive ecosystem, killed an untold number of species, and hurt the health and livelihood of locals – from children growing up and playing in their newly hazardous environment, through workers in the tourism industry or fishing communities who could no neither access the area nor find sufficient fish stocks elsewhere, to the thousands of volunteer activists who fought the oil spill with their own bare hands and built protective booms made from their own hair.

What did Greenpeace Africa do?

While Greenpeace Africa does not have an office in Mauritius, we could not ignore the disaster and the dozens of emails we received from Greenpeace supporters who live on the island and trusted us to communicate their catastrophe to the world and to offer any other support that we could.

A rapid-response team was swiftly set up, including oil spill veterans from Greenpeace International, our own climate & energy campaigners from South Africa and colleagues in Japan. Based in Senegal, I joined to lead our communications work around this crisis.

Due to the pandemic, no journalist was permitted to travel to Mauritius to report in real time and Greenpeace Africa served as a crucial source of information connecting local activists, NGOs, scientific experts, and community members with international news agencies and other journalists.

At some point I’ve had daily calls with the BBC, New York Times, Associated Press, AFP, Reuters and others, scrambling to collect fresh information, videos and photos from new friends in Mauritius and bring it to the world. 

We’ve released several reactives and statements to the media, warning against the government’s lack of transparency and dangerous actions such as the sinking of the hull in a whale nursing ground with dire consequences to whales and dolphins.

We wrote to the Mauritian government and to relevant UN bodies several open letters, urging them to share information with the public and to advance solutions, based on our organisation’s decades of campaigning experience following oil spills around the world.

We also made particular efforts to connect with the local environmental movement and raise the profile and amplify the voices of young activists, such as the wonderful Shaama SandooyeaAnesh Mungoor, the Fridays for Future Movement, NGOs like Dis-Moi and organizers like Bruneau Laurette

Why be optimistic about Mauritius after the oil spill?

Any reason to be optimistic about Mauritius? 

There is no safe way to extract, transport or burn fossil fuels and an oil spill can never fully be cleaned up. Mauritians and the non-human beings in the area will all have to wear the scars of the Wakashio disaster for many years to come. 

Nevertheless, I ended the intense year of working on the oil spill in Mauritius with four reasons to be more hopeful than when we began:

The Mauritius government took steps to request from the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) the designation of its territorial waters as a “particularly sensitive sea area”, as proposed by Greenpeace. This designation would ensure that ships transiting the region would avoid passing through Mauritius’s waters.

Civil society:

The oil spill wasn’t only the worst ecological disaster to hit Mauritius. It also spurred one of the largest protest movements that the East African country has ever known. Greenpeace was there to share voices from the mass demonstrations through Instagram, Twitter and briefings to international media. 

Polluter pays principle: 

A key demand that Greenpeace Africa made together with our counterparts in Japan and Mauritius is that the principle that assigns full responsibility to the polluter is fully applied. This is important both for justice to affected communities and as a deterrent to big polluters. The Japanese company, Mitsui OSK lines not only apologized, but made significant (though probably insufficient) payments to compensate for the catastrophe that its leaking vessel brought upon the people and nature of Mauritius.

An even stronger global conviction against fossil fuels: 

With every tragedy that the fossil fuels industry brings to the world, we communicate about it so the industry is thoroughly toxified in people’s hearts and minds. Through thousands of media publications and millions of views of our social media communications on this calamity, I believe we are also one step closer to a global departure from the fossil fuel industry, towards a future that heavily relies on clean and renewable energy. After all, there’s no wind turbine or solar panel that would spill into the ocean to create the damages that the MV Wakashio did in Mauritius.

Tal Harris is International Communications Coordinator at Greenpeace Africa.

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The information and opinions expressed in our published works are those of authors/sources believed to be reliable. NewsMoris makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information expressed.