Remembering the MV Wakashio accident
One year after the MV Wakashio oil spill, Ashok finally has enough time to talk about the accident and the wave of solidarity that it birthed in the Mauritian people. Right after the oil spill, his organisation CARES helped mobilise thousands of people to clean up the oil that had spilled onto the Indian Ocean. CARES also did a census of affected communities and demanded reparations for affected communities.
“What happened here was a unique experience in global history,” he enthuses. “When this accident happened, and after twelve days of inaction by state and economic powers, there was unprecedented solidarity from the population to clean up the Indian Ocean - their waters. People gathered in parking lots around the coast to save the country and this experience helped birth a real political understanding of oil spill extractivist consequences.”
“The most beautiful part of it is that we decided to use indigenous resources like sugarcane leaves to soak up oil sludge from the ocean. That is important – to always start with what you have and not always go looking for solutions from elsewhere.”
By way of reminder, the MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius’ Blue Bay Marine Park and l’îIe aux Aigrettes on 25 July 2020. Following the accident, authorities failed to take immediate precautionary steps to remove the ship or the over 5000 metric tonnes of oil it was carrying, which just postponed a potential ecological disaster.
A few days later, in early August 2020, severe storm waves battered the ship and it started to break apart. Late on Thursday August 6th 2020, the world watched in horror as the ship’s side was slashed open and about 1000 metric tonnes of oil spilled down onto the pristine turquoise waters of the Indian ocean. Soon, the spill had spread for miles around the ship, causing consternation and anger across the planet.
Although news of the oil spill made its way around the island nation quickly, there was no urgency on the part of the Mauritian government to organise a quick containment and clean-up effort. In the face of complete government inaction, local environmental activists and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) took it upon themselves to mitigate the spill that was slowly turning the island’s waters black. The initial clean-up effort was managed almost exclusively by ordinary citizens and community organisations.
Ecosocialist activists of CARES Mauritius and other solidarity leaders and partners, NGOs etc., during the night of the 6th of August 2020, while the oil started spilling around the South East coast of Mauritius, took the initiative of building and testing an artisanal boom made up of dried sugar cane leaves and ordinary materials available from hardware shops in the country. Upon the successful test of the boom, with the help of locals, the activists sent out word early on Friday August 7th for activists to gather and build more booms.
About one thousand activists answered the call and set to work stuffing sugarcane leaves, straw and human hair into green mesh bags, which were then linked together to form long booms. They came with needles, linen string, straw, anything they thought could help. Plastic bottles were attached underneath the artisanal booms so that they would float on the ocean surface before they were deployed in a perimeter around oil spill site. Activists also gathered along the shoreline and vacuumed oil sludge around mangrove wetlands and sandy beaches. It was an amazing demonstration of horizontal collaboration. People offered their love, shared their food and ingenuity and this led to an unprecedented real-life demonstration of solidarity and popular ecology.
The Mauritian media covered the solidarity assembly’s efforts extensively and by the 8th of August, every citizen wanted to chip in some help. Over 100,000 people descended on shopping malls, parking lots and open spaces next to the ocean to prepare more artisanal oil booms. Ordinary citizens formed teams to collect straw from farms and barbershops offered free haircuts to collect hair to stuff into the boom bags.
Aerial shots show that the artisanal booms prevented most of the oil from fanning too far outwards into the ocean and downwards onto the coral reefs. By Monday August 10th, at least 500 metric tonnes of oil, including ninety tonnes of oil sludge had been removed from the ocean surface, i.e. just over half the oil that initially leaked off the MV Wakashio.
On 29 August 2021, activist Bruneau Laurette, the political party Reziztans ek Alternativ, CARES and other members of the solidarity assembly (i.e. a loose coalition of activists, political parties and civil society organisations) organised the biggest march in the island nation’s history to protest government inaction after the oil spill and its complicity with polluters. At least 150,000 people marched through the streets of Port Louis that day. Millions of other Mauritians and environmental activists joined them around the world in cities like Johannesburg, London, Paris, Quebec, Berlin, Melbourne, Cape Town, etc.
Building on the post-Wakashio solidarity
Ashok’s voice echoes with immense pride when he talks about the popular 29 August 2021 demonstration:
“Mauritius has one of the densest maritime traffics in the world. Our lives and economy are very connected to the ocean, but at the same time, it offers sustenance to thousands of people, so what happens there has impacts for the entire nation. That is why we were so happy to see so many people with a deep sense of environmental awareness and pride join with others to protect our environment from pollution and unfolding ecocide.”
Building artisanal oil booms showed what Mauritians and certainly other people in other countries can achieve with quick thinking and indigenous technology:
“The artisanal booms were a demonstration of local of ingenuity, solidarity and capacity”.
Asked what lessons he learned from this experience, Ashok replies: “The sea is part of our DNA we have witnessed an unprecedented growth of popular ecology in this country over the past twelve months. In other words, climate justice has become part of the people’s lived experience. We can see that the environment is something that people are willing to mobilise and protect. We are developing a pedagogy around this. A few activities that we have developed recently have been oversubscribed. It is just beautiful to see.”
He is also happy about the political education that occurred as people mobilised to stuff sugarcane leaves into mesh bags: “When the solidarity assembly first made the call for help, about ten thousand people came out. A few days later, that number grew to 100,000 people along the coast. Later, when the solidarity assembly decided to protest government inaction during the crisis, 150,000 people out in two major historical demonstrations, in the capital and coastal villages, venue of the peoples’ boom operation - more than 13% of the country’s entire population. We are political and environmental activists first and foremost, and we can see how people are getting more involved in the management of their affairs. This fills us with immense pride”.
Looking to the future.
In August 2021, Ashok and other members of the solidarity assembly to which he belongs inaugurated a commemorative plaque on the Indian Ocean coastline in remembrance of the July 2020 MV Wakashio oil spill. They intend to install a much bigger stele close to the same site if the government grants them approval for the project. They also want to continue working to organise fishermen, local communities and pleasure boats that have been offered a pittance as compensation for the oil spill. Perhaps the biggest thing that the Mauritian people have taken away from the MW Wakashio oil spill is the knowledge of the amazing things that they can achieve when they work together.