PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — Mainly known for tourism, sugar cane and the extinct dodo, Mauritius is reinventing itself as a high-tech gateway to expanding African markets for the world’s two fastest-growing economies: China and India.
But, as the emerging giants prepare to set up rival economic zones on the island, there is growing unease among locals over what this new wave of colonization will bring.
The scene is already being set in the lush fields of Terre Rouge, north of the capital, Port Louis. It is early evening and plantation workers are heading home with their tools slung over their shoulders, past a group of Chinese workers toiling at a road construction site. In a few years time, the new motorway will lead to Jinfei, a self-contained Chinese city with office blocks, hotels, high-tech factories and a university.
The island has a lot to gain from the Jinfei project in terms of direct investments, export earnings and jobs, says the government.
But, not everyone is smiling, least of all local planter Tadbir Dassarath. Three years ago, he was thrown off the plot of land he rented from the government, under a lease ending in 2015, to make way for Jinfei. He and his fellow planters recently ended a three-week hunger strike, a bid to secure better compensation and land.
It was the planters’ second hunger strike this year. The first, at 30 days long, they say was the longest in Mauritian history. They agreed to step down after a special commission was set up to assess the situation, but its final recommendations were never published. The government finally promised to reveal the results at the end of November last week after the second round of strike action.
“We used to work the land full-time, growing enough to feed our families,” he says. Nowadays, they work part-time, “whenever there’s work available.” Many had invested money into the land they rented, some took out loans to improve their plots, but they saw their efforts literally run dry after the island’s Irrigation Authority dismantled their pump.
When asked if he could get a job in Jinfei, Dassarath shrugged: “I’m getting old now. Who will want to give me a job?”
The government’s treatment of the Terre Rouge planters has contributed to public skepticism about the Jinfei project. At first glance, the island benefits a great deal, with estimated gains of $770 million in direct investments and $215 million in export earnings. But, the direct benefits for Mauritians are vague. For one thing, it seems that only 5,000 of the 34,000 new jobs will go to locals. Moreover, the Chinese construction company recently signalled it will import its own materials, rather than buying from local companies.
More than 500 acres of the island’s prime land have been handed to the state-sponsored Chinese consortium for a period of 99 years in conditions of the utmost opacity. The secret contract has become a national preoccupation, with allegations of corruption swirling around the project.
Paul Berenger, former prime minister of Mauritius, now serving as leader of the opposition, said that there is a “lot of worry” about Jinfei. “We have given them prime land of extraordinary value, yet the details of the project remain blurry,” he said. He discards the increasingly popular theory that China might eventually use its civilian interests on the island to further its geopolitical ambitions. “It’s a purely economic project,” he said.
While the controversy mounts, India is forging ahead with plans for its own economic zone on Mauritius, called Neotown. With construction costs estimated at $1 billion, it will rival Jin Fei in size and scope.
India is piqued at China’s incursion into what it considers its backyard. Mauritius, with its majority Hindu population, has traditionally had a close relationship with New Delhi and now India wants to build a rival business zone on the waterfront of Port Louis that will turn the city into the capital of the Indian Ocean, no less. Unlike the Chinese project, Neotown is being built by a private company.
The attractions of Mauritius are clear. Strategically positioned in the southwest Indian Ocean, it boasts low tax rates, a highly educated workforce, solid technological infrastructure, established trade routes with Africa and, perhaps most importantly, political stability. Its thriving offshore financial sector already acts as a major conduit for foreign investments into India.
But, for all the island’s business-friendly features, the projects are being developed in a climate of suspicion, a state of affairs not helped by the authorities’ reluctance to comment. Attempts to interview the Mauritius Board of Investment, a government agency, yielded no results. The board needs special permission from the project promoters to grant interviews, said the facilitator for Neotown.
Sitting in a corrugated iron hut by the Jinfei site, Dassarath is adamant that the planters deserve better, asking, “Would the Chinese leave without proper compensation?"