Travels across the South Indian Ocean can be nicely punctuated with an exotic stopover on the small island state of Mauritius. The country boasts a fine airline which flies regularly to Australia and connects to various destinations on the African continent with which it shares geopolitical allegiances, including membership in the African Union. In January of this year, my family and I decided to explore this diminutive country en route from Perth to Johannesburg. Truth be told: we had first seen tropical vistas of the island state featured in many Bollywood films which spurred our initial interest in traveling here. More importantly, our kids (aged 12 and 15) were quite entranced by the fables of the now extinct Dodo bird which had adorned this isle before human settlement. The confluence of French and English colonial roots, coupled with multi-ethnic Indian, African, Malay and Chinese lineage of the country’s population also gave us additional incentives to get a taste of this fusion nation.
Exotic appeal aside, Mauritius does not claim any ancient civilization or indigenous island heritage and was uninhabited before 1507 when the Portuguese established a visiting base on the extinct volcanic island. They were attracted by its compact size but substantially fertile land. One can now circumnavigate the island by car in about 5 hours and apart from a speckle of sharp mountain ranges, the land is largely arable. Thus Mauritian society emerged within the last five hundred or so years largely through forced migration from India and Africa for colonial agriculture, but developed a strong multicultural ethos along the way. With a population of around 1.3 million, the country is larger than the other small-island states in the Indian Ocean (Seychelles has a population of only 90,000, Maldives around 340,000 and Comoros of around 700,000). It is also larger than the French territory of Reunion, its closest neighbor 200 kilometers to the south (with a population of 850,000). Of course all Indian Ocean island-states are a speck compared to the anomalously large and ecologically unique island nation of Madagascar which continues to struggle with underdevelopment and a rapidly growing population of over 22 million. Perhaps Mauritius is at a sweet spot of territorial size and demography which gives it a good natural and human capital resource base that has allowed it to have a fairly diversified economy including tourism, sugar cane, textiles and financial services.
However, its number one ranking on the Mo Ibrahim African Governance Index has not made its citizens complacent by any means. Many educated Mauritians living overseas are continuing to seek new ways to improve the economic and political trajectory of their country. Through the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders” network, I got an opportunity to meet Nishan Degnarain at a summit in Moscow late last year. Through further correspondence with him after my visit to Mauritius, I learned about the country’s ambitious Ocean Economy initiative. Nishan is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Oceans and is seeking innovative ways to harness the large Exclusive economic Zone (EEZ) of the country most constructively for development. There are seven clusters which have been highlighted in the roadmap for an ocean economy: i) seabed exploration for hydrocarbons and minerals; b) fishing, seafood processing and aquaculture; c) deep ocean water applications; d) marine services; e) seaport-related activities; f) marine renewable energies; g) ocean knowledge cluster.
There is much potential in all of these areas but the challenge for some conflicting development paths must not be neglected. Ecological considerations will likely necessitate some relenting on the extent of the industrial activities that might impact the established tourist economy. Much of the mineral potential is likely to be far from the main island’s shores and so there is less concern about a direct clash of interests similar to what my home state of Queensland has faced with mineral infrastructure development near the Great Barrier Reef. Yet Mauritius does not shy from such controversies and is willing to take them head-on. In one interesting case recently, the country’s feral population of monkeys which are not indigenous to the island is being captured and exported for use in laboratory animal testing procedures.
Despite excellent human development indicators, there is no doubt that Mauritius is still a developing country. Infrastructure in smaller towns remains limited and the capital city of Port Louis, with its grimy streets and meager transport infrastructure, is a far cry from a plush island metropolis. Higher education is also an area that the country has not invested in adequately for its own citizens nor for leveraging its idyllic location to attract foreign students. The country’s only postgraduate institution is the University of Mauritius and it has very limited capacity for undertaking research. Most Mauritian elite travel to UK, France, Australia or South Africa for higher studies, reducing incentives to invest in their own university. The government’s roadmap for the new economy commits to changing this and making Mauritius “a centre for excellence for Ocean Knowledge within the next 15 years, both as a support industry and an industry in its own right.”
Mauritius is also expanding its security ties with India and recently joined the Indian Ocean Maritime Security Group. Such an alliance will also help with enforcement of fishing and mineral development activities in its vast EEZ area in the Indian Ocean which also includes the Chagos Islands (claimed by Mauritius but under British Control with a major military base shared with the American military on the atoll of Diego Garcia). Yet, Mauritius has not let this claim mar its ties with the UK or the United States and followed a pragmatic approach to foreign relations. Favoring multilateralism and accountability, Mauritius joined the International Criminal Court but has a bilateral immunity agreement of protection for the US military. For a small island economy such pragmatism has served it well.
As the world considers ways to cope with climate change and security imperatives, Mauritius is embracing the ocean economy with care and persuasion. The development path of this erstwhile “land of the Dodo” appears to defy doomsday predictions of island extinctions.