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Friday, 01 March 2013 12:33

Louis Hervé da Sylva : “Inhabitants of Agaléga should participate in the integral development of their islands”

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While the Minister of Local Government and the Outer Islands, Hervé Aimée and the Catholic Diocese, through its spokesperson, Jean Maurice Labour, Vicar General, continue to play their ping pong games on the state of affairs in Agaléga, News on Sunday has chosen to talk to no better person than Hervé da Sylva who spent around 40 years in the outer islands, working for the welfare of its inhabitants.
Louis Hervé da Sylva is today a retired Pedagogical Adviser and secretary to the Bureau of Catholic Education (BEC). He has been associated with Agaléga since 1971 when he opened two RCEA primary schools on the Agaléga islands. From 1971 to 1975 he has been teaching over there and was the officer in charge of the Agaléga primary schools. After a few years spent at the Diego Special Class in Port Louis, he went back to Agaléga in 1977 and worked as a teacher for OIC until 1981. He came back to Mauritius to make a survey on displaced Diego Garcians residing here.

He was resident manager of Agalega islands from 1983 to 1985 and chairman of Outer Islands Development Corporation board from 1992 to 2000. In 2011 he submitted a report on Agaléga to the Truth and Justice Commission. News On Sunday put the following questions to Hervé da Sylva, who, in spite of his enormous responsibilities, found time to welcome us and answered with all humility to all our queries on the evolution of the Agaléga islands during the past four decades.

What was the state of affairs when you were working as head of administration in Agalega?
Agalega is situated some 1,100 km from Mauritius. It was administered by a Seychellois private company until 1962 when it came under the responsibility of the Mauritian government who put up a corporation to look after its administration. When I was appointed as Resident Manager in 1983 some colonial systems were still in practice on the Islands with weekly rations of foodstuffs as part of each worker’s salary irrespective of man, woman or child as follows: (i) 101/2 lbs of rice and or flour (To be delivered in the proportion of available stock); (ii) Salt at the rate of 125 grams; (iii) 1 pound of lentils or dhal or peas as available; (iv) 2 bottles of edible oil per month.  There was only one shop on each island, opened twice weekly in the afternoon. No circulation of money. Workers were paid through vouchers and a kind of internal bank note-book for shop transactions was issued to each worker.

The main products were copra and coconuts sent to Mauritius two or three times in a year, depending on the availability of a ship. There were only two tractors, one on each island for the transportation of goods and coconut products. Most of the time workers went to work on foot. Not more than four bicycles were found on both islands for a population of 200 inhabitants.
There was no market for fish and vegetables, as every one managed to fish and to grow their own vegetables. There was only one teacher to operate and to teach in two schools, for both islands.

However, production was on the rise as everyone was motivated because of the social change taking place and our close collaboration to upgrade family life. Provision was made for more items in the shop according to local demand with more ready-made garments for men, women and children, new furniture for the households; introduction of floor covering linoleum, sport activities, street lighting in the south island, and frequent meetings were held with workers.

I was lucky to attain my objectives as most of the young workers were my pupils and were trained in the scout movement to be disciplined in life and to serve their country and help their fellow citizens. There was mutual understanding between the population and myself and with the help of my wife who cared for small kids by opening a modern pre-primary school, in the south, on a voluntary basis, with the help of two local girls.  For sure there were always some working problems and family squabbles but the administrative staff on both islands, as a team, collaborated so well, that problems were tackled and solved.

People were free to talk and were heard. There was a real revolution in a small period of time. Unfortunately in December 1983, cyclone Andry struck the island and everything had to be started anew. The social and economic infrastructure- roads, houses and water and electricity supply, suffered so much that it was hard to recover.

Since when the authorities really got involved in building the future of Agalega?
This has been a slow process. With the introduction of OIDC in 1983 things started to move. But the real booster was the passage of cyclone Andry in December 1983. It was a blessing in disguise because everything was reduced to zero level; buildings, coconut plantations, the only jetty for proper embarkation and disembarkation manoeuvres… All was destroyed.  So remedy was imperative and everything started on a new footing. In two years my administrative staff on one hand and I and the inhabitants on the other worked hand in hand to make Agaléga alive again.

At a press meeting, Father Jean Maurice Labour stressed the need for Agalega to have an air strip, a hospital and the possibility for ships to accost the island. Are these demands sufficient for the development of the island? Or are there other things which must be done?
These pressing demands come from the population and the development of the islands passes through its people.  So they must be informed, get prepared and trained where necessary to participate in the integral development of their environment.
Upgrading of the Air strip and a proper jetty for ships are of utmost importance for communication, without which there will be no development. An alternative place of anchorage in North Island should be considered seriously in case of bad weather.

Concerning hospital, a maternity ward with all facilities is very important. This will solve many human problems. I am told by the locals that pregnant women are systematically sent to Mauritius for delivery, leaving their family behind. I understand those who mentioned genocide in Agaléga when they notice that birth rate on the island is nil. The medical staff do not want to take any risk in case of serious problem. Agaléga contributes to the maritime zone of Mauritius. People should be educated and get prepared for modern change, taking into consideration the fragile ecosystem of the islands. Formation should be done locally in many fields: social, economic, cultural, handicrafts, workmanship, civic, house keeping and leadership among others.

There is only one qualified and licensed boatman for both islands, although many Agaleans are good boatmen. The Coast Guards could offer their services.

A couple of social workers should be appointed to give their services on the island in order to control the social problems concerning alcohol, drugs, and uncontrolled debts through loans which they are entitled to. The employees of the corporation should be at par with their Mauritian counterparts according to PRB. This is where the church and the Government Authorities can sit together to find a modus operandi for the benefit of the Agaleans living on the islands and those coming to Mauritius on holidays, for health problems, for studies or otherwise.

Do you think that the inhabitants of Agaléga should be encouraged to live in mainland Mauritius rather than to exile themselves voluntarily on a far off island?
There is a mystical bond between a person and his birth place. There are many advantages attached to the living and working conditions of workers on the islands of Agaléga. Since 1995 there was a revision of their salaries. Helped by their trade union a collective agreement was reached between the workers and the Corporation. At present each category of workers has its job description with its salary attached to as well as security of employment, whereas in Mauritius they are practically jobless and idle. In March 2011, 60 families signed a lease for land and a house. In Mauritius some of them are living in the slums of Port-Louis with all its inconveniences. In a small community like Agaléga it is not difficult to organise a peaceful and happy life.

Did you depone before the Truth and Justice Commission? A report of your statement is in the publication. Can you give us a brief account of what you told the members of the commission in relation to Agaléga?
I did not depone, it was at the request of the Truth and Justice Commission that I did some research work. I went to Agaléga and subsequently wrote a report with the help of my friend Dwarkapesad Jawaheer, a former employer of OIDC and member of the OIDB when I was the chairman. All my statements are based on this report.

The Church is much concerned that Agalega suffers the same fate as Diego Garcia. Is such a fear justified?
Concerning Diego Garcia, It should be noted that only those who were born on one of the Chagos Archipelago Islands, with a BIOT birth certificate, were considered for compensation in Mauritius, thus causing much frustration to members of the same family, depending on their place of birth. In Agaléga, after consulting the official Birth Register kept by a Meteorological officer, I reported to the Truth and Justice Commission, that “since 2005 only one woman has given birth to a baby girl in North Island Hospital, whereas during the same lapse of time, 16 males and 8 females were born in Mauritius. This is viewed with much concern by the population, as in future there will be no real Agalean born”.  In the event of some kind of privilege given to Agaleans (Scholarship, lands, work permit, development permit…), there will be frustrations in the Agaléga family on the same basis as Chagossians.

Agalega in the Truth and Justice Commission- Volume One, P 343 – Agalega : An atoll in a forgotten sea
Nothing is permanent, except change. For long Agaléga has remained an atoll in a forgotten sea. The installation of American naval forces in Diego Garcia, as from 1966, has changed the geopolitical and strategic situation of Agaléga.

 Inevitaby, Agaléga hits the forefront. The Republic of Mauritius is conscious of this new configuration. Agaléga, an atoll situated at about 1,100 Kms North of Mauritius and 563 Kms South of Seychelles, is made up of two small islands, the North and the South, Tamarind and Avocado-shaped respectively. Separated by a narrow stretch of about 2 Km channel formed by reefs on two sides, it is crossed on foot, with ankle deep of water, and occasionally by a trailer drawn by tractor at low tide; by boat at high tide, and it is impracticable when the sea is rough. Formerly, the channel was crossed by carriage/cart pulled by horses, or by boat equipped with oars or sails.

The remoteness of Agaléga, the restricted availability of transport to visit the Islands, the limited accessibility constitutes the main difficulty for those who want to go to the atoll.

Agalega is different from Mauritius in many respects. The environment and living conditions are specific. Money does not make a man happy. There is a feeling of unsatisfaction among the small population of 300 inhabitants. Nevertheless, they are passionate about their Islands and leaving it is not easy. An in-depth social study should be carried out to analyse the feelings of the inhabitants, as there is much to be done in the social field, and this present study is far from exhaustive. To carry out a more thorough study, one will have to spend at least three months on both islands, the interval between the visits of two ships, using this report as a base.

Ever since its discovery, the bravest of Captains has always feared to approach the coast due to the unpredictable change of the wind and waves. On the other hand, the coral barrier, acting as a close protection belt to the islands, was so feared by sailors, because of the surf and swells that they considered Agaléga a pitfall to avoid. Furthermore, it lies in the region of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone and is not spared by cyclones.

However, Man likes challenges. Following the wreckage of SS. Wajao in 1933, Port Sainte Rita, in the South, was transferred to the North during the same year. This port was blessed by Mgr. James Leen in 1936, and is named Port St. James. The channel, in the coral reef, was enlarged to ferry passengers and for embarkation and disembarkation manoeuvres.

Only privileged witnesses like birds can tell the story of ancient visitors. Nevertheless, they cannot disclose whether the Malays, the Arabs or the Portuguese were lucky enough to set foot on one of the islands before the 16th century. In spite of some speculations, it is commonly accepted that in 1501, the famous navigator, Juan de Nova, nicknamed Gallego, who was employed by the Portuguese, discovered the islands and dedicated them to his homeland, Galicia (Galice in French). This is why Father Dussercle, in his famous book Agaléga Petite Île, named its inhabitants “Agaliciens”. The local people accepted it and made reference to this appellation publicly.

By a decision, in Parliament, of the late James Burty David, former Minister of Local Government and Outer Islands, the inhabitants of Agaléga are now called Agaléens/ Agaleans.

Between 2001 and 2005, several attempts have been made to attract foreign investment to develop the atoll. The Mauritian government was in presence of a preliminary project proposal from the South African firm Arcon for Agaléga valued at USD 450 million. The tourism development project included a wind energy plant, a waste water treatment plant, and a waste disposal facility.

It also contained administrative block, bungalows, a marina, restaurants, and shops. Arcon planned to produce hydroponic vegetables. It would also upgrade the islands’ schools, health centres, and sports facilities.

The project was turned down as a plan for the construction of the villa eco-tourism project  on the island had been seen as being too fragile to support. End of 2005, Mauritian newspapers started to be filled with speculation over a report in that negotiations have been initiated between the governments of India and Mauritius for the latter to cede Agaléga islands to India.

In fact, during a State visit to India in October 2005, the Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam had asked Prime Minister Singh India’s assistance for an assessment of Agaléga. The request was renewed during Indian President Kalam’s visit to Mauritius in March 2006. A three-person survey team from India visited the islands in October 2006.

Responding to a Private Notice Question on 5th December 2006, the Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam categorically denied any intention to cede the islands to India. He said India’s role in Agaléga, if it materialised, would be limited to economic development and infrastructure improvements. The Prime Minister insisted in his answer that the Government of India was willing to develop an economic development plan for the islands focused on coconuts, fisheries, and agricultural diversification. It also might improve the currently unusable landing strip. It was further noted that on its own initiative India carried out a hydrographic survey of the Agaléga region at no cost to Mauritius.

Nevertheless, in spite of denial of any intention of Mauritius to cede Agaléga islands to India, as alleged in an Indian newspaper report,  Indian newspapers continued to suspect that India wanted to use Agaléga for strategic purposes, possibly by establishing a military or naval base or an eavesdropping station.

Local newspaper opines that Oil is another possibility of India’s interest in Agaléga. One newspaper cited several differing views of Texaco’s 1975 exploration of the Saya de Malha zone. A Report on OIDC in January 1996 stipulated that: “Agaléga has a fragile eco-system that requires a balanced development that would not bear undue stress on the environment. Development should, therefore, be strictly controlled, the more so that in the long term, the two islands would be at risk because of the universal effect of global warming resulting from the depletion of the ozone layer.

The island should be envisaged as an outpost, with activities limited to agriculture, forestry, livestock and fishing. There is, however, some scope for a minimum level of tourism on the islands.”
Indradev Curpen

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