'Makes me angry': Locals work to save pristine tourist island from oil devastation

As tonnes of oil pollute the shoreline of the once bustling tourism destination of Mauritius, locals are using their bare hands in a desperate attempt to save the island from ruin.

An environmental emergency was declared after a Japanese-owned ship ran aground offshore on July 25 and began spilling tonnes of fuel into the Indian Ocean.

The region would normally be teaming with foreigners seeking a pristine island experience, but a further blow from the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a severe drop in numbers.

Split screen. Left - close up of oil in mangroves on the Mauritius shore. Right - a stick above the ocean covered in oil
More than 1000 tonnes of oil has flown into pristine environments. Source: Supplied / Sunil Dowarkasing

If the island cannot contain the 1000 tonnes of oil lapping against its shores, travellers may never return.

Parts of island could go the way of its famous extinct bird, the dodo.

Before tourism became the backbone of the economy, sugarcane crops were king. Now locals are falling back on their traditions to save the country.

Communities are packing sacks with natural fibres from its stalks, and using waste products such as empty soft drink bottles to help protect their island.

Close up of a crab covered in oil.
There are fears for the marine life of Mauritius as locals continue the cleanup. Source: Supplied / Sunil Dowarkasing

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia from the city of Curepipe, local ecological strategist Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing said locals are working to protect fragile ecosystems.

“Many of them are fishermen, these people know the secrets, the legends of the wind,” Mr Dowarkasing said.

“Those who know the sea, those that know the lagoon, they have that advantage over everybody else.”

Split screen. Left - sacks filled with sugar cane. Right - a pier with people standing on it, the water below is black with oil
Locals use sugar cane to stop an oil slick destroying their island. Source: Supplied / Greenpeace

A French government crew has been working to help locals, and Japan announced on Tuesday that they will send a small group to assist.

Every level of the ecosystem ‘drastically’ affected

As the cleanup continues, conservationists look to previous spills, noting that they have the capacity to affect all levels of the ecosystem.

Lawrence Chlebeck from Humane Society International told Yahoo News Australia that this can include everything from plankton and coral to whales and dolphins.

A street in Mauritius. A man in a biohazard suit and sunglasses holds plastic bottles. He is covered in oil.
Locals work to prevent an environmental disaster. Source: Supplied / Sunil Dowarkasing

“Every level of the ecosystem is drastically affected by these events,” he said.

“Even if the oil spill isn't outright killing an organism or an animal, it can lead to sub lethal effects that can lead to a disease, illness, cessation of reproductive abilities.

“So obviously oil spills are incredibly disruptive on so many levels.”

Japan’s delayed response sparks anger

Australia is believed to have the third highest diaspora of Mauritians in the world.

Split screen. Left - Annick Uppiah in a colour photo. Right - Annick Uppiah circled stands with her family - the photo is black and white
Melbourne resident Annick Uppiah (left) spent her early years growing up with her family in Mauritius (right). Source: Supplied

An “island paradise” is how Melbourne resident Annick Uppiah remembers her home country.

“I know that when we were in Mauritius, everything was so tropical and green,” Ms Uppiah told Yahoo News Australia.

“When we were back to Mauritius, everything was dried up or the lakes were gone, all the tropical fruits have gone - cut down.”

An isolated beach in Mauritius with a couple of people and a sun umbrella made of natural materials.
Mauritius is a popular tourist location. Source: Getty

Ms Uppiah said it is difficult to view the devastation unfold from afar in Australia.

She said it was nice to see the locals banding together, using what they can to clean up the oil, although Ms Uppiah questions why Japan stalled their response to the disaster.

“It just makes me angry, you know, just because I feel like they think, ‘oh well, they're not powerful enough to do anything’, they can walk away from it and just leave the devastation to the locals,” she said.

Shot from above, a man cleans up the oil, dumping it in a barrel.
Locals in Mauritius work to save their island. Source: Supplied / Greenpeace

Nagashiki Shipping, the Japanese company which owns the ship announced on Monday two ships arrived at the scene to pump oil from the endangered vessel, adding it would work with local authorities.

“The oil removal efforts are intensifying with UAE, the Netherlands and Japan offering assistance in addition to the French who are already present,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo News Australia.

Investigation underway, cleaning efforts continue

In addition to the cleaning efforts, which have been ongoing, the government has launched an investigation into what happened.

On the beach, locals clean up the oil using red buckets.
Locals work to clean up the massive oil spill using buckets. Source: Supplied / Sunil Dowarkasing

However, those on the ground are bracing for the worst. People are building boudins, while civilians are being asked to stay away because their presence could make the situation worse, the Greenpeace spokesperson said. There is a chance the spill is toxic for them.

Not only are the locals at risk, but also the wildlife.

Drone shots of Mauritius reveal the devastation of an oil slick. Source: Supplied / Greenpeace
Drone shots of Mauritius reveal the devastation of an oil slick. Source: Supplied / Greenpeace

“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” Greenpeace said.

With Associated Press

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