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Notes on the Geography of Mauritius: Mauritius 2: World of Sugar

Sugar accounts for less than four percent of the GDP of Mauritius. Sounds trivial, but sugarcane covers a third of the island, and more is produced now than in the glory days of the 19th century. Glory days? As recently as the 1970s, sugar accounted for a quarter of the island's GDP. What happened? This isn't a story of sugar in decline; it's a story of other parts of the economy growing. That's all to the good, no? And sugar's still all around if you explore the island.

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Remember Colonel Lloyd, the engineer and surveyor who designed Port Louis' old market, the bazaar? Energetic guy: in 1832 he became the first person to climb to the very top of this peak, which is called Pieter Both after the first governor of the Dutch East Indies. Both had the misfortune to drown in a shipwreck near Mauritius in 1615, and he's buried nearby.

It's about time we mentioned that the name Mauritius comes from the name of the chief vessel of a Dutch fleet that landed here in 1598. (The ship was named for Maurice of Nassau, ruler of the Dutch Republic for 40 years.) The Dutch had attempted to colonize the island, and they even introduced sugarcane, but after repeated efforts they abandoned the island in 1710. After the French East India Company arrived in 1715, the island was renamed Isle de France. (Who says the French are always imaginative?) The Company stayed in charge until the French government took over in 1767. The British arrived in 1810 and by the Treaty of Paris in 1814 the Isle de France once again became Mauritius.

Thank goodness that's out of the way. We're still looking for sugar.

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See any? The peak is about 2,700 feet above sea level, which makes it the second highest elevation of the island, though by far the most dramatic peak.

Apparently there are iron posts set into the rock up top to help scramblers get up there.

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Ha! That's what we're after. About two-thirds of the island's sugarcane grows on large estates, but the rest is cultivated by some 30,000 smallholders. Guess which this is.

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View from the same spot northwards. The north coast is 15 miles that way, and there's a lot of cane between here and there. You can actually see beyond the island here, because at the skyline (not the middle-distance; forget that hill) there's a faintly visible hill highest at its left edge then slowly tapering to the right. That's a separate, uninhabited island, Gunner's Quoin.

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Now we're talking.

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No smallholding this. For a long time, irrigation was considered uneconomical here, but times change, and because of irrigation and other innovations yields are up a lot from what they were. You want numbers? I have numbers. Mauritius had about 185,000 acres of cane in 1914; today it has about 180,000. Sugar production then was 226,000 tons; today it's 600,000. Pretty impressive. It's chickenfeed compared to Brazil, which produces about 36 million tons of sugar annually, but Brazil's big, and Mauritius is a shrimp.

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Want to see the industry at its most progressive? Try Omnicane's Savannah Sugar Factory at l'Escalier, about 20 miles south of Pieter Both. Omnicane is one of the island's four big sugar companies; the others are Terra, Medine, and Alteo. Marginally better than Tom, Dick, and Harry.

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The plant makes white sugar, which is a major change from even the recent past, when Mauritius produced and exported bulk raw sugar. The plant also makes ethanol. Burning the waste cane, called bagasse, the company generates enough power not only to run its own operations but to sell a surplus to the national grid. There's lots of bagasse: the island's 11 mills crush six million tons of cane in the course of producing 600,000 tons of sugar. They also produce about a third of the island's electricity. About 530,000 tons of sugar are meanwhile exported--now packaged for consumers and loaded in containers. The head of Omnicane says, "We needed to move into the value chain. If we were [today] producing just raw sugar, we would be dead."

See Javier Blas in the FT for 12 September 2013.

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Looks a lot like an oil refinery.

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Nearby, at Benares, there's a reminder of the old days.

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There are lots of these old chimneys scattered around the island.

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And industrial relics like this Caterpillar locomotive.

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Most of the equipment is European, but not all of it.

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Here, at the old Grosbois estate, there's a steam engine. Provenance?

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A few years later it must have been hard getting parts.

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Serious crushers. The Compagnie Sucrière de Bel Ombre opened a mill near the south coast of the island in 1910, and it crushed cane there until 1999. What then? It became the Place Du Moulin of the Domaine de Bel Ombre, still mostly owned by the CSBO. Luxury hotels? You bet. You can also buy at Villas Valriche.

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A steam engine at l'Aventure du Sucre, a museum on the grounds of another factory that quit working in 1999.

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McOnie also supplied mills in Tobago, Costa Rica, and Japan.

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I wish I knew.

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You can probably guess what this is.

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Yes, it was a driveway, specifically the driveway of the Chateau de Labourdonnais, a restored plantation house from 1859 and now on the tourist circuit. The original concession here was made in 1777, but it took another 40 years for sugar to be produced. An early owner, Jacques de Chasteigner Du Mée, named the estate in honor of La Bourdonnais, the ill-fated founder of the French settlement of Mauritius, but the house was built by a still later owner, Christian Wiehe, who bought the estate in 1854. We're near Mapou, very roughly halfway between Pieter Both and the north coast.

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Elegant or a bit sterile? You decide.

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Here's another of these old plantation houses now catering to tourists. It's on the Saint Aubin plantation, established on the south rim of the island in 1819 by Pierre de Saint Aubin.

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Built on the same plantation in 1908, this building became a guesthouse in 2003.

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Meanwhile, thousands of people with historic ties to cane plantations have moved to various towns and found other work. You can guess why: almost half of all the jobs in Mauritius at Independence were in sugar; by 2003 the number was down to six percent. That's what agricultural mechanization does.

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We'll take a look at one of those towns, in this case one with over 20,000 residents.

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Must be an interesting story.

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And another.

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Town seems quiet.

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Goodlands Knitters, a bit of foreign direct investment. Active? Maybe not, but even if it's closed Mauritius has about four times as many people working in manufacturing as in sugar.

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Main drag.

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Anything interesting?

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Department store.

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The will to power. You should see my truck.

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You won't be surprised to learn that the shops are Indian-owned.

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Little India.

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A name with universal appeal.

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Let's try another town, Souillac. Here's the District Court. Looks like it closed 100 years ago.

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Guess again.

Savanne District is one of the nine political subdivisions of Mauritius.

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Sugar drove the growth of the district and supported the development of churches like this, St. Jacques, built in 1855.

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New roof.

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New roof here, too. Any ideas what the building is?

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This probably doesn't help.

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How about this?

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There you have it: one of the island's end-of-the-line stations.

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Who worked the nearby cane fields a century ago? Indentured laborers, of course. Their descendants are still the local majority. Here's a sign of them at Rivere des Anguilles, four miles away and one railway station up the line.

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See the bridge?

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This is actually the third bridge here. The first was of wood. When it proved too fragile for heavy carts loaded with cane, it was replaced in 1878 with a stone bridge. This one's from 1914 but has been subsequently upgraded.

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And now you know why we're here. It's for the destruction of the cavadee, or "burden," carried a day earlier for Thaipoosam, the festival celebrating Durga's helping Murugan, the war god.

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Hundreds if not thousands of these cavadees were carried on shoulders one day and taken part and tossed into water the next. A long way from sugarcane? Not really.


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