Clency Harmon is the President of the Association “Justice Restitution et Réparation” that regroups people that have been dispossessed of their land in Mauritius. This issue, which is a major one and that is rooted in Mauritius history has not been resolved when the country became independent in 1968. On the occasion of the World Day of Social Justice celebrated on the 20th of February, Rising Ocean invites you to listen to Clency Harmon’s interview who explain thoroughly the robbery machinery that have led to dispossession. He also speaks about his own struggle and hunger strike and the role of the politics in the whole land dispossession saga in Mauritius.
Clency Harmon, I live in Pointe-aux-Canoniers and for very long time I am struggling for the land issue. I started in 1994. I always heard my mother saying that ‘look today we are poor, I need to work, your father is dead, but your father’s mother always told me that we have a lot of land. Your father possessed a lot of land. Unfortunately, we’ve heard that Sugar Property has grabbed those lands and we cannot fight them.’ This has always stayed in a corner of my head until it clicked one day. I met a friend who told me ‘Clency I can help you in finding out’. I told him that how would you help me, I don’t know a single thing about it. He said, ‘well I explain to you how to research’. He did so and those researches took us 3 consecutive years. We researched registry, planning office, national archives, national library… We even went to ask documents from Paris archives that gave us important papers in our case, the Bonnefin.
Those 3 years cost me a lot. I had issues at work, because at that time I took too much vacancies for research and one day following an issue I had to stop working. So first blow I had was losing my work and like you know when you do not work, a problem does not come alone… my wife left me. Not only did I lose my job, I was left alone and thirdly with no money. These were precarious moments. However, we kept moving on and kept the struggle going and from there we had an orientation and knew where to research and we discovered the robbery mechanism.
The robbery mechanisms
The Sugar Property took a title (deed) from another place and tight it to my lands found in another place to justify the robbery. So, I started voicing out on media and named the Sugar Property with which I was having problems. I had an objective in denouncing them in media. If you go to court, it might take a lot of time, but in case your opponent does so he’s got the onus in coming up with his papers at first and this could made things faster. Unfortunately, they did not respond to it, they kept low profile, up to now. They did not react. In most of the cases, it is robbery. It is only the way that the robbery is done that differ. Like in my case it was about using another deed and attached it to my land, it is robbery. You cannot have one single title deed for two different plots of land. Now there is ‘prescription’ which is legal, but the way it is done… if you do it in conformity with legal dispositions – you’ve occupied the land as a good family’s father with no flaw, no backhanded, no disturbance… it is okay. But in case you’ve occupied the land, there have been all of those issues, but they’ve not been recorded, and at the end you are facing powerful people frightening you and you need to backpedal. This is also robbery. Another robbery is in this example of someone saying that he is occupying land for planting, let us say some 2 acres, you can say it is ok. But can someone occupy 650 acres and prescribe them? We have this case study with us. This is robbery. The problem is that there was no screening at registry, no safeguards to control this. So just as someone came for prescribing 650 acres, there was no one to ask questions to look in if it is being done correctly, so with no issue it is being prescribed. The prescription method, these days, you needed two persons as witnesses and everything lied on their testimonies. Thus, the prescriber will look for two persons ‘nearing death’ and in the meantime if the case go to court, the witnesses are dead and there is no case to answer. All these are robberies. Many of cases of prescriptions are being done this way. This is why we are expecting the government mindset to understand that land issue is no joke and that it broadens it understanding so that they come up with institutions that will look into those and dig those issues to help people getting out of their deadlock. Otherwise, people will still be victimized with none of the pertaining sequels being addressed and it will be status quo.
Who have been the land robbers in Mauritius?
Let us say that in some 80% is it the high bourgeoisie that committed those offences. You know, in time big plots of land were the prey of Sugar Properties. One way they had to ‘disguise’ your plot of land, you surely know. There is a women with us aged some 92 years. She is paralyzed and her husband is of same age, what happened to her land? She grew up on her land, when she got married, she left her land. When the lady had her third child, she came back to her land and looked for her landmarks so as to know where her land was situated. Unfortunately, during the 3 years of absence all landmarks were gone. How? Because the Sugar Property has great means, so they changed whole topography of the land, thus the lady could not recognize her land, thought she knew her land was around. In the meantime, papers were also disappearing from the archives and general registry. The lady said ‘I always knew that behind my courtyard, behind my house there was a stream where I use to fish shrimps’. When she came there was no stream, this made her doubtful about where was her plot of land. What did they do? They blocked the stream upstream and deviated it. So when the lady went to that other place, she acknowledged the stream but did not recognized the topography, thus her land. So, they have so much means to alter things so as to grab lands that do not belong to them. But not only this, what we are saying has only to do with the physical aspect. In regards of the documentation… like I told you, they were the archivists, they were at the head of registry, they were the notaries, the land surveyors… so it was not impossible or difficult for them, they had all the means to take whatever paper. Do you know how many pages in registry that concerns people have been ripped off? Do you know how many names references in registry, even in the archives have been erased? You are searching let’s say in archives and came across a notary that has worked on X plot of land but when you go to look for the deed, the notary does not exist. They’ve erased it and taken out all references. To look for it, you will need to look for all work undertook by the notary during all the time he/she operated… In our case we did it. But do you think everybody will have same patience and means to do so? Now they’ve added another burden on people like us doing research, they’ve raised cost for doing research, ways that you have to retrieve documents. They’ve came up with means to corner people. Till now, the land mafia still exists. They’ll corner you so that you cannot proceed with researches.
How has the struggle been organized so far?
I remember, there were the Michel brothers that pressurized a lot, we were with Mario Flore on our side adding pressure as well. The government at that time, the Dr Ramgoolam said that he will come up with a commission quasi-same as the one that existed in South Africa. Thus, he solicited Desmond Tutu who came to Mauritius, he visited several sites, at le Morne as well. I was with him for a whole day. We were in helicopter visiting many places and then came the Truth and Justice (Commission). Generally speaking, they made a lot with the little means they had. They had financial means, but they did not go that deep in some issues. However, they had a holistic approach and hit somehow the spot. They’ve highlighted the fact that many people are victims of land dispossession in Mauritius. They’ve thus made recommendations that unfortunately this government is putting in piecemeal. They’ve not implemented the recommendations as per Truth and Justice Commission. Moreover, this actual government has gone to the Law Reform Commission to double-check. They’ve asked the Law Reform Commission to look upon the matter and I still remember the late Rosario Domaingue who gave his report that went in same line as the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission. Again, they did not go along what was recommended. We asked for a Land Court, they came up with a Land Division of the Supreme Court. We are not sure, what will be the means of that division, will it have same power as would have had a Land Court? Now what are they doing, taking all cases from the Supreme and District Court and sent them to here. That make all the victims like us back to square one. Instead of giving us the priority, we’ve done hunger strike, we’ve made demands we struggled, now all cases are being treated equally. We are not against that, but it would have been logical to give us priority and our cases should have come first. Those who deponed in the Truth and Justice Commission should have had priority, unfortunately this is not the case.
What about the Land Research and Monitoring Unit?
You know this has been done hastily. ‘You’ve been asking, we’ll give you one’. If you go there, it is a total mess. Normally when you go there and submit your file, for missing documents they have surveyors affiliated with that Land Research and Monitoring Unit that are supposed to look for the missing papers. Unfortunately, when you go there, first thing they’ll be asking is if you have a land surveyor’s report – you’ll say no I do not – They ask, ‘why don’t you?’ – You’ll say because it is costly. Let us assume you have a plot of land of 150 acres. Assuming that a surveyor will charge Rs1000 per acre, multiply it and it will come to Rs150,000. Who of us today will have means for paying land surveying for Rs150,000? This is why it’s difficult coming up with a report. They’ll say ‘no you need to come up with a report’. They are in contradiction with themselves. When you look at the attorneys, they’ll say they do not know what they are doing there. ‘Prescriptions is legal, so if you fall under prescriptions what will we tell the Chief of Justice? Can we tell him that it’s robbery? There has been prescription. So we cannot take that to a judge, we will be ashamed’. I’ve even had an attorney telling me if they do not have an appointment with Vice-Prime Minister Steven Obeegadoo, he’ll resigned. So, it’s a total mess. Adding to that… I am weighting my words; they’ve placed the mafia into that Land and Monitoring Research Unit under the name of Ricardo …. I am not frightened, and I am taking my responsibility in mentioning his name. He has been someone at the heels of the sugar oligarchs. He worked on several cases, he helped in making fake surveys that led to dispossession of people in favor of Sugar Properties, like it has been the case for me on 11 acres of land. 11 acres that Medine needed to subtract so as to sell it to someone for land parceling. What has this person done? He took neighbors from Vacoas and said that they were neighbors from Curepipe so as to justify the deed I was telling you earlier. It is a big offence; it is a fake. Taking people from Vacoas adding them to Curepipe so as to be able to do you parceling. If you go to ‘Morcellement Board’ telling them what is happening, that this person is making false lots on my land that they have stolen. The ‘Morcellement Board’ will say that they cannot do anything about it and that you need to go to court. Now you go to court seeking for order to tell them to stop, that person just ignores it and carry on with his work. The time that you are now getting to the main case, the land lots are already done and sold. Nothing is working and this is sad to say that in Mauritius 2021, it is easier stealing a land than a pack of coriander in the market. If you steal a pack of coriander and taken to court the judge knows what sentence to apply. In cases of land robbery judge will say ‘no it’s not stealing; you were not there to occupy so that person has occupied…’ But that is unfair.
What need to be done to bring justice to land dispossessed people?
We’ve succeeded in obtaining this Land Monitoring and Research Unit. What we need now is law amendment, the Courts Act. If need be make constitutional changes so that this court and this Land Monitoring & Research Unit can be empowered to work. Change laws, such as prescription, it is easy, just add conditions to prescription. If you’ve been occupying in such manner… it is correct, else it should be considered as robbery. The government has taken us for a ride. They’ve lied to us since the very first day till now. They’ve unconsidered us ‘you’ve made a hunger strike, you’ve asked for something, I’ll be giving you whatever I want’. But they’ve not given to us what we asked for. After the second hunger strike when we went vocals on the media, the Prime Minister delegated, the Vice-Prime Minister, Steven Obeegadoo to follow up the issue with us, but at the end we’ve seen that with Mr Obeegadoo it’s childishness, he joking, because all that you ask him, he commits but at the end does nothing. So far he’s not managed in taking out Mr …, we’ve already told him, we’ve sent him letters, emails, we’ve spoken to him face to face telling him that this person will make more harm than good because he has precedents, the guy is still working. There is no will, but they play on words to make the pleasure last. Apart from Mr Obeegadoo we do not have other interlocuters and it is sad, because we’ve voted for that government to be where they are today.