Mauritius – a Class Action Lawsuit Bubbles Two Years After the Oil Spill

1,800 people have filed a motion demanding to be heard in a court case regarding the MV Wakaisho’s liability for the devastating spill.

On the evening of 25 July 2020, the crew onboard a 203,000-ton bulk carrier en route from China to Brazil were celebrating one of their colleague’s birthdays as their ship sailed dangerously close to the south-eastern coast of Mauritius. The sailors had been separated from their loved ones due to the pandemic and wanted to get close enough to access the island’s phone signal. The vessel edged nearer until it collided with a coral reef.

The MV Wakashio was not the first bulk carrier to run aground on this part of the Mauritian coast, but the impact of its negligence was unprecedented. Pounded by five-meter-high waves, a crack appeared in the hull that would eventually split the ship in half. On 6 August, oil began leaking. Four days later, 1,000 tonnes of oil had spilled into the ocean.

Mauritius appealed for international help as thousands of local volunteers helped clean up the shores using barriers stuffed with human hair and straw. Nonetheless, the environmental repercussions were devastating. Dead sea life washed up on shore in the days following, while scientists say the ramifications for the affected areas – which include UNESCO Ramsar sites and Marine Protected Areas that are home to myriad endangered flora and fauna – could last for decades.

The human consequences for Mauritians who rely on fishing or other nautical activities off the south-east coast have been similarly ruinous. Mala*, a mother of three, used to gather oysters and shellfish in the bay of Vieux-Grand-Port to make ends meet but this is no longer viable. “Sales dropped even after fishing was allowed because of people’s health concerns,” she says.

Daniel, a skipper who used to ferry tourists around the coast, has seen his livelihood, and family life, undermined. “With my income cut by two thirds, my wife, with whom I have four kids, left me,” he laments.

Mala and Daniel are now part of a class action lawsuit against the owners of the MV Wakashio, the Okiyo Maritime Corporation (OMC). The legal action was prompted after OMC filed a motion in the Supreme Court in October 2021 arguing that its liability should be limited to around Rs 720 million ($16.3 million). Represented by the well-known solicitor Robin Mardemootoo, the approximately 1,800 class action applicants are asking to intervene in this case as a third party and to take the stand in opposition to the OMC’s motion.

A group of wealthy business owners have also filed an application to intervene in the Supreme Court proceedings. They argue that they ought to receive compensation amounting to around Rs 2 billion ($45 million). A verdict on the case had been due on 18 August but has been postponed.

“We are left in the dark”

Separate to the court case, thousands of individuals, companies, and organisations have claimed for compensation since the oil spill two years ago.

In July 2021, Sudheer Maudhoo, Mauritius’ Minister of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping, told parliament that the government had received over 4,500 claims amounting to Rs 1.9 billion ($43 million). He said that the government had awarded a “solidarity grant” of Rs 10,200 ($230) to all affected fishers and fishmongers, and submitted additional claims to MV Wakashio’s insurer. In December 2021, the latter agreed to grant compensation of Rs 112,000 ($2,500) to these applicants.

Many campaigners, however, believe these sums significantly understate the long-term damage done to livelihoods and people’s health. Several activists also do not trust that the government has ordinary people’s interests at heart, emphasising the need to take the matter to the courts.

“The government, which has been chosen by OMC to manage the indemnity fund, is ignoring its obligation to ensure that those affected by the oil spill are adequately compensated,” says Ashok Subron of the Rezistans ek Alternativ (ReA) movement, which is leading the class action lawsuit. “Some fishermen have received small amounts of money, but [in doing so] have rescinded their right to sue the ship owner. All this is dubious.”

Subron suggests that the government’s priority is not to ensure people get the sums they deserve, but to use the matter of compensation as leverage in talks with the Japanese government. OMC is a subsidiary of Nagashiki Shipping, a Japanese company. “The government is negotiating with the Japanese government to finance infrastructure projects,” adds Subron. “It is taking advantage of the situation.”

The Mauritian government’s alleged lack of transparency is not helping these perceptions. “We don’t know what the government is doing”, says Sébastien Sauvage, head of the environmental NGO Eco-Sud. “We are left in the dark.”

A source in the government who asked to remain anonymous suggested that major parts of compensation claims were being rejected, making a lawsuit seem necessary. An official in the Blue Economy ministry, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, added that total compensation claim had not been finalised as the extent of the environmental damage had not yet been assessed.

Blue Economy Minister Maudhoo declined to comment. OMC emphasised that it had assisted the government in dealing with the aftermath of the oil spill “justly and promptly”. It said that 2,321 claims in the fisheries sector have been settled and that claims from tourism and other sectors are currently being processed.

* Mala and Daniel asked that their names be modified to avoid their identification before the class action.

Vel Moonien is a Mauritian journalist with over 25 years experience.

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