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Salines FOREVER

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Sailors on the route to India dreamed of putting in on the old Isle de France, not for its sugar but for its salt. In the hulls, the salted fish and other meat would feed them for their long sea voyages. Of these providential saltpans, only one remains: Yemen-Tamarin.

A vital part of Mauritius heritage has been saved. Highly coveted by property developers, and an emblem of a fishing village in the southwest of the island with its mixed delights, the Yemen- Tamarin saltpans are resisting the inevitable rise of concrete along the seashore. They stretch over 25 hectares below the stony slopes of the Rempart crater, the remains of an explosive caldera. Their grids of midnight blue basalt and clay soil, liquid mirrors of a cubist sky, heat the seawater so that it evaporates into a white icing spread over the volcanic stones. The alchemy of the salt, from the “ripening” basins to the heaters and crystallisers, comes from the ocean, the sun, the rain and the wind. Like sailors, salt workers are subjected to the vagaries of the weather.

In the old warehouses the salt workers empty their baskets and pile up the salt before bagging it into 25 or 50 kilos sacks.

Jan Maingard, a poeticand colourful vision

It was here in 1949 that René Maingard restored his family’s two-hundred-year-old saltpans. Jan Maingard, one of the heirs, a poet and storyteller in creole, roguish historian and author of the comic book Tamarin Matin, is moving heaven and earth to defend them.

He takes us for a chat at the top of the steps of a limekiln, a watchtower from where Jan watches over his land encircled by the tarmac of the coastal road and besieged by luxury residential estates.

Each basket gathered brings a precious red token, the reward for hard labour.

The long white hair of this sixty-something fellow, with his look of the eternal rebel, an eccentric element of a family of “rich whites” who set sail from Saint Malo in 1747, flies in the ocean breeze. In a wide gesture, he surveys “his” village that he has drawn so often: charming, disparate houses of concrete or corrugated iron,
thatched huts, a bright pink Hindu temple, a flamboyant tree about to flame with colour, the old clanking blue metal bridge that crosses the river, and gourmet stands where you can enjoy a sweet potato turnover filled with coconut, crushed papayas or candied limes. Further away, where the “Caleçons roses” – the local surfers in their pink shorts – ride the waves, you can hear a few notes of jazz from the old hôtel Tamarin which marks out the filao trees along the beach in a very 60s style orange. A giant areca palm spreads its creeping branches and aerial roots at our feet: a perfect playground for the kids. An irrepressible Creole, Jan retains his idyllic vision. Sometimes he complains, but mostly he softens his outspokenness with a “zoli-zoli” patois: “Even back in my father Amédée’s time – he had great ideas for Mauritian tourism – the government disapproved of our saltpans, annoyed by the attitude of the old French colonial families,” he begins, grumbling about the politicians and their hostility to these heirlooms of bygone times, in the name of “improving the land”.

The last of the Mauritian Mohicans

In the 17th century, eleven saltpans, employing hundreds of men and women salt workers, dotted the island’s coastline, from the northeast to the southwest, creating a flourishing trade. Many disappeared during the developmentof the capital, Port Louis. Only those around Tamarin remained. Then the indifference of the managers – the same who chose 12th March to celebrate the island’s independence, in tribute to the beginning of Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March (1930) – gradually completed the disappearance of this national natural heritage. “We are the last of the Mohicans!” exclaims Jan. For this Mauritian Asterix in his besieged village,
the cause is as much local as personal. “It makes me angry when I look at this catastrophic, programmed future. And yet the salt marshes could have succeeded if those malicious men hadn’t concocted a ‘Food Act’ in 1998 which declared that the salt from Mauritius was unfit for consumption – with no support from scientific studies – and authorised the importation of low quality, undertaxed salt from Egypt, India and China. So we sell unrefined cooking salt, but we also produce its best quality, the “fleur de sel”, a crystallised version for anyone who happens to pass by. In good years we produce 1,600 tonnes, which will be used for fish salting, textile dyeing and swimming pool maintenance.”

   

Piles of canvas sacks and fabrics protect Anandi’s head sometimes bending under the weight of baskets of 15 kilos or more, which she empties with surprising grace.


His very small artisanal firm – just 17 jovial, hardworking women, strong and graceful, accompanied by Raj, the master of salt, and Francis, master of all the waters, from the seawater pump to the cascading water pools – has not been affected by the economic downturn. The salt workers live nearby. They arrive at 5 in the
morning and stay until 10, scratching, scraping, brushing, piling, pouring and packaging the salt. Sometimes their families come in the afternoons to help finish the backbreaking work while the children play in the puddles. In early summer, in December, when the “ripe” waters are ready for collection, salt “cutting” (as we say for sugarcane cutting) can begin once again.

   

Little salt mountains like snow rise up out of the black lava stone terraces.

“People have told me to give it up. But I will never tear myself away from all this,” roars the last surviving hero in the adventure of salt.


by Jean-Pascal Billaud
Photographs GADA