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End-of-visit statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Marcos A. Orellana on his visit to Mauritius, 25 to 29 October 2021

Introduction

29 October 2021

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government of Mauritius for the invitation to conduct a country visit and for its excellent cooperation and efforts to ensure that I could make the most of my it. I am very grateful for the frank and constructive discussions that have been enabled by the openness of the Government departments and its officials. 

I had the privilege to discuss with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Regional Integration and International Trade; the Minister of Environment, Solid Waste Management and Climate Change; and the Senior Chief Executive of the Human Rights Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I also had the honour to speak with the Solid Waste Management Division of the Ministry of Environment; officials from the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities; the Ministry of Labour, Human Resources, Development and Training; the Environment and Climate Change Division and the Dangerous Chemical Control Board; the Ministry of Agro-Industry and Food Security; and the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

I also had the privilege to talk to Parliamentarians, the Director of the Radiation Safety and Nuclear Authority; the Commander of the National Coast Guard; and the National Human Rights Commission.

I am also grateful for the rich exchanges with diplomatic missions, including his Excellency the Ambassador of Japan and her Excellency the Ambassador of France, as well as with UN agencies, members of the National Commission of Human Rights, representatives of diverse organizations of civil society, academics and private companies.

I appreciated the opportunity to visit the area where heavy fuel oil was spilled from the MV Wakashio and meet Government officials and civil society stakeholders. I also welcomed the opportunity to visit the Mare Chicose Landfill and its employees; the Mauritius Port Authority and its representatives; and the Interim Storage Facility for Hazardous Wastes at La Chaumière and its employees. 

I would like to thank all civil society organisations and members of academia that I met during this visit. I am very grateful for their testimonies and insights.

I would also like to thank everyone who helped in organizing this visit, with special thanks to the UN Country Team in Mauritius and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

At this final stage of my visit, I am pleased to share my preliminary observations. A full report on the issues discussed during my visit will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council at its fifty-first session, in September 2022.

The Wakashio disaster

On 25 July 2020, the MV Wakashio bulk carrier vessel ran aground on the reef off Pointe d’Esny, near the town of Mahebourg. This location is near an ecologically sensitive and important area. The vessel was carrying around 3,800 tonnes of low-sulphur fuel oil. The MV Wakashio was owned by the Japanese company Nagashiki Shipping Co. and was chartered by the Japanese company Mitsui OSK Lines LTD. The vessel was flying the flag of Panama.

On 6 August, the continuous stresses due to high waves had weakened the structure of the vessel and eventually caused structural failure at the vessel’s fuel tank. Heavy fuel oil began to leak to the marine environment. Out of the 3,800 tonnes of low-sulphur fuel the vessel had in its interior, approximately 800 tonnes of fuel oil spilt into the sea and began to contaminate the lagoon and coastline. The remaining 3,000 tonnes were recovered from the interior of the vessel.

The low-sulphur fuel oil in the MV Wakashio was of a new type of fuel that had started to be used in 2020. There was no information on how this fuel would behave if spilt to the sea. I take note of the difficulties in the cleaning operations to recover the oil fuel due to its low viscosity and tendency to remain liquid.
Fishers and boat operators were requested to remove their boats from the beach lagoon in the affected area. The villagers and fishers in the area, fearing the negative impact of the fuel in their livelihoods and beaches, started cleaning up the fuel; at the very first moment, without any protective equipment, according to testimonies. In the days that followed, the Government provided training on how to proceed with the cleaning and also protective equipment (such as boots, masks, overalls and gloves). The cleaning was also monitored by the Ministry of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping.

The cleaning of the spill started on the 7th of August and the technical team started the clean up on 19 August. During my visit, I have been impressed by the testimonies regarding the spirit of solidarity of all those who very quickly mobilized to begin cleaning the area to reduce the dramatic consequences of the fuel spill. In these operations villagers and fishers from the area, volunteers across the country, Government officials, the international community (Japan, France, Greece, India, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, among others) and private companies worked hand in hand. Everyone understood that clean beaches and sea were key for the environment and the livelihoods of fishers and villagers, as well as for the reputation of Mauritius as an island of paradise in the Indian Ocean. One cannot forget the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to the livelihoods of the victims and to the already complicated rescue operation.

The cleaning operations were completed in January 2021 by the companies Polyeco S.A. and Le Floch Depollution. In total, in the aftermath of the MV Wakashio disaster, around 5,600 tonnes of wastes were collected. Considering the capacity of a small island state, I welcome the initiative of the Government to safely store the wastes and then to export them to a licensed destination in Greece, in accordance with the procedures contemplated in the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. 

In total, 592 fishers and fishmongers involved in the cleaning have received a payment from the contractor and a compensation from the Government for their involvement in the cleaning and loss of livelihoods.

On 18 September 2020, a Court of Investigation was appointed to investigate into, and report on, the grounding and breach of the MV Wakashio. Its terms of reference include: to determine the cause, scale and extent of the damage; whether there was proper management and supervision of the salvage operation and the planned sinking of the wreck; and the effectiveness of the overall preparedness and response of the relevant authorities.

In addition to the ongoing investigation on the grounding of the MV Wakashio, I urge the Government of Mauritius to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the human rights, environmental, physical and mental health, and other socio-economic consequences of the casualty; to prepare an action plan to address the findings of said analysis; and to keep monitoring the situation.

I commend the updating of the national oil spill contingency plan following the MV Wakashio disaster building on the lessons learnt. I however urge the Government to ensure that the plan includes the communities and the civil society as key stakeholders in any response.

Solid and Hazardous Wastes

I welcome the intention of Mauritius of becoming a plastic free country, and in particular the ban on certain single use plastics and plastic bags that entered into force earlier this year. These measures are a positive start, and I urge the Government to establish a comprehensive strategy towards a circular economy, including measures such as incentives for the collection and recycling of plastics and extended producer and importer responsibility. 

I am concerned by the very low percentage of recycling in the country. According to figures received, only 3-4% of the waste is recycled and the remaining 96-97% ends up in the Mare Chicose landfill. This volume of plastic waste unnecessarily increases the pressure on the already stressed landfill, as much as it ostensibly reveals the lack of a proper waste management framework.

In this regard, information received indicates that waste is still simply burned in rural areas. This is highly concerning, given the very hazardous substances released into the air out of combustion of plastics, which contain a myriad of toxic additives that are harmful to human health and the environment.

I urge the Government of Mauritius to work towards the full and effective implementation of the strategy for solid waste management that is being prepared with the assistance of the French Development Agency. The strategy should include concrete measures to reduce plastic consumption, increase the amount of recycling and reinitiate composting.

I would also like to congratulate the Government of Mauritius for the news of the second centre for waste sorting/recycling that was opened yesterday, and I call for the prompt opening of the other centres that are planned.

In my visit to the Mare Chicose landfill, I was pleased to see that there is an engineering treatment and the work is done with professionalism. The landfill is fenced and secured, and there are no people scavenging there, which however does not seem to be the case in certain transfer stations. In addition, the sanitary landfill appears to offer a good treatment to water protection: it transforms methane gas into electricity, and it uses an anaerobic system which reduces the possibility of fires and explosions.

However, I regret to note that in order to address the capacity issues of the landfill, the construction of a wall has been designed. The fact that this solution is now needed reflects an unconcerned attitude from authorities to the grave problem of wastes, since this problem should have been anticipated more than a decade ago.

I am also concerned by the fact that a significant amount of dirty sewage waters from the landfill are carried by truck to the north of the country. This is not only costly, but it also poses a risk of accidents and increased truck traffic. These waters should be treated on-site with the requisite care. These waters, which contain organic and inorganic pollutants, are currently being treated in a sewage water treatment plant and then released onto the sea, with the risk that hazardous substances have not been totally eliminated prior to discharge to the marine environment.

According to the information received, in 2019 there were 1,738 housing units containing hazardous asbestos sheets. Many of these houses are located in poor residential areas, thereby presenting serious environmental justice challenges. While the Government continues to slowly dismantle contaminated houses, I call on the Government to speed up its efforts and ensure that no homes in Mauritius contain cemented asbestos sheets.

I consider a good practice the fact that the hazardous waste that cannot be managed due to the limited economies of scale in a small island state is exported to an OECD member state having adequate installations to treat it, in compliance with the Basel Convention. However, information received reveals a gap between the volumes of hazardous wastes that are generated and the quantities of hazardous wastes collected and stored for subsequent export. This gap means that not all hazardous wastes are being managed in an environmentally sound manner, and this poses serious threats to human life, health and the environment.

I salute the provision of the Radiation Safety and Nuclear Security Act of 2018 requiring to any person wanting to import a sealed radiation source, to make the necessary contractual and financial arrangements for the return of the sealed source to its supplier, when it shall no longer be used for its intended purpose. This type of “take back” requirement could be applied to a much broader range of products containing hazardous substances, such as end-of-life automobiles and electronic waste, under an extended importer responsibility framework.

Pesticides

I’m very concerned by the exposure of farmers to pesticides, in particular of small farmers. There is a real and urgent need to continue with awareness raising and capacity building campaigns addressed to them and their needs. In this regard, I welcome the pilot project carried out by the UN Development Programme on empty pesticide containers and the efforts of the Government to scale it up to the national level.

I have received testimonies of the sale and use of pesticide “cocktails” that are prepared without any scientific basis and exhibit a highly inadequate dosage. At times, these mixtures include highly hazardous pesticides that have been already banned by the Government. This raises questions on stockpiles of banned hazardous pesticides that may illegally enter commerce as well as on the lack of effectiveness in Government controls.

I am also concerned about the fact that public officials seem to only carry out inspections and sampling in the fields of small farmers, but not on the practices of large corporate agriculture. Also, there does not seem to be sufficient trained staff in the relevant agencies to carry out adequate control on the use of pesticides. Further, the register of farmers does not include all farmers, and consequently all the people that use pesticides.

It is of particular concern that the extensive use of pesticides and monocultures impoverishes the soil and reinforces the vicious circle of pesticides, as pests becomes resistant to the hazardous chemicals. I urge the Government to promptly conclude the organic bill under preparation and also to include organic fertilizers in the Chemical Fertilizer Act.

I take note that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has noted in a report of 2018 that Mauritius has the highest use of pesticides per area of cropland in the world. While the Government has questioned the accuracy of this data, pointing to a distinction to be drawn between active and inert ingredients of pesticides, I should stress that inert ingredients may also be toxic. I should also note that proper management of pesticides, including bans and controls, should address the whole product and formulation, and not only certain of its ingredients. Accordingly, the distinction between active and inert ingredients should not deflect attention from the otherwise grave concern resulting from the numerous testimonies received regarding excessive use of pesticides, soil loss and exposure of farmers.

I call on the Government to increase the institutional capacity to monitor the sale and use of pesticides. I also call on the Government to carry out studies on impacts of pesticides on the health of farmers, their families and also on the health of consumers.

Climate change and human rights

The world is facing a triple crisis of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss, and Mauritius is not immune to it. As a small island state located in an active tropical cyclone basin, Mauritius is particularly vulnerable to the climate change emergency.  Impacts that compromise the enjoyment of human rights include: flash floods resulting from more frequent and intense storms; increases in air temperature; and sea level rise of 5.6 mm per year. These impacts can compromise the economic viability of key sectors of the economy of Mauritius, including tourism, agriculture and fisheries.

Mauritius has been among the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. I welcome the recent revisions of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the global mitigation goal, whereby Mauritius commits to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to the business as usual scenario. I applaud its NDC pledge to: the total phasing out of use of coal before 2030; the production of 60 percent of energy needs from green sources by 2030; and the diversion of 70% of waste from the landfill by 2030.

Furthermore, I note with much appreciation the 2020 Climate Change Act, including the setting up of a Climate Change Committee to enable a multi-stakeholder participation for the preparation of the national climate change strategies and action plans for mitigation and adaptation. This participatory institutional framework, as well as the NDC’s mention of public consultations in the process of its elaboration, are consistent with the human rights language of the Paris Agreement. In this regard I take the opportunity to underline that the meaningful participation of the public is a key element of the human rights-based approach to environmental issues, including climate action.

All this action on climate mitigation and adaptation, however, is directly contradicted by the new Offshore Petroleum Bill introduced to the National Assembly of Mauritius earlier this week. Oil exploration would only aggravate what is already an existential climate emergency that threatens to undermine the ability of humans to live on our planet earth. Mauritius as a small island state is already in the first line of climate vulnerability. Allowing for oil exploration in the knowledge of the climate emergency is akin to self-injury, and it is incompatible with the human rights obligations to respect and protect the rights to life, health, and a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment.

Reflections

In closing, please allow me to share some reflections on key challenges as well as good practices in respect of the sound management of hazardous substances and wastes in Mauritius.

The rules of the international law of the sea on the governance of innocent passage and freedom of navigation were crafted for a very different world in a very different time, in fact they date centuries back. Why should, in this day in age, merchant vessels deviate from sea lanes and approach the coast, if they are not in distress or calling on a port of the coastal state? In this regard, coastal states should have additional authority to control vessel traffic that may pose a risk to their environment and human rights. I welcome the development of revised operational guidelines by the National Coast Guard, in regard to vessels that may pose a threat to the marine environment of Mauritius, which may incorporate lessons learned from the MV Wakashio disaster. In addition, international cooperation and access to information in real time is essential to face the challenges of the present times, particularly for small island developing States.

As a small island State, land in Mauritius is at a premium. Fertile soils for food cultivation are vital to food security. But the health of soils is threatened by the overuse of pesticides, including by monocultures. Exposure to agrochemicals can also have severe adverse effects on the health of farmers. While laws and regulations are in the books, the institutional capacities to make their protections a reality is still lacking.

Similarly, a number of actors spoke to me about the lack of a strategy to deal with waste. As a small country, issues of waste management are vital to environmental health as well as the rights of future generations of Mauritians. Several actors presented good ideas, but an actual plan with quantified goals, tasks, costs and timetables is still lacking.

I call on the Government of Mauritius to actively involve and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in the drafting of legislation and the implementation of measures to realize the transition towards a circular economy and secure the sound management of chemicals and wastes. Meaningful participation requires access to environmental information. In this regard, the tools available for civil society to access information are found wanting and need to be strengthened in order to make the right to information a reality in Mauritius.

I also encourage the National Assembly to create an environmental committee for the open debate of the sobering environmental challenges facing Mauritius.
There has been significant delay in addressing what are clearly foreseeable and critical issues concerning waste, and this is highly concerning. The fact that a wall needs to be constructed to expand the Mare Chicose landfill needs, and the fact that the island generates ever-increasing volumes of wastes, reveal the lack of a proper strategy and plan to deal with solid waste.

The fact that out of the seven incinerators installed in hospitals to deal with medical waste, only one is working at capacity reveals a failure of planning. Furthermore, there are no air quality controls on the only incinerator working at full capacity, which poses grave risks to human health and the environment. Also, the fact that most of the 20,000 kg of medical waste generated per week are sent to the landfill further aggravates the current waste problems.

The growing streams of plastics, spent lead acid batteries, tyres and other waste streams that are hazardous to human health and the environment should be addressed as a matter of priority and urgency.

I should stress that solutions are available. What’s clear is that the waste problem is not solved by externalizing responsibilities onto individuals and their individual behaviour. I wish to underline the indispensable role of a proper public framework to address the issues of wastes, including extended producer and importer responsibilities. I urge the Government to move expeditiously to design and implement, in a participatory manner, an ambitious strategy and robust plan to address the growing volumes of wastes.

I also wish to recognize the serious constraints of a small island state as Mauritius in the sound management of hazardous wastes. In this regard, there are good practices in Mauritius that are relevant for other States, especially for developing island States. For example, I wish to commend the participation of Mauritius in all multilateral environmental agreements in the chemicals and waste cluster. I take note of the engineering safeguards of the Mare Chicose sanitary landfill for the prevention of fires and the protection of groundwaters. Also, the Interim Hazardous Waste Facility model of storing hazardous waste for export to OECD countries actually appears to offer a positive solution to the challenge of dealing with streams of hazardous wastes where countries lack economies of scale to justify the economic costs of treatment. Further, the decision to ban the import of radioactive waste, coupled with explicit requirements for the return of end-of-life equipment to its source, also reveal a very good practice.

It is now time to turn good ideas and commitments into action. Over the past week, I have felt a growing momentum around the issue of human rights and hazardous substances and wastes. I thank the Government for the frank and honest discussions we have had, and its willingness to open itself up to scrutiny. I look forward to our continued engagement and collaboration in the years ahead. I will remain available to the Government and civil society stakeholders for any technical assistance that I might be able to provide in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.

Before I end these preliminary remarks at the end of my mission, and noting that I will present a full report to the fifty-first session of the Human Rights Council, I wish to recall that our awareness on the link between human rights and the environment has witnessed a monumental milestone in the last session of the Human Rights Council. The global recognition of the right to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment by the Human Rights Council a couple of weeks ago, gives humanity a new tool to address the existential environmental crisis of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. Since the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, more than 140 States have incorporated the right to a healthy environment, in varying formulations, into their national constitutions. I hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, I may have the chance to return to visit Mauritius, and when I do, that the Constitution of the Republic of Mauritius will also protect the fundamental right to a healthy and sustainable environment.