Joel de Rosnay: “Mauritius can be a model for the world”

A researcher, teacher, writer and surf pioneer, Joël de Rosnay learns on the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Mauritius (and the day of this interview) that he will receive the country’s highest distinction – the Grand Commander of the Star and the Key of the Indian Ocean – for his project “Maurice île durable” *. The visionary scientist was interviewed by our correspondent in Paris, Brigitte Bragstone.

On the 12th March 1968, the independence of Mauritius was proclaimed. At that time, you were 31 years old. Where were you? How did you react to the news?

I was in France. I reacted with admiration for Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Born in Curepipe and holder of both Mauritian and French passports, I was pleased and proud of my country and the double French and British heritage it had been blessed with. Back then, I was the Director of Research Application at Institut Pasteur in Paris. It was great news for me. I did understand that we were going to lose our assets in the sugar industry, but I was not worried. Some traditional families were in a great fear to lose part of their heritage. Some left the country, some returned and their children regained confidence in the government.

You were born in Curepipe from a Mauritian father and a Russian mother. I guess you had a wonderful childhood in Mauritius.

In fact, I left Mauritius when I was two. My father’s job was to look after the sugar plantation, but his heart was with his paintings. He decided to try his luck as an artist in France. In my father’s studio in Paris, I could travel back in the Mauritian world again – the songs of the bulbuls, the stuffed animals, the fishes… But it was not until I was 16 that I returned to the island to spend some holidays with my brother, Arnaud*. We stayed at the Château de la Villebague in Pamplemousse, our family house with its shingle roof, its exotic flair, its garden full of fruits and singing birds… Our favourite beach stretched from Grand Sable to Grand Baie, near the Royal Palm. In the sixties, my brother and I started surfing in Tamarin and even now, when I go to Mauritius, I never miss an occasion to go there. Santosha has some of the most beautiful waves in the world. It is longer than those of Hossegor. It rolls over as it breaks, its face remaining open. One can play with the wave before it shatters into scums. It’s a world-renowned spot and I’m lucky to be Mauritian: the locals treat me like one of them. They don’t push me away like they would with strangers.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it”

In 2000, you initiated the Smart Mauritius, Digital Island concept, which was taken up by the present government. From 2007 to 2013, you were the Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam’s consultant on the “Maurice Ile Durable” project. A few years later came the big surprise! On the very day Mauritius celebrates its 50 years of Independence, you are informed that you will be awarded the nation’s highest distinction: the Grand Commander of the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean. What is to expect of the “Maurice Ile Durable” project now that the current Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth, is willing to seek your advice?

The project was never really stalled. At some point, I was sad to see the country drawing back on it. Lobbies got in the way and still represent a strong force of opposition… Anti-corruption has improved, but still needs to improve. (We must be very cautious on this issue). And yet, the foundation of “Maurice Île Durable” is laid. Will budgets be voted? Will the State resist the lobbies? One thing is certain: the new generation believes in this project, and it also has the support of the middle-aged population working in the tourism industry. To give you an example, the Rogers group, under the leadership of brothers Arnaud and Jean-Pierre Dalais, shows much interest in the matter. Mauritius is a young, mature and structured country, and I have great hope in one man, whom I admire: Nando Bodha, the current Transport Minister. He once was a TV presenter and a party leader. I believe men of that kind have a great future. Nando Bodha knows the country and is also interested in sustainable development and international business. He communicates well and he has already done a lot for the country.

Where do you see the country heading in the next 50 years?

Mauritius is a microcosm of the world. With its rich culture, five ethnic groups and five main religions, it stands as a unique country – one of the few emerging countries that have succeeded in keeping their birth rate within bounds, and yet across all lines of religion. It has a population of one and half million – not much more than in 1958. The Creole language binds together all ethnic groups, from Chinese to Indians and Europeans… Everyone speaks one language, shares one culture. Insularity has a lot to do with it: islanders tend to come together to protect themselves from the outside, from external elements, from the rest of world, with which they have to communicate. Whether from Africa, India, China or Europe, every Mauritian is an imported part in some way. Multiculturalism is what makes the nation’s strength. Tourism – as long as it is a responsible and eco-conscious form of tourism – and multiculturalism provide a significant appeal for the future of the country. We must motivate the younger generation (15-20) to be able to build a sustainable energy future in a horizontal democracy, where each and every one can participate in saving energy and developing sustainable energies. Through its multiculturalism and sustainable development, Mauritius can serve as a model for the rest of the world. The island is similar to a large city. Like Sydney, San Francisco or Copenhagen, Mauritius should become entirely independent from traditional energy sources by 2040. The best way to predict the future is to create it. Young Mauritians have tremendous skills in digital technology. They might not have any great project, any budget yet, but they are ready.

An outstanding career, 60 years of marriage and still in great shape… You are a rare and multifaceted man. What is your secret?

Love, respect and confidence. I think positive. Instead of looking at what is going wrong, I try to focus on what human beings are doing right. I like this statement from Gramsci, a great Italian politician: “I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”. My book “La Symphonie du vivant”, which has been released recently, explains how we can be conductors of our own being. You can do something for yourself, and together we can do something for the society.

*Literally: Mauritius, sustainable island

**Arnaud de Rosnay was a windsurf legend, known for his numerous exploits before he disappeared in the Taiwan Trait in 1984.

***La Symphonie du Vivant, published by Les Liens qui Libèrent