La Reunion Island

Reunion Island : At the Crossroads of Civilizations

Paul Vergès, former president of Reunion Island Regional Council and the Maison des civilisations et de l’unité réunionnaise

Té / 29 March 2010

The MCUR project is threatened to be cancelled by the newly elected president of Reunion Island Regional Council, Didier Robert, member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party. Everybody will be extremely surprised that the government of the French Republic would support such a decision. Will a member of the Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party undermine the cultural prestige of France? To get an idea of the international significance of the project, following an intervention by Paul Vergès, the former president of Reunion Island Regional Council, April 21, 2009

I wish to concentrate on one issue among all those of major importance and sketch the topics that would be debated. It seems to me that when we consider what concrete actions should be taken in the next twenty years, we must look at the changes which will affect our country, our population and the countries surrounding us. On that basis, it is all too clear that the problem we will have to confront will be population growth. It is so common nowadays to hear : “In 2025 the island’s population will be one million” even if the figure will be reached in 2026 or 2027. Be as it may, in a quarter of a century or so, we will be one million. This fact requires that land management, export and environment preservation policies be designed with, always in mind, the objective of sustainable development.

To put population growth in perspective, let us look at the countries surrounding us where the changes will be even more dramatic : when the population on Reunion Island will reach 1 million, the Mauritian population will be about 1.2 million, Madagascar 30 million and Tanzania about 40 million. When we compare the demographic transitions which will take place in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim will experience the highest demographic increase. Three billion of the forthcoming 8 billion world’s population will live in the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. Our own situation cannot be but affected. The European Union will then include 25 or 30 countries and the old prophecy of “Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural ” may come true. In our region, the SADC, currently confronted with serious problems, will consolidate its unity. I suggest that we ponder on some observers’ and researchers’ attempts at figuring out what the future will be -not that I consider them to be among the greatest thinkers— but let me quote some of them. Francis Fukuyama’s (in)famous phrase “This is the end of history and the last man” is meant to imply that the liberal model would inevitably develop, overcome all obstacles, and that history will come to an end. Samuel Huntington has claimed that “the 21st century will be the century of a struggle between civilisations and clashes between cultures,” the source of conflict and confrontation-including war. We do not know what lies in store for us in the future, but we do know that major events will take place in the Indian Ocean. The majority of Muslims will inhabit the countries bordering the Indian Ocean, the centre of gravity of Islam will drift towards South-East Asia, more precisely Indonesia.

We are on Reunion Island at the crossroads of all those transformations. Our society does not yet have a cohesion and unity considering its history of centuries of brutality - slavery and colonialism-along with processes of creolisation and hybridisation of incoming communities. We are right in the midst of a future cultural and religious maelstrom.

I think that no sustainable development can be effective if it is not driven and supported by a vision and by political resolve-and this, when you come to think of it, is a cultural challenge. Our history is not a very old history. Our common identity is still in the making. We can be fairly optimistic when we see that during the three centuries of our existence all the waves of (forced or not) immigrations have merged and followed a convergent route. But we do not have the cohesion that old nations have achieved, and our society is still criss-crossed by social and cultural divisions, making the cohesion of our social fabric all but certain.

On that basis, it seems to me that we must open a dialogue with our neighbours, and enter a process of give and take of ideas taking into account our environment. It is urgent that we do so because whatever the qualities and capacities of the Reunionnais people, our island can hardly accommodate more than one million inhabitants, in a world that will have a population of 8 or 10 billion.

Cultural difference, social cohesion and sustainable development

Given the present and forthcoming conflicts, be they cultural, religious or other, the problem is for us to ensure sustainable development and, as far as our own population is concerned, to live on as a unified society but maintaining its diversity. During a century of barbarity and strife rarely matched before, the 20th century, some progress was made through the development of new ideas and concepts. In that respect, the June 1992 Rio Conference, which highlighted the need of protecting biodiversity, was a considerable cultural breakthrough. It put human being and humankind right within the frame of the whole planet’s environment, a planet which existed before the human race appeared and will probably survive the extinction of humankind. The Rio Conference underscored the idea that our environment is the result of a long evolution process ; a process created through a complex balance between the realm of plants and the realm of animals, to which we belong, that human activity must not jeopardize what has been in existence for hundreds, thousands or millions of years, and that we must resist committing the crime of destroying such or such species and cloning up plant and animal biodiversity as we wish, simply because we have the means to do so. Let evolution operate, but let us not destroy one single species : we have no idea what will emerge in the future, what role evolution will play in our environment or what use we can put science to-in the making of medical drugs for instance. However, what struck me most in the Rio Conference was that all the world leaders and all those who are fighting for the protection of the environment did manage to get together and push forward the concept of sustainable development, a remarkable progress in the history of humankind — even if the following years have shown what difficulties we are confronted with when it comes to preserving plant and animal biodiversity —, but that they never thought of defending cultural diversity.

I do agree that it is imperative, essential and vital to save dolphins, sea-lions, or such and such animal species : it shows that man is aware of the importance of preserving environment so as to hand it down to future generations in the best possible state. But why cannot we also turn our attention on artistic creation and on culture-the result of social life and relations and the individual’s permanent attempt to conceive and express the reasons of its existence, origin and destiny ? Why shouldn’t traditions, tales, music, dance, beliefs, religions, in other words all forms of human-made expressions, be protected just as much as an animal species ? Entire groups of people have been erased, and the civilisations and cultures of many are endangered. Now that culture is understood to be part of economic development, are we going to give free rein to the liberal globalisation of trade and markets ? Are we going to let a standard, uniform way of life spread when diversity is an asset and the sign of complexity and creativity ? I claim that we must refuse uniformity, which is the main danger of liberal globalisation and promote a form of humanism and universality, that is diversity in each and every part of the world, because this is where the substance of human creativity lies.

The “Maison des Civilisations et de l’Unité Réunionnaise” : a factor of social cohesion

A question arises : How can we Reunionnais, a small people which has always been encouraged to imitate the West, can promote, enrich, understand and explore what some call their “roots” yet on the basis of our own cultural differences ? If we can demonstrate that our cultural diversity strengthens our society instead of pulling it apart, that it is a binding force for dialogue and cohesion, that we respect others as equals and acknowledge the originality of each respective contribution, then we can talk of a Reunionnais miracle : we will have managed to creolize all the incoming values without being assimilated by any one of them, whereas the general tendency is to try to assimilate groups different from one’s own and make them fit into one’s own cultural values.

I think that this is Reunion Island’s contribution to the world. What Reunion Island is saying to the world is that on a 2,500 sq km territory and over three centuries, a people has managed to integrate different cultures through creolization, without their differences becoming antagonistic forces and tearing our society apart. We have often been on the brink of explosion, but we have so far managed to reconcile our differences through pragmatic solutions-and we are constantly striving to do so. This is the very foundation of our project of a “Maison des Civilisations. ” Its very title means that all the ancestors of groups which came from various continents and belonged to diverse civilisations, be they from Africa, Madagascar, Europe, Dravidian and Moslem India, with all the cultural aspects attached to them will be given recognition. By referring to the notion of “heritage,” we enhance the value of those civilisations while situating them all on an equal footing.

Yet, it is not simply a “Maison des Civilisations,” it is a “Maison des Civilisations et de l’Unité Réunionnaise.” We wish to operate a recognition and a reinterpretation of the civilisations our ancestors belonged to and to stress the necessity to strive for unity and solidarity through and beyond the contradictions brought by our forebears. I am not naïve and I know perfectly well that this island has experienced suffering, oppression, conflict and injustice throughout its history. But history has also shown that we have always sought to reach hybridity and unity. And I think that if we are content with taking mere budgetary measures, if we only talk of rates, charges, financial planning and the like, we will not succeed. We may improve our situation on the material level, but we will make no progress in strengthening the connections between the inhabitants of Reunion Island. Faced with the impending conflicts that the Indian Ocean region will witness tomorrow, unity is our most precious asset.

Every day we see conflicts in the making, and plenty more are in store. This, in my opinion, makes it just as essential for us to set up a “Maison des Civilisations et de l’Unité Réunonnaise” as to achieve harmonious land management. Let us find amity in our heads also. Let us speak a common language, share a common vocabulary, put a common meaning in words and concepts, and we will have the pre-requisite for sustainable development, social cohesion rooted in and reinforced by a commonwealth of values built by ourselves and nurtured by all the civilisations our population originates from.

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