Iles éloignées St Brandon, l'archipel-Nature en plein océan Indien


 

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Saint Brandon est un véritable archipel-Nature planté au milieu de l'océan Indien et qui se trouve relativement éloigné des principales shipping routes. Une trentaine d'îles, des îlots plutôt. On pourrait même parler à leur sujet de bancs de sable, d'une blancheur aveuglante. Le contour de certains se modifie au gré des raz-de-marée ou des passages de cyclones. Ces îlots sont plantés à quelque 450 milles nautiques au nord-nord-ouest de Maurice. À un peu moins de dix-huit heures de bateau, le seul moyen de transport disponible. La superficie de ces îles est de 500 arpents répartis sur au moins un millier de kilomètres carrés d'océan. Les noms des îles faisant partie de l'archipel de Cargados Carajos, en forme de croissant, sont les uns plus évocateurs que les autres. Poulailler, île Sirène, Puits à Eau ou Avocaire.

Les îles elles-mêmes, qui présentent des caractéristiques particulières, se comptent sur les doigts d'une main. D'abord, Albatross, l'île située le plus au nord de l'archipel, d'une superficie de moins d'un kilomètre carré. Son principal intérêt et attrait est d'ordre ornithologique. Préservée des prédateurs par un environnement marin des plus hostiles et par une passe qui ne peut être abordée que par de véritables loups de mer en période calme, l'île d'Albatross conserve toujours sa réputation de véritable sanctuaire d'oiseaux. La végétation existante sur l'île est tourmentée à longueur de journée par des milliers d'oiseaux se disputant le moindre pouce carré pour survivre. Ce ne sont pas les "ye-ye", les "vierges" et les "makoa" qui diront le contraire.

L'île Raphaël demeure le véritable porte-drapeau de l'archipel, qui vit au rythme des vagues et des alizés. Y est installé le quartier général de Raphaël Fishing, bénéficiaire du bail depuis au moins un siècle. La station météo est là depuis une soixantaine d'années. On trouve aussi un poste de la National Coast Guard, sans oublier la communauté des pêcheurs, qui s'est bien intégrée à l'environnement.

En plein milieu d'une végétation relativement luxuriante - quand celle-ci n'est pas victime de rafales en période cyclonique - et à côté d'un cimetière désaffecté, se dresse une immense antenne parabolique et des installations de communication de Mauritius Telecom. Illusion totale ! Cette station terrienne installée en 1987 pour une liaison directe avec Maurice est hors de service depuis bientôt dix ans. Le cyclone Odile a laissé des traces. Les pêcheurs de la compagnie Raphaël Fishing tentent actuellement de convaincre Mauritius Telecom de rétablir la communication téléphonique entre Saint Brandon et Maurice.

L'île Raphaël fait également face à un autre problème grave: l'érosion. Les raz-de-marée et la mer démontée en période de mauvais temps sont autant de facteurs affectant l'île, principale base pour les opérations de pêche dans cette partie de l'océan Indien. Pour ralentir la marche inéluctable de l'érosion, un projet de gabion avait été mis en exécution par l'Outer Islands Development Corporation (OIDC) en 1995. Les résultats de ce travail sont visibles. Les autorités envisagent de procéder au renforcement du gabion wall.

Entre l'île du Sud, qui assume en quelque sorte le rôle de Cerbère à l'entrée sud de l'archipel, et l'île Raphaël, dont l'importance en matière d'activité économique n'est pas à dédaigner, se trouve l'île Coco, qui se distingue, à l'ouest, par la qualité de sa plage. Les infrastructures désaffectées sur l'île Coco - rails pour le transfert du poisson salé par tramway, captage d'eau de pluie et case abandonnée de l'administrateur - sont autant de traces d'un passé glorieux.

Aujourd'hui, le véritable défi est d'assurer l'héritage de l'archipel-Nature. "The marine environment within the region of St Brandon consists of a unique ecosystem both rich in fauna and flora. It is still in pristine condition but needs conservation measures to preserve it for future generation". Le père Jacques Brown l'a bien dit. Tous les partenaires engagés à Saint Brandon ont le devoir de préserver cet héritage de la Nature…

Le Week End 28 mars 2004

 THE MORNING cold lingers with the sea breeze on Raphael Island, one of the 28 islets of the St Brandon archipelago. A small fleet of pirogues has just appeared on the turquoise waves. Today, the fishermen have finished early and they wait patiently for the shop to open. The huge brownish door creaks on its hinges. "Wait, there’s no hurry!" shouts Linley Chelin.

Linley manages the amenities of Raphaël Fishing Co. - the shop, the kitchen and the TV room. This company exploits the waters around 15 of the 28 islets. Before opening, he notes down the catch of the day. "On the register, I record the number of kilos of fish and the sum each fisherman has earned." Today, Clovis Louis has caught 73 kg of fish thus earning Rs 657, or Rs 9 per kg.

After weighing, the fish – capitaine or dame berri - goes into a barrel of seawater. The next day, it is transferred onto a long rectangular concrete table covered with a steel mesh to slowly dry under the scorching sun. The smell drifts on the sea breeze, but attracts no flies. Once dried, the fish is stored in big sacks to be shipped to Mauritius later.

Clovis Louis, 49, is one of the main fishermen of Raphaël. His local accent and lilting diction reveal his long stay on the island. Yet, his heart is still in Mauritius. "Here, life is tough. You get up at 4.30 a.m. Some days, you don’t catch anything." According to him, foul weather is the worst enemy of St-Brandon fishermen. And they now want a fisherman’s relief card. "In bad weather, at least you would get some cash." But, as fishermen employed by a company, they are not legally entitled to it. His words and voice match the nature of the place. His greying seadog beard contrasts with his childish look.

Like the other fishermen, he seems to personify the ambiguous nature of St-Brandon. A mix of harshness and benevolence… And, sometimes, the charm of this Eden is not enough to cheer their hearts. Sometimes, they feel depressed… Jean-Claude Savrimoutou is the only one who dares to voice it out. He has been in Raphaël for three months. "It’s my first job here. I feel like a prisoner in this exile," he confesses. "No, you can’t say you’re in prison," Linley retorts. But Jean-Claude longs for home… "Why do I call it a prison? I’m far from my family, my kids, Brian and Leïna." He is soon going home to Baie-du-Tombeau as his wife is sick.

As night falls, the fishermen assemble under a tree. The starry sky of St-Brandon is so different from Mauritius. Far from urban lights, the islands experience no light pollution. It is time for Linley to videotape a film on cable TV from Parabole Maurice. The fishermen will watch it the next day… to while away the time.

The twenty odd fishermen are an exceptional population in St-Brandon. Apart from them, the National Coast Guard has its quarters near the marine cemetery. The officers, on a four-month roster, live on dried fish and provisions, like Apollo noodles, brought from Mauritius. The weathermen might soon leave if the automatic pilot project works.

Alain Langlois, the manager of Raphaël Fishing, often visits the islands and knows all the nooks and crannies. To improve the fishermen’s lot, he plans to shift the store of "lapipi" to Small Raphaël, a nearby islet. Lapipi, a funny name? Rotting bits of fish used as bait, which really smell foul...

South Island, 3 km long, is more or less a desert island. Its long ribbons of white sand dazzle under the sun. The sparse foliage teems with birds! The noddies and "zoizo lavierz" of South Island are not scared by humans as they have never seen one. Why does Time seem to have stopped there? Is it because of the birds flying so placidly? Is it because of the dreamy blue sea? Or the untouched beauty?

The discreet, winding path through the bushes leads to two bungalows, models of the ecotourism Raphaël Fishing plans to develop on Coco Island. Of course, it depends on the lease renewal. It has to be long enough to be profitable. 25 years at least… Why Coco Island and not another one? "Just because of its size - 89 arpents; it is bigger than the others," Alain explains. The beach is strewn with giant turtle trails; here and there, sand heaps cover hatching eggs. The adult turtles glide off in the blue lagoon waters; even swifter than the pirogues.

Coco is even barer. Amidst scanty flora, a few corrugated iron shacks reveal human presence. They contain foodstuffs, water and serve as shelter to stray fishermen. On the shore, rails of another era contrast with the vegetation. An old disused wagon is rusting away amidst this pristine landscape. Alain recalls: "This wagon used to carry fish from one land plot to another. But fishing activity has considerably decreased." Anyway, Coco Island, like the other islands,will always be full of contrasts. This is the very essence of St-Brandon…

What does the future hold for the archipelago?

The fishing industry is, with ecotourism, one of the two major assets of St Brandon that the authorities are planning to develop. This archipelago has a huge range of marine biodiversity, which includes crayfish and octopus. At the head of a delegation including the ministers of Fisheries, Environment, Agriculture and Training, the prime minister went to see for himself this potential, which is being evaluated by a committee in charge of making recommendations for the future development of St Brandon.

St Brandon has a rich and pristine ecosystem,as this committee has highlighted. It should be developed without damaging the beautiful scenery and the rich fauna and flora. "Special precautions should be taken to mitigate any impact on the fragile ecosystem," it stated in a blueprint to be made public this month.

The technical committee is not as uncompromising as the World Bank. In a former report to which the blueprint refers, the latter is adamant that no future development should be envisaged in St Brandon: "No major economic activities should be carried out on the Archipelago except fishing activities within the sustainable limits of 680 tons; no resorts or hotel-like accommodation or supporting infrastructure such as harbours and runways should be set up anywhere in St Brandon."

The committee seems equally reluctant about any other form of development. It suggests further studies to decree certain regions marine protected areas. It is just as sceptical on ecotouristic projects. Raphael Fishing has expressed its wish to build ten bungalows on Coco island, a "high class ecotourism project in this lost paradise reminiscent of African safaris," the developer, Henri Boullé, explains. The prime minister’s message has been most hazy: "We will not rush into anything". He tried above all to reassure the fishermen that potential development would not affect them. The government would take no measure detrimental to the ecosystem. But what he wants to do about St Brandon remains a mystery. The only project over which there is no controversy is its development as a weather station. At the crossroads of tropical cyclones, which may affect Mauritius, Rodrigues or Tromelin, St Brandon is of vital importance for weather observations. The Meteorological Services are planning to install an automatic weather station on Raphael Island to improve the early-warning system.

L'Express 30 mars 2004