Story by Isaac D. Pacheco
Millions of years ago, as tectonic forces conspired to reorient the physical geography of the supercontinent Gondwana, volcanic hotspots began to ferociously create new land in the nascent Indian Ocean. As the Indian Plate drifted farther away from the African continent—eventually colliding with the Eurasian Plate to form the massive Himalayan range found in Asia today—it left a series of island chains in its wake. In the intervening period, the ocean reclaimed many of these islands through erosion and seafloor subsidence. All that remains of the oldest of these basaltic seamounts today are the shallow coral atolls that now make up the Maldives and Chagos archipelagos. Younger volcanic islands nearer to the African mainland—such as Réunion—formed much more recently and are still defined by jagged, mountainous interiors that harken back to their violent creation. The Republic of Mauritius, located 700 miles east of Madagascar, is one of these relatively young island chains.
In addition to its eponymous main island, Mauritius includes the islands of Rodrigues, Agaléga, and St. Brandon (Cargados Carajos), along with many smaller islets. Mauritius rests atop the 1,200-mile-long submerged Mascarene Plateau, a microcontinent that detached from the Indian Plate during its epochal voyage eastward. More than a thousand miles to the north, along the upper reaches of this same undersea plateau, exists another much older archipelago formed by a coinciding geologic process and composed of rugged continental granite. These long-lived islands and surrounding coral islets now comprise the Republic of Seychelles.
Untouched by humanity until the beginning of the 16th century, both of these secluded archipelagos became havens for unique flora and fauna. The first explorers to reach these unspoiled dots of terra firma discovered dense vegetation covering viridescent hillsides and a bounty of natural life. Due to the remoteness of the islands and their distance from trade routes of the era, large-scale permanent outposts were not established in Mauritius until the mid-1600s and the late-1700s in the Seychelles.
Until its settlement, Mauritius was the sole habitat of the dodo, a large, flightless bird whose docility and fearlessness contributed to its rapid extinction once humans arrived, introducing invasive predators to the island. Similarly, the Lodoicea, a giant, flowering palm tree unique to the Seychelles was nearly exterminated by human exploitation before a modern-day recultivation and preservation campaign brought it back from the brink. The tree boasts the plant kingdom’s heaviest seed, the coco de mer, a bivalve nut that can swell to 40 pounds and whose distinctive anatomical appearance has made it an iconic symbol of the islands. Conservation efforts are underway in both countries to protect remaining endemic species and to preserve their endangered habitats.
The isolation that once discouraged human travel to Mauritius and the Seychelles is precisely what attracts well-heeled visitors from around the world today. Postcard-worthy beaches, lush vegetation, and pristine cerulean waters profuse with natural wonders have made coveted retreats of these far-flung island nations for those looking to get away from it all. Amidst these idyllic backdrops, the U.S. Embassy in Port Louis engages its Mauritian and Seychellois partners, focusing on security issues, the promotion of American values, and shared economic interests.
“One of the great things about working in a small embassy is you get to do everything. And it doesn’t matter what your grade or rank is. You come here as an entry-level officer, and we give you a ton of responsibility,” said David D. Reimer, U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius and Seychelles. “Not only do you get a ton of responsibility, you get it for two countries. So there’s a lot of back and forth, and you get to do a lot of really interesting things, and you get great access.
The other advantage is pretty obvious: The beaches, the sunshine, a lot of wonderful outdoor activities—if you’re into that—it’s a great place to spend a couple of years.”
Tourism plays a large role in both nations’ economies, particularly in the Seychelles where it directly and indirectly accounts for more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Unfortunately, travel restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have led to sharp declines in foreign visitors to the islands in 2020. The pandemic has also negatively impacted trade and increased the cost of imported goods. Until transmission of the novel coronavirus can be reliably mitigated, allowing for the safe resumption of recreational international travel, both nations’ economies will continue to suffer.
Adding insult to injury, Japanese bulk carrier MV Wakashio ran aground off the southeastern coast of Mauritius, July 25. The carrier spilled approximately 1,000 tons of fuel oil into the island’s pristine coastal waters, threatening lasting damage not only to its delicate ecosystem but also to its tourism-fueled economy. In response, the embassy coordinated assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide satellite imagery and trajectory software to model the movement of the spilled oil. Additionally, Embassy Port Louis officials, including the ambassador, participated in clean-up efforts, which have thus far removed more than 800 tons of oil and 400 tons of solid waste sludge from the island’s coastline. While recovery operations are estimated to take more than 10 months, the spill’s long-term negative impact may not be known for many years.
While recent events have dealt blows to the islands’ tourism industries, there is still hope. Mauritius and Seychelles are more than just vacation destinations. Their large exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and burgeoning international finance sectors have helped transform them into two of the wealthiest nations (per capita) in Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund’s GDP figures. Paradoxically, this wealth disqualifies both countries from most forms of U.S. assistance. Mauritius’ participation in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) allows most of the country’s goods to enter the United States duty free, which has resulted in the United States becoming the number one export destination for Mauritian textiles and apparel. In July, the World Bank upgraded Mauritius to high-income status, like neighboring Seychelles. As a result, Mauritius is slated to graduate out of AGOA and lose the corresponding trade benefits. However, the economic downturn associated with COVID-19 may result in the World Bank demoting Mauritius’ income status in 2021.
“One of the things that I’ve been talking to the Mauritian government about is what might happen next,” said Mike Elkin, the political and economic officer for Mauritius. “There’s a lot of international activity going on here, all the major players. India and China are definitely active in the economy and growing. And so that’s another reason why it’s important that we’re here.”
Despite its constituent islands covering less than three-fourths the land area of Rhode Island, Mauritius maintains an undisputed EEZ of approximately 494,000 square miles, and jointly manages about 150,000 sq. mi. of continental shelf with Seychelles. Like Mauritius, the combined landmass of Seychelles’ tiny islands pales in comparison to the roughly 517,000 sq. mi. of surrounding EEZ it claims. One point of contention in this region is an ongoing territorial dispute between Mauritius and the United Kingdom regarding sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago located 700 miles northeast of Mauritius, which the United Kingdom administers as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The U.S. maintains a joint military base with British forces on Diego Garcia, the largest atoll in the archipelago, and recognizes U.K. sovereignty over the BIOT.
“Although it’s a bilateral dispute between the U.K. and Mauritius, we have a big, important security interest in how that plays out,” said Reimer.
With such a vast swath of international waters under their purview, maritime security is a vital component of the partnerships between Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the United States. By combining efforts with America and other nations with shared maritime security interests, Mauritius and Seychelles play a critical role in the safe transit of seafaring goods, interdiction of illegal drug shipments, and enforcement of international trade sanctions across the Indian Ocean.
“We work very closely with the Mauritians to keep the sea lanes free and open and particularly free of drug trafficking. That’s a major problem here, narcotics coming down from the Middle East into Africa and then either used here in Africa or moved back up to Europe. So we do a lot of training for Mauritian officials. And also, we do joint exercises with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM),” said Reimer.
“For Seychelles, the port at Victoria is very important to us. That’s one of the ports that the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean uses most frequently. We have two U.S. Navy officials assigned to our embassy. They spend a great deal of their time in Seychelles at the port, assisting U.S. vessels that come to exchange crews, take on supplies, and give the sailors a little bit of R&R.”
The city of Victoria, on Seychelles’ largest island Mahé, is home to the Regional Coordination Operations Center (RCOC). RCOC is a joint maritime security and communications hub that works in conjunction with the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center in Antananarivo, Madagascar, to monitor maritime activity in the western Indian Ocean. RCOC is a key player in Cutlass Express, an annual multilateral training exercise sponsored by AFRICOM and conducted by the U.S. Naval Forces Africa. During the 2019 event, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Djibouti each hosted training sites. Throughout the exercise, RCOC relayed communications between military aircraft and ships at sea, ensuring the safety of participants and helping teams complete their training objectives.
“The exercise creates scenarios and puts the participants in situations where they have to utilize the training that they’ve received and solve issues. As the operation is going, the people that run the scenarios throw little curve balls and see how they react,” said U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer James J. Greear, the operations noncommissioned officer in Embassy Port Louis’ Office of Security Cooperation. “One of the instructors said Mauritius did so well that they probably could have given this training to the other countries themselves. Seychelles punched way above their weight, too. It went very, very well.”
The Mission maintains a virtual consular presence in Victoria, which is staffed by a part-time American consular agent and a locally employed staff member. Despite logistical hurdles, embassy personnel routinely travel from Port Louis to Victoria to meet with government officials and participate in outreach and training programs. Department leaders are researching the feasibility of a more robust U.S. diplomatic presence in Victoria that would allow for broader and more timely engagement with the Seychellois and obviate the need for costly and time-consuming flights from Mauritius.
“Seychelles has been a big maritime security partner of ours for years, and they’ve worked well with us to advance both of our nations’ interests, facilitating economic prosperity in the region,” said Chelsea R. Bergesen, the political and economic officer for Seychelles. “I have the privilege of living in Mauritius and traveling to Seychelles. So I get to have the best of both worlds. I travel to Seychelles for at least one week every month. And, of course, when big events happen like the elections this year, I travel there a bit more to cover that.”
The financial sector in Mauritius and Seychelles, particularly offshore financial transactions, is another focal point for the embassy. Both nations’ stable governments, modern banking systems, and investor-friendly regulations have made them hubs for international business transactions. Embassy officials, in coordination with counterparts at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, are working with Mauritian and Seychellois policymakers to bolster regulations and increase oversight that would discourage criminal organizations from using the islands’ financial institutions to launder money, evade taxes, and finance terror.
“We want Seychelles and Mauritius to be able to operate fully, to function in a fully transparent way on the world financial sector. So, we’re encouraging them to keep their laws and their legislation moving in that direction,” said Judes E. DeBaere, deputy chief of mission at Embassy Port Louis.
The Department recently announced that it will be building a new embassy compound on an 11-acre site several miles south of the existing embassy—which currently occupies floor space inside a multi-tenant office building in downtown Port Louis. The purpose-built complex will create exciting new opportunities for diplomacy and give the embassy much needed room to grow. Leaders at post say that the Department’s investment in this modern facility underscores the continued relevance of the Mission’s multi-faceted outreach in Mauritius and the Seychelles.
“Two hundred and twenty-six years ago, a businessman, William McCarty, was appointed as the first U.S. Consul to Mauritius. The U.S. presence and shared commitment to democracy serves as the foundation of our continued relationship,” said Reimer.
Although far-removed from the rest of the world, these tiny island nations play an important role in maritime security, global trade, and international finance. Accordingly, Embassy Port Louis continues to seek innovative ways to build and sustain relationships across thousands of miles of ocean, ensuring that the United States remains the partner of choice in both nations.
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine