Researchers Study How Mauritius Achieves and Sustains Peace
Recently, while the U.S. teetered on the brink of a war with Iran and North Korea, and struggled with one of the most contentious internal political divides in its history, our team of researchers traveled to Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Africa, to study peace. The research is part of the Sustaining Peace project at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4).
Learning what it takes to live in peace seems relevant, urgent even. Violence feels ubiquitous in the United States, in New York, and in the neighborhood where I live. Tessa Majors, a young girl studying at Barnard across the street from my office at the Earth Institute, was recently murdered, making national headlines. Yeyo, a 27-year-old whose name I only know from the altar erected on the place he was shot, was murdered across the street from my apartment a few weeks earlier. His name did not make even the article about his death in the local neighborhood paper that covers Washington Heights. Mass shootings have occurred in places of worship and schools across America, and movements like Black Lives Matter and #metoo are but a few examples highlighting the many injustices faced by certain groups in this country. Neo-Nazis are on the rise and making headlines, politics are becoming bitterly partisan, and disparities often fall along group divides. In this climate, it feels important and necessary to learn from places that are peaceful, to understand what peace looks like, feels like, and how it is achieved and sustained.
Mauritius is a small island nation in the Indian Ocean off of Madagascar. It is green and lush with dramatic jagged mountains that look folded out of origami. Originally an island uninhabited by people, it was colonized first by the Dutch, then the French, and then the British to grow sugar. Colonizers brought slaves from Madagascar, and later indentured servants mainly from India to work the plantations. Traders from communities in China and India later moved to the island. Descendants from these groups and waves of guest workers and expats from Bangladesh, China, and South Africa have made Mauritius home to a diverse mosaic of languages, ethnicities, religions, and cultures.
With ethnic riots in the 1960’s and 1990’s, Mauritius has not always been a harmonious multicultural society, but it is currently one of the more peaceful countries of the world. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, it is one of just four countries free from both ongoing domestic and international conflict. Mauritius is the highest ranked African country on the Global Peace Index, and is classified as Very High on the Positive Peace Index. These indices look at indicators such as levels of political instability and the prevalence of bribes. Mauritius has a full democracy and is also highly ranked for both economic development and political freedom.
The Sustaining Peace Project team is led by Peter T. Coleman, executive director of AC4 at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and coordinated by me, Allegra Chen-Carrel from AC4. In partnership with local multiculturalism researcher Naseem Aumeerally at the University of Mauritius, we conducted field research in Mauritius in December seeking to better understand the factors contributing to peace, some of the local challenges to peace, and the ways these challenges are addressed on the islands.
As interviews and focus groups highlighted, Mauritius is peaceful, but it’s no utopia. Current economic inequities along group lines remain legacies of the nation’s history of slavery; LGBTQ people often live in fear of exposure; and despite the country’s image as a happy multicultural cluster of islands, intergroup tensions do exist. We heard stories of interracial couples facing such discrimination they left the country, stories of the ways hierarchies such as caste and class often silently divide groups, and repeatedly heard the peace in Mauritius described as “fragile.” People were eager to discuss challenges, or what one research participant described as the “other side of the postcard.”
There is little debate that Mauritius is relatively peaceful. There is a strong social safety net and the government recently conducted a Truth and Justice Commission to examine and address the legacies of slavery and indentured servitude. There are no guns, cultural norms encourage avoiding confrontation, and stories of bridging religious and cultural divides abound. As one focus group participant explained, “It is not my mother only who has brought me on Earth, but a doctor has helped her and this is maybe someone of another faith. So we are all together.” Ordinary positive day-to-day connections with others from different backgrounds help to create a multicultural social fabric. Many people recounted neighbors bringing over little cakes when celebrating various cultural holidays — Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, and after sundown on Eid al Fitr, highlighting the interpersonal practices that form the micro-politics of peace.
As we return from fieldwork, and begin coding data from interviews and focus group discussions to explore what Mauritians see as central to creating and maintaining peace, one thing is clear: the peace in Mauritius is highly complex. It springs from many historical and contemporary sources — from its many peoples and traditions, their homes and neighborhoods, to its policy-makers in Parliament and places of worship. And it is replete with contradiction. As one participant said, “Mauritius is highly complicated but peaceful, whereas (South) Africa is simple but dangerous.”
Our next step is to use these qualitative findings to construct a survey which we will distribute to a nationally representative sample to help evaluate the broader population’s perceptions of issues relevant to the nation’s levels of peace and conflict. We will also scrape data from news articles to find patterns in the language and framings to assess levels of peacefulness.
The Sustaining Peace Project plans to use similar methodologies to study other peaceful countries such as Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Norway, exploring the different ways peace manifests across the globe. What is clear is that it is important to not only focus on war and murder, scarcity and injustice, but also to study what is working. In this historical moment where conflict and violence feel ubiquitous, we could certainly stand to learn from places that have managed to nurture different forms of peace.