[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Conservation on USA's Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands: returnee rights?
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Mon Feb 9 21:24:37 GMT 2009
Feb 9th 2009
A new conservation plan for the Chagos Islands
A GROUP of leading conservation organisations have hatched a plan to
create one of the world’s largest marine reserves in British waters. The
reserve is to be located in the pristine tropical waters of the Chagos
Islands, part of Britain’s Indian Ocean Territory, and it would be
comparable in size and quality to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Chagos Conservation Trust plans to launch the new proposal in early
March at the Royal Society in London. The plan will be backed by leading
conservation groups, including the Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds, the Zoological Society, the Linnean Society and the Pew
Environment Group, a powerful American charity.
The Pew successfully lobbied George Bush, a former American president,
for several large new American marine reserves, and it wants to repeat
that success globally. It has its sights set on the Chagos Islands,
which include the world’s largest and most pristine coral atoll, as well
as some of the cleanest seas on earth. It is a refuge for rare seabird
colonies, turtles and diverse marine life.
William Marsden, chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust, said this is
“by far Britain’s richest area of marine biodiversity and would be in
the big league” of world marine reserves. At about 250,000 square miles
(647,500 square kilometres), it would be bigger than Pew’s most recent
reserve in the Mariana Islands. He noted the reserve would be
“compatible with defence and would also do something for the Chagossians”.
The Chagossians, however, live elsewhere. In the 1960s, Britain evicted
the natives so America could put a military base on Diego Garcia, the
biggest atoll in the Chagos archipelago. Chagossians have been fighting,
unsuccessfully, to go home ever since; many believe that the case is
likely to end up at the European Court of Human Rights.
Julian Hanford, a spokesman for the UK Chagos Support Association, said
that the islands are of conservation value today because they were
“swept clean and left pristine for 50 years.” He worries that plans for
the Chagos are again being made without consulting the Chagossians, and
the Foreign Office maintains that nobody has the right to live in the
British Indian Ocean Territory.
Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP and chair of the recently formed Chagos
Islands All Party Parliamentary Group, called the people of the island a
“positive asset” to any conservation plans. Though he admires what the
environmentalists want to do, he warned that “examples of conservation
done against the wishes of local people are disastrous.”
Last year a report by John Howell, a former director of Britain’s
Overseas Development Institute, and the Chagos Refugees Group, estimated
that of the 800 families (5,000 people) considered eligible for
resettlement to the islands, half wanted to return permanently. The
report called for a small airport and development for “environmentally
sensitive tourism”. The cost of this plan was put at £25m ($36.3m). But
the Chagos Conservation Trust called proposals for commercially driven
development “incompatible with conservation”.
In a letter to the Times last month, David Snoxell, the former British
High Commissioner to Mauritius, argued that Chagossians would make
“ideal conservation guardians” in an vast area currently patrolled by a
single boat (and therefore prey to illegal overfishing). “Most
scientists believe that human presence goes hand in hand with
conservation. Local inhabitants, in a carefully controlled resettlement
on two of the atolls, could enhance the protection of marine life, bird
sanctuaries, coastal waters and the islands, not least eradication of
The UK Chagos Support Association says it would support conservation
plans that allowed everyone who wanted to return to have a fair chance
to do so and have an active part in it. Yet a complete marine reserve
would be inherently incompatible with the return of the natives, as they
would have to fish there.
Whether the various views of the future of these islands can be
reconciled is unclear. Ultimately, the gorilla in the room will decide
these islands’ future—that gorilla, of course, being the base on Diego
Garcia. The Americans bought Diego Garcia on condition that the Chagos
Islands were uninhabited. Mr Corbyn said that the Foreign Office said
last month that American security concerns preclude the Chagossians’
return—a reason he called “complete bunkum.” He argues, sensibly, that
the best way to allay those concerns is with a friendly population. For
the sake of the Chagossians, the base and the nature in which both are
set, one hopes that the British and American governments agree.
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