Chagossians face ban from homeland
- Chagossians face sinister "environmentmental" ban from homeland
By Catherine Philp
March 6, 2010
If ever there was an oceanic treasure worthy of conservation, the Chagos archipelago, with its crystal-clear waters and jewelled reefs, is it. Yet the British Government's plans have split the gentle world of marine conservation, created a diplomatic row with Indian Ocean states and turned the spotlight on to the archipelago's place in Britain's darker colonial history.
The British Indian Ocean Territory, as it is officially known, is the ancestral home of the Chagossians, the 2,000 people and their descendents that Britain removed forcibly from the islands in the Seventies to make way for a US air and naval base on the main island, Diego Garcia. Despite Britain repeatedly overruling court judgments in their favour, the exiled Chagossians have continued their struggle. This summer their case will be heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. By then, however if David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, gets his way the Chagos will have been designated a marine protected area (MPA), where activities such as fishing and construction are banned, denying them any legal means to sustain their lives.
It is, depending on your view, a sinister trick to prevent the Chagossians returning; an easy piece of environmental legacy building by a Government about to lose power; or an act of arrogant imperialism to rob the territory's true owners of any say in its future.
Perhaps the most compelling case against the plan, however, is made by the swelling cadre of environmentalists opposing the project in the belief that far from protecting this pristine paradise it could hasten its destruction. "Even if I didn't care about human rights, I would say this is a terrible mistake," said Dr Mark Spalding, one of the world's foremost experts on reef conservation.
"The world of conservation is littered with failures where the people involved were not consulted. If the Chagossians win the right to return, why should they want to co-operate with the conservation groups running roughshod over them?"
The Government's proposal acknowledges that the entire plan may have to be scrapped if the Chagossians are allowed to return. "That would make it the shortest-lived protection area in the world," Dr Spalding said. "So you have to ask: what's the rush to get this done before [the Strasbourg ruling and] a general election?"
Mr Miliband will begin to examine the cases for and against the reserve next week, after public consultations ended yesterday. A decision is expected within weeks, but the Foreign Secretary already sounds convinced. "This is a remarkable opportunity for the UK to create one of the world's largest marine protected areas, and double the global coverage of the world's oceans benefiting from full protection," he wrote.
Many of the world's leading conservation groups have thrown their weight behind the proposal, which emphasises the advantage of the islands being "uninhabited". They are not: the original islanders were removed from Diego Garcia to make way for a military base that houses 1,500 US service personnel, 1,700 civilian contractors and 50 British sailors. The island, which constitutes 90 per cent of the landmass of the Chagos, is, in effect, to be exempt from the protection order.
Peter Sand, a British environmental lawyer who has investigated the US base's impact, has documented four jet fuel spills totalling 1.3 million gallons since it was built and has lobbied unsuccessfully for information on radiation leakage from nuclear-powered vessels there. "To say that a small group of Chagossians could have a greater impact than the base is just crazy," Dr Spalding said.
The plan has also sparked a diplomatic row with Mauritius and the Seychelles, from whom the Chagos Islands were taken and to whom Britain has agreed to cede them when they are no longer needed by the US military. Britain faces further embarrassment over allegations that Diego Garcia was used to moor US prison ships where "ghost" prisoners were tortured.
The Prime Minister of Mauritius said last week that he was "appalled" by the decision to press ahead with plans for the reserve, "It is unacceptable that the British claim to protect marine fauna and flora when they insist on denying Chagos-born Mauritians the right to return to their islands all the while," Navin Chandra Ramgoolam said at the inauguration of a building for Chagossian refugees in the Mauritian capital. "How can you say you will protect coral and fish when you continue to violate the rights of Chagos's former inhabitants?"
Britain originally offered the US the Aldabra atoll for its base but backed down after uproar from environmentalists. Aldabra, now a World Heritage Site, was uninhabited by humans but home to hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises. "The British had refused to create a base on Aldabra in the Seychelles not to harm its tortoise population," marvelled Olivier Bancoult, head of the Chagos Refugees Group. "Now they are trying to create a protected area to prevent Chagossians from returning to their native islands."
1960s The Chagos archipelago, originally part of Mauritius, is secretly leased to Britain. Together with the Aldabra archipelago, taken from the Seychelles, they become the British Indian Ocean Territory
1970 Britain and the US agree to set up a military base on Diego Garcia, and Britain begins deporting the 2,000 Chagossians to Seychelles and Mauritius
1983 £1m compensation is paid to the refugees on Mauritius
2000 British High Court rules in favour of Chagossians demanding the right to return
2004 Government issues a royal prerogative striking down the court's decision
2006 The Court of Appeal dismisses the Government's appeal, saying its methods are unlawful and "an abuse of power"; 102 Chagossians are permitted to visit Diego Garcia for a day to tend relatives' graves
2008 Law lords vote 3-2 in favour of Government, overruling High Court
2009 Foreign Office launches public consultation on the creation of a protected marine area
2010 The European Court of Human Rights is set to hear the Chagossians' petition to return this summer
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