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Chagos Islands: conserving natural resources demands attention to human rights

Sensemaking / Chagos Islands: conserving natural resources demands attention to human rights

To safeguard the world's most extensive marine conservation area, the British government should repair its relations with Mauritius and the region's indigenous people, argues Peter Harris.

By Futures Centre / 05 Sep 2013

In 2010, Whitehall designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago, a vast expanse of ocean that is governed as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Overnight, the Chagos MPA became the most extensive conservation area of its kind, encompassing nearly 400,000 square miles and promising sanctuary to the largest coral atoll structure on the planet, the Great Chagos Bank. But an inconvenient truth was buried beneath this impressive plan, one that portends ill for the long-term success of the MPA.

While Chagos undoubtedly boasts a marine environment worth protecting, it is mostly thanks to a massive US military base on the largest island of Diego Garcia, which has imposed secrecy and seclusion on the surrounding waters for decades. Before construction on the base began in 1973, the indigenous Chagos Islanders were forcibly evicted from their homes. Devoid of people, most of Chagos was left to the wild. Native species and the coral reefs flourished. Today, some scientists and conservation groups tolerate the military footprint in Chagos as a pragmatic way to guarantee the archipelago’s continued isolation. But just how secure is this supposed environmental safe haven?

For one thing, the base on Diego Garcia degrades the natural environment. Given the industrial nature of modern warfare, how could it do otherwise? The base is a magnet for huge, polluting air and sea vessels – nuclear submarines among them – and houses stockpiles of armaments. Diego Garcia’s lagoon has been subject to blasting and dredging. A runway has been paved, buildings erected. And US military personnel are permitted to fish in what is supposedly a no-take marine park because, astonishingly, Diego Garcia and its territorial waters are excluded from the MPA framework.

Furthermore, what happens to the Chagos MPA if US military policy shifts – if, for example, the Pentagon presses for the militarisation of the entire Chagos Archipelago? Or what if a training exercise goes wrong, as happened recently when two US fighter jets dropped bombs near the Great Barrier Reef? What if Diego Garcia is attacked by a foreign adversary? As these contingencies make clear, military custodianship of Chagos comes with intolerable risk.

One way forward would be to integrate Diego Garcia into the MPA framework. However, while environmental regulation and monitoring of the base should be increased, this would do nothing to guard against the creeping militarisation of the rest of Chagos. A more far-reaching settlement would be to separate Diego Garcia from the rest of BIOT, creating two distinct jurisdictions.

In the past, British officials always have urged the Pentagon to declare the entirety of BIOT necessary for military purposes, partly as a pretext for not resettling the Chagossians and perhaps also to delay ceding Chagos to the government of Mauritius, which claims sovereignty over the entire archipelago, and to whom Britain has promised the islands once they are no longer needed for military purposes. Yet the fact is only Diego Garcia is of any military value. The political architecture should reflect this, confining military activity to Diego Garcia and releasing the Outer Chagos Islands—and the Chagos MPA along with them—from relying upon the good will of a US military that cannot commit to making environmental protection a priority.

At first glance, this solution might appear to risk antagonising Mauritius. But divorcing the Outer Chagos Islands from Diego Garcia would pave the way for the transfer of these non-militarised islands to Mauritius within the foreseeable future – a marked improvement on the status quo. Port Louis could immediately become engaged in the management of the MPA as part of a gradual handover.

Emancipating the Outer Chagos Islands would also make conciliation with the exiled Chagossians, now long overdue, much easier to attain. Islanders could resettle the atolls of Salomon and Peros Banhos, whether under British, Mauritian or joint supervision, without ever interfering with operations on Diego Garcia. Of course, the right to resettle Diego Garcia should never be conceded; rather, a successful and sustainable return to the outer islands would prove that a Chagossian presence on Diego Garcia is nothing to fear.

For too long, the conservation of Chagos has been treated in isolation from military, diplomatic and human rights issues. Instead, it must be recognised that Mauritius will, sooner or later, acquire sovereignty over the islands and their fragile coral reefs. More immediately, the Chagossians have the right to be involved in the conservation of their homeland. It is better to build a sustainable future in Chagos now – politically as well as environmentally – than accept military custodianship as the only game in town.

Peter Harris is a PhD candidate, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin. He is currently researching the human and environmental implications of the US military base on Diego Garcia.

Photo credit: Flickr Mohammed Alnaser

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