Conservationists are at war over a British plan to create a marine protection zone around a large chunk of surviving empire in the Indian Ocean. The zone, twice the size of Britain, would cover much of the Chagos archipelago, one of the most unspoiled coral reef systems in the world.
This week the world's foremost conservation science body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was in ferment after announcing support for the plan in spite of warnings from its own lawyers that the scheme was unethical.
The archipelago is claimed by neighbouring Mauritius, and the UK has promised to hand the islands over when it has no further use for them.
Meanwhile the largest island, Diego Garcia, is home to a major US military base and is not covered by the proposed zone. In the 1960s, the UK expelled 1500 Chagossians to make way for the base – an act that Peter Sand of the Institute of International Law, at the University of Munich, Germany, who has campaigned for the Chagossians, says "undoubtedly constitutes a violation of international law."
Last Thursday, the IUCN, ignoring protests from Mauritius, formally backed the British plan, calling for "full protection" of the reserve. But in emails seen by New Scientist, several members of the IUCN's ethics group, part of its Commission on Environmental Law, have condemned the move. They include the chair of the group, Klaus Bosselmann, director of New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law at the University of Auckland.. Bosselmann said that IUCN support for the plan "violates IUCN's own commitments towards sustainability" because the plan would "invalidate… the right of the Chagos islanders to return" to those parts of the archipelago covered by the zone. He adds that for IUCN to back their permanent exclusion from the islands is "is severely unethical and against everything the international conservation movement stands for".
The Chagossians, who today number more than 4000, mostly live in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK. In 2008, the islanders published proposals to resettle the islands.
The plan for a marine reserve is open to public consultation until 5 March. UK foreign secretary David Miliband said: "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."
IUCN's director-general Julia Marton-Lefèvre told New Scientist the IUCN's position "in no way takes or endorses a position with regard to the sovereignty of the archipelago". She denied that the creation of the reserve would prevent the return of the Chagossians and called for consultation with "all stakeholders".