Troubled history tinges marine plan

by Richard Black


So what do you think: should the Chagos Islands archipelago be turned into a marine reserve, or shouldn't it?

Chagos archipelagoIf you care either way, you have until the end of the week to give the UK government your views.

If you don't care either way... well, read on, and perhaps you'll decide whether it matters or not.

The colonial history of the Chagos does not make a pretty tale.

Discovered by Vasco da Gama in the 1500s and pretty much uninhabited as far as early explorers could tell, the territory was claimed in the 1700s by France, which decided the place ought to be inhabited so plantation owners could grow coconuts and make a profit.

It became British with the fall of Napoleon in 1814. The plantations eventually failed, but some of the workers remained.

Many places that were annexed and traded between colonial powers have similar tales to tell, of course. But whereas most of those tales end with independence some time in the middle of the last century, this one doesn't.

Instead, it continued with perhaps the darkest move of all; the deportation of all 2,000 inhabitants of the largest island - Diego Garcia - in the late 60s and early 70s in order that the US could establish a military base there.

A series of recent court judgements has ruled that displaced Chagossians have the right to return home. Only a ruling in 2008 by the UK House of Lords prevents the government from having to allow them back - perhaps being forced to fund their return in full.

The legal saga isn't over, with Chagossians pursuing their cause now through European courts.

But if there can be a silver lining to such a history of man's capacity for inhumanity to man, it is that nature has flourished in the scarcely populated archipelago.

With no indigenous fishermen left and with international fleets largely barred from its territorial waters, with tourism conspicuous by its absence, the islands and their extensive coral fringes are now arguably the largest unvisited and unspoilt chunk of life-rich waters on the planet.

Which is why nine conservation organisations comprising the Chagos Environment Group are campaigning to see full protection conferred on the archipelago, to make its seas a full marine protected area with all fishing and other forms of exploitation banned.

The government likes the idea, and last year opened a public consultation [863KB PDF]. Originally scheduled to end last month, it now closes on 5 March - this coming Friday.

If approved, the huge size of the territorial waters would make this one of the biggest marine protected areas in the world, covering more than half a million square kilometres - a little larger than the total area of US-owned Pacific Ocean protected as one of George W Bush's final environmental acts.

Hawksbill turtleAnd what riches it contains: more than 1,000 species of fish including rays, sharks and tuna, and 200 corals; endangered green and hawksbill turtles; the world's biggest land crab, the metre-spanning coconut crab; and breeding colonies of terns and shearwaters, the most diverse in the region.

The Chagos Environment Group makes the point that protecting these reefs and atolls could well bring benefits to other parts of the ocean by providing a secure nursery for fish.

And with no-one but a few thousand military personnel in the place, no-one's lives would be compromised by new constraints.

So what's not to like?

One concern surrounds the Chagossians, who still hold out hope of securing a passage home.

Once there, they would need to live - and fishing, for local consumption or export, would be an obvious option.

So would full protection now make it less likely that they opt to return, supposing they eventually win their case - or less likely that they could survive independent of government support if they did return? The UK government has argued once before that it's virtually impossible for people to survive there without financial assistance.

At some point, when the US doesn't want its military base anymore, Diego Garcia and other islands will be given to Mauritius. Would it want to inherit such stringent protection over what would then amount to most of its territorial waters, and the expense of keeping them pristine?

A third concern is financial. Marine reserves need to be policed - and that will perhaps become increasingly important as demand for fish, especially high-value species such as tuna, increases.

But how should policing be funded if there is no income from tourism or from fishing in associated areas? Is that sustainable?

The UK consultation document tries to put the first two of these to bed. Any decision on a reserve will be made "without prejudice" to the Chagossian's legal battle, and it includes a joint communiqué in which Mauritius makes clear it's happy with the situation.

Yet by stressing that the decision will be made in the context of current UK policy that "there is no right of abode in the territory and all visitors need a permit", are UK authorities laying themselves open to the charge that protecting nature fits their people policy a little too comfortably?

One issue the plan certainly illustrates is the growing importance of archipelago states in marine conservation.

Increasingly, conservation groups are realising that you get a lot of "bangs for your buck" in protecting territorial waters in states made up of scattered islands. In the Chagos, territorial waters cover an area 10,000 times bigger than the actual land.

The Pew Environment Group is one making a lot of headway here, as demonstrated by its involvement in the Chagos application, the recently-declared Palau shark sanctuary, and the 2008 US Pacific territories plan.

Conservation science is clear on the importance of maintaining large, integrated areas where the habitat as well as the species are protected. And with no legal formulation yet in place for establishing reserves on the high seas - international waters - these archipelago nations are as good as it gets.

And the argument is made that if the Chagossians do eventually return with an exemption allowing them to fish, they would find themselves in some of the best-stocked seas on the planet.

So what do you think? Should the Chagos plan go ahead? Answers on a postcard, as they used to say, to the UK Foreign Office... or you could always post a comment here.

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