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Chagos: When Conservation Makes Refugees

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In February 1964, the British and Americans made a secret pact in London. For a discount of $ 11 million on American-made Polaris submarines, the British agreed to expel the 2,000 native inhabitants of Diego Gargia, the largest island of the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and hand over the island for use as an American military base. Nearly half a century later in 2009, the world’s largest marine protection zone was declared around the Chagos islands—with the exception of Diego Gargia—making Chagossians conservation refugees, in addition to exiles.

The term “conservation refugee” gained prominence only recently. Three years ago, US investigative journalist, Mark Dowie, exposed the kind of “fortress conservation” that advocates the absence of humans in order for nature to flourish in his book, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Conservation and Native Peoples. He calculated that over the past hundred years, 20 million people had been displaced from their homelands in the name of conservation alone.

Although the Chagossians were not displaced from their island because of conservation projects, they nonetheless became conservation refugees when the British Foreign Office identified conservation as its latest tactic to prevent Chagossians from going back to Diego Garcia. In a US diplomatic cable dated May 2009 and disclosed by Wikileaks, a British Foreign Office official was revealed to have told Americans that the decision to set up a “marine protected area” would “effectively end the islanders’ resettlement claims.”

Granted, a marine protected area around the Chagos islands is an important feat for conservation science. After all, the area around the Chagos islands hosts more than 1000 species of fish, 200 species of corals and numerous other aquatic animals including the endangered green and hawksbill turtles. It is also gigantic, spanning an area that is greater than France. Maintaining such a huge area where both the habitat and the species are protected, all conservationists agree, is a jackpot. Where conservationists diverge however is the topic of human integration in the conservation plan.

The Chagos Environmental Network (CEN), a group of environmental organizations that includes amongst others, the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT)—a little known group long dominated by former British diplomats and soldiers—and the Pew Charitable Trusts, an influential US philanthropic organisation, was behind the proposition to erect the marine protected area. CEN postulated a total ban on fishing in the marine protected area and is opposed to a settled population in Chagos.

CENs argument was that people, even a lowly 2,000 of them, would have a detrimental effect on the marine environment of the Chagos islands. Tellingly, the relatively mild environmental impact caused by the current Diego Garcia population (estimated at 1,700 US military personnel and 1,500 civilian contractors) went swiftly ignored.

The British Foreign Office readily adopted CEN’s postulation without consulting the Chagossians. This came as a shock to both Chagossians and a number of conservationists. David Snoxell, former British high commissioner in Mauritius and chair of the Marine Education Trust (MET) told the Guardian in 2010 that “everyone would have been happy with the creation of a marine protection area providing it had made provision for the interests of Chagossians and Mauritius, which it could so easily have done.”

In another Guardian article, published a year later in 2011, Dr. Mark Spalding, one of the world’s leading reef conservation scientists, said that although people would have an impact “this could be controlled.” He went further and declared that Chagossians who want to resettle to Diego Garcia should be allowed to do so because “there would be no [addition] to the environmental impact.” He also added that the infrastructure was already present on Diego Garcia with “harbours, an airport, shops, restaurants and even a cinema.”

In March 2010, Snoxell’s MET submitted a petition that called for the British Foreign Secretary to work with Chagossians and the Government of Mauritius to devise a solution “that makes provision for resettlement.” As opposed to CEN’s rigid view that no significant settlements should be allowed on the Chagos islands, MET proposed to integrate Chagossians to the conservation plan. MET’s proposal was the only one backed by the Chagossians. As far as I am aware, this was disregarded by the British Foreign Office.

Now in 2012, CEN has recently undertaken (and chronicled in Scientific American’s Expedition blog) the first scientific expedition to the area since its designation as a marine reserve. While the researchers were gleefully describing the beauty and richness of the Chagos sea in avid details, Chagossians meanwhile were still fighting for the right to set their eyes on it and go back to their homeland. Two weeks ago, their petition to the United States asking for resettlement to the outer Chagos islands, employment, and compensation gathered more than the required 25,000 signatures. The petition will now be reviewed by White House staff and receive an official response. A small feat perhaps, but one which gives hope to a population against which even science seems to have conspired.

More info:

Investigative journalism by John Pilger about the Chagossians’ forced exile (documentary):

Summary of the political issues related to the marine protected area by the BBC:

Related at Scientific American:

‘Conserving Chagos’ series at the Expeditions blog

Image credit: Solomons Atoll, part of the Chagos archipelago (credit: Anne Sheppard from Wikimedia Commons).


Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. adrianjackson 5:56 am 04/26/2012

    Great to see this in the Scientific American. I just wrote and produced a play which included just these issues, A Few Man Fridays (
    And we held some debates alongside, one of which was (deliberately) provocatively entitled: ‘Turtles versus People: Is it That Simple?’. Whilst scientists sympathetic to the Chagossians’ cause, such as Mark Spalding and David Simon, were very willing to take part, it proved absolutely impossible, in spite of repeated invitations, to persuade anyone who takes a less accomodating position regarding the potential presence of the Chagossians to express an opinion in public – Pew, Greenpeace, CEN, Charles Sheppard and others all ‘made their excuses’. Why are these scientists so fearful of expressing and debating their views ? It all feeds into the conspiracy theory view of the MPA and its establishment as per the Wikileaks cable. Am I misunderstanding science to believe that it is fundamentally based on testing ideas and theses, inviting opinion and counter-opinion in a process called ‘peer review’? And in the meantime, Professor Sheppard proudly blogs his happy and priveleged excursions into the wonderful reefs of the Chagos, without, it seems, an iota of awareness of how his jolly reports from the front will be received by those denied the right to be in the land of their origins. Greenpeace sadly also has a case to answer – it added its considerable muscle to the establishement of the MPA without much conversation with or reference to the Chagossian cause. The CEO, Mr Kumi Naidoo, is to give an Amnesty Lecture on May 10th, in which we are told he will address the link between Human Rights and Environmental Protection. I have written to him hoping that he will take this opportunity to clarify or even refine Greenpeace’s stance – so far I have received no direct reply from his office, only blocking and defensive emails.
    As the Chagossian cause is due soon to come before both the European Court of Human Rights, and now, as mentioned above, the US government, it is time for a more open, informed and realistic debate about the need to balance protection of the environment with the rights of a wronged people.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ELandriscina 11:08 am 04/26/2012

    This is an excellent article, particularly the observation that “While the researchers were gleefully describing the beauty and richness of the Chagos sea in avid details, Chagossians meanwhile were still fighting for the right to set their eyes on it and go back to their homeland.” While protection of the environment is a laudable goal, we now know through numerous sources that conservationists have been co-opted by two governments that have persistently sought to deny the basic human rights and dignity of the Chagossians. How can environmental rights be championed without acknowledgment of the Chagossians’ human rights? Paolo Freire writes, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” The conservationists, it seems, have cast their lot with the powerful.

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  3. 3. ZSL_Chagos Outreach 12:16 pm 05/2/2012

    Firstly, it is important to point out that neither the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), nor any other member of the CEN has ever opposed resettlement of Chagos by the Chagossian people.

    Recently, ZSL has teamed up with the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) and other environmental organisations in a new initiative, working closely with the UK-based Chagossian communities to help connect Chagossians with their wildlife heritage, raise awareness of the environmental challenges that the Indian Ocean faces, and create opportunities for Chagossians to get trained, supported and actively involved in the protection of their homeland. This new project will be running a two-stage programme towards increasing environmental awareness and capacity building within UK Chagossian communities. We then hope to extend this beyond the UK to Chagossian communities in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

    The work of ZSL and its partners is entirely dedicated towards the Chagossian community on this project and we hope to work with all groups, individuals, and communities, regardless of their position on the right to return or their political opinions. The Chagos Archipelago is one of the last parts of the Indian Ocean to survive in a healthy state, and so protecting it is crucial for the many communities that live in coastal regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, especially on the coast of East Africa, where people rely on the sea for their food and livelihoods. The Chagos Environment Community Project is hoping to raise awareness about the importance of the Chagos Islands as an ecological refuge for many marine and terrestrial wildlife and offer the opportunity to interested Chagossians groups and societies to take part in the protection and promotion of the ecological and economic importance of this archipelago, which remains unknown by a large part of the population in the UK.

    Link to this
  4. 4. skeptic again 2:08 pm 05/2/2012

    Following many of these blogs against the Chagos MPA, I become increasingly disgusted at the way people are happy to voice their opinions in total ignorance!

    The people were removed from the islands almost 40 years ago.

    The MPA was created to protect the islands from poachers 2 years ago.

    So you all think that the poachers should just be allowed back in? That would be the only result if the MPA was rescinded. There is much information out there in the literature, please read it and be informed. You are being led, gullibly, by people who have ulterior motives, funded by the international tuna fisheries who want to get back to Chagos to make a lot of money by raiding the Chagos fish stocks.

    Think about it!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Richard Dunne 6:49 am 05/29/2012

    Khalil’s blog is a fair assessment of what happened during the creation of the MPA. He speaks of “a lowly 2,000 of them” referring to number of Chagossians who might have an effect on the marine environment. In fact the number who would wish to return to their islands is likely to be many fewer, possibly only 150. Also contrary to what he reports, the US base on Diego Garcia has not had “relatively mild environmental impact”. It has drastically altered almost one half of the island, dredged and blasted the lagoon, removed some of the windward coral back-reef on up to 4km of shoreline, spilt several million gallons of jet fuel, introduced many invasive plant and animal species….. The list goes on. Its population also fishes the waters of Diego Garcia purely for fun, removing 46 tonnes of fish each year. Its global carbon footprint is considerable – everything is imported by ship or by air to feed and supply the base.

    Skeptic Again draws our attention to the fact that the removal of the Chagossians happened 40 years ago. Yes it did but does this make it any the less wrong? The remarkable thing is that when they were there, the impact on the marine environment was very slight and the coral reefs were, in 1978 which is 5 years after their removal, in the best recorded condition. They have deteriorated since partly as a consequence of sea water warming and coral bleaching. He goes on the say that “The MPA was created to protect the islands from poachers 2 years ago”. This is not correct. Since 2003 the islands have had a 200nm Environment (Preservation & Protection) Zone which has been policed by the same Patrol Boat that currently enforces the MPA. The MPA is identical in size and relies on the same protection that has been in force for the last 20 years. Illegal Poachers have always been a problem and will continue to be so. Nothing has changed or is likely to change simply because an MPA has been declared. If the MPA was rescinded the poachers would not be allowed to exploit the EPPZ. The issue of whether legal tuna fishing should be allowed is and always has been within the gift of the BIOT Government. They chose to allow it because it brought in revenue (about £700,000 to £1M per year). Equally they can choose to prevent all tuna fishing which is what they have done now, but they have now had to turn to a charity to help finance the Patrol Boat.

    ZSL Chagos Outreach promotes the work it is doing with UK based Chagossian communities. This is not entirely honest. In reality they are only working so far with the community in Crawley rather than all of the UK based Chagossians. The Crawley community is largely from Diego Garcia and only want to go back there – a prospect that is unachievable until the US leave the island. The much larger UK and Mauritian based Chagossian communities wish to return to the whole island archipelago which included the northern atolls of Peros Banhos and Salomon. Nor is the writer frank about why this is being done. In part to salve the conscience of ZSL and CEN who supported and advocated a total No Take MPA in the certain knowledge that this would be a further barrier to Chagossian resettlement. It was CEN and Pew who initiated the idea of the No Take MPA and used their influence and money to persuade the British Government (who saw it as a means for excluding the Chagossians). Nor did they engage with the Chagossians or encourage the Government to do so, quite the contrary, they have ignored them entirely until now. Nor have they supported Chagossian involvement in a proposal for a Science Station and Marine Park base in the northern atolls. It may be correct to say that they have not (publicly) opposed resettlement but equally they have never supported it nor have they supported the Chagossians and their attempts to redress the terrible wrongs that were done to them by the British Government.
    If you would like to learn more about the Chagos then please visit:

    Link to this

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