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).