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The Times Online/UK

Chagossians Fight for a Home in Paradise

Catherine Philp

Diego Garcia (Chagos Archipelago) British Indian Ocean Territory. “To say that a small group of Chagossians could have a greater impact than the base is just crazy,” Dr Spalding said. (photo by flickr user Drew Avery)

If ever there was an oceanic treasure worthy of conservation, the Chagos
archipelago, with its crystal-clear waters and jewelled reefs, is it. Yet
the British Government’s plans have split the gentle world of marine
conservation, created a diplomatic row with Indian Ocean states and turned
the spotlight on to the archipelago’s place in Britain’s darker colonial

The British Indian Ocean Territory, as it is officially known, is the
ancestral home of the Chagossians, the 2,000 people and their descendents
that Britain removed forcibly from the islands in the Seventies to make way
for a US air and naval base on the main island, Diego Garcia. Despite
Britain repeatedly overruling court judgments in their favour, the exiled
Chagossians have continued their struggle. This summer their case will be
heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. By then, however
— if David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, gets his way — the Chagos will
have been designated a marine protected area (MPA), where activities such as
fishing and construction are banned, denying them any legal means to sustain
their lives.

It is, depending on your view, a sinister trick to prevent the Chagossians
returning; an easy piece of environmental legacy building by a Government
about to lose power; or an act of arrogant imperialism to rob the
territory’s true owners of any say in its future.

Perhaps the most compelling case against the plan, however, is made by the
swelling cadre of environmentalists opposing the project in the belief that
— far from protecting this pristine paradise — it could hasten its
destruction. “Even if I didn’t care about human rights, I would say this is
a terrible mistake,” said Dr Mark Spalding, one of the world’s foremost
experts on reef conservation.

“The world of conservation is littered with failures where the people involved
were not consulted. If the Chagossians win the right to return, why should
they want to co-operate with the conservation groups running roughshod over


The Government’s proposal acknowledges that the entire plan may have to be
scrapped if the Chagossians are allowed to return. “That would make it the
shortest-lived protection area in the world,” Dr Spalding said. “So you have
to ask: what’s the rush to get this done before [the Strasbourg ruling and]
a general election?”

Mr Miliband will begin to examine the cases for and against the reserve next
week, after public consultations ended yesterday. A decision is expected
within weeks, but the Foreign Secretary already sounds convinced. “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,” he wrote.

Many of the world’s leading conservation groups have thrown their weight
behind the proposal, which emphasises the advantage of the islands being
“uninhabited”. They are not: the original islanders were removed from Diego
Garcia to make way for a military base that houses 1,500 US service
personnel, 1,700 civilian contractors and 50 British sailors. The island,
which constitutes 90 per cent of the landmass of the Chagos, is, in effect,
to be exempt from the protection order.

Peter Sand, a British environmental lawyer who has investigated the US base’s
impact, has documented four jet fuel spills totalling 1.3 million gallons
since it was built and has lobbied unsuccessfully for information on
radiation leakage from nuclear-powered vessels there. “To say that a small
group of Chagossians could have a greater impact than the base is just
crazy,” Dr Spalding said.

The plan has also sparked a diplomatic row with Mauritius and the Seychelles,
from whom the Chagos Islands were taken and to whom Britain has agreed to
cede them when they are no longer needed by the US military. Britain faces
further embarrassment over allegations that Diego Garcia was used to moor US
prison ships where “ghost” prisoners were tortured.

The Prime Minister of Mauritius said last week that he was “appalled” by the
decision to press ahead with plans for the reserve, “It is unacceptable that
the British claim to protect marine fauna and flora when they insist on
denying Chagos-born Mauritians the right to return to their islands all the
while,” Navin Chandra Ramgoolam said at the inauguration of a building for
Chagossian refugees in the Mauritian capital. “How can you say you will
protect coral and fish when you continue to violate the rights of Chagos’s
former inhabitants?”

Britain originally offered the US the Aldabra atoll for its base but backed
down after uproar from environmentalists. Aldabra, now a World Heritage
Site, was uninhabited by humans but home to hundreds of thousands of giant
tortoises. “The British had refused to create a base on Aldabra in the
Seychelles not to harm its tortoise population,” marvelled Olivier Bancoult,
head of the Chagos Refugees Group. “Now they are trying to create a
protected area to prevent Chagossians from returning to their native

Shifting sands

1960s The Chagos archipelago, originally part of Mauritius, is secretly
leased to Britain. Together with the Aldabra archipelago, taken from the
Seychelles, they become the British Indian Ocean Territory

1970 Britain and the US agree to set up a military base on Diego
Garcia, and Britain begins deporting the 2,000 Chagossians to Seychelles and

1983 £1m compensation is paid to the refugees on Mauritius

2000 British High Court rules in favour of Chagossians demanding the
right to return

2004 Government issues a royal prerogative striking down the court’s

2006 The Court of Appeal dismisses the Government’s appeal, saying its
methods are unlawful and “an abuse of power”; 102 Chagossians are permitted
to visit Diego Garcia for a day to tend relatives’ graves

2008 Law lords vote 3-2 in favour of Government, overruling High Court

2009 Foreign Office launches public consultation on the creation of a
protected marine area

2010 The European Court of Human Rights is set to hear the Chagossians’
petition to return this summer

Source: Times database

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