Friday, February 05, 2010

Greenpeace and the Chagos Islands

You may recently have received a petition from a well-meaning friend with a request to sign it and circulate, or it might have come to your notice in the form of an appeal from Greenpeace – “it” being the planned creation of one of the world’s largest marine reserves around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

In November last year, the UK Marine Bill was passed into law for the purpose of protecting the seas around Britain through the creation of Marine Preservation Areas (MPAs) which we can all agree I am sure, are very good things to have. The protection of the seas, as opposed to fisheries, has long been neglected and the world’s oceans have for long enough been our common dumping grounds. So any initiative along the lines of MPAs can only be another Very Good Thing surely, particularly if championed by Greenpeace? Well not entirely.

You see another initiative announced by the Foreign Office in November 2009 was the setting up of two consultations – one to look at ways of providing better environmental protection for Antarctica, and the other to consider whether the Chagos Archipelago, which is a British Indian Ocean territory, should become an MPA. Many of you will be becoming aware I am sure by now, that an issue is beginning to emerge here.

Greenpeace is at present galvanising their membership to write to David Miliband the Foreign Secretary, calling on him to make sure that this reserve is in fact created and to help the consultation committee with their comments.

The consultation period closes on the 12th February so the time for action is limited as they point out. My suggestion however is that people should indeed write to Miliband urging him not to agree the creation of such a reserve on the basis of the dismal history of Diego Garcia, the main island of the Chagos Archipelago, which the British Government had such a treacherous hand in.

The background history of Diego Garcia and the fate of the Chagossians, or the Ilois people to give their correct ethnic name, is a story of treachery and betrayal which began in 1965 the year when Chagos, along with Mauritius, was to have received its independence. The Labour government of Harold Wilson at the insistence of the United States, leased the islands to Washington for 50 years making 2015 the year that the lease should run out. However, the US was also given the option of a 20 year extension which they appear, without consultation with the Ilois, to have taken up.

But then nobody has ever consulted them, not in 1965 when every man, woman and child was evicted from their island home with no compensation and no right of return. It was wholescale ethnic cleansing leaving the islands clear for the Americans to build a military base there. The base was used in the first Gulf War during the bombing raids on Iraq and again during the second war against Iraq and will probably be used in whatever other adventures the US regime embarks upon in the region.

The Ilois themselves have disappeared from view more or less. Many settled in Mauritius, inhabiting squalid slums, some came to Britain and have argued their case in the courts. They actually won the right to resettle. New Labour, however, has blocked all their attempts to return and continues to ignore the rights of these quiet people.

It is an outrage which has gathered little notice or controversy. The deliberate secrecy of the original deal with Washington and the continuing deception and betrayal are ugly and cruel. Therefore the issue of the plight and brave fight of the exiled people of Diego Garcia should be supported and publicised, with demands made for a right of return for all those who wish to and full consultation on the creation of an MPA. Marine reserves do not depend on the total clearance of humans, after all more such reserves are being considered for Britain. Why should Chagos be any different?

Fiona Harrington

1 comment:

restive5relic said...

Dear Fiona,

While the description of historic events in the Chagos which you put forward in your post has become conventional wisdom in certain circles, through energetic and disingenuous repetition, it remains utter rubbish. It would be a great shame if this rare opportunity to block any future human depredations in such a relatively pristine marine environment were thwarted by mindless and unjustified concern for a long absent population of contract workers and their spreading worldwide circle of descendants.

The Chagos can become, as now is Agalega, a last refuge for wild marine genetic diversity. The real difference between the Chagos and Agalega (do you know where that is and how long it has been what it is?) is that the archipelago is a hundred-fold larger and more significant.

Had not the Diego Garcia base agreement removed the commercial copra plantation it replaced, there would likely be little left in the archipelago reefs today, a half century later, to preserve.