Saving our seas: Jellyfish, slime and the Chagos Islanders

By Dr Sean Carey

“Have we left it too late to save our seas?” ran the headline above Frank Pope’s article in the Times last week. The newspaper’s Ocean Correspondent and occasional TV presenter issued a stark warning that unless action is taken to protect coral reefs and similar ecosystems around the world, then in the not too distant future the seas “will be dominated by jellyfish and slime”.

Sounds a bit scary, doesn’t it? Be assured though that not all is doom and gloom. In the Coral Triangle in the Philippines, for example, we learn that local fishermen have got together to create marine reserves where no fishing is allowed. The case of the Chagos Archipelago, the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a full no-take zone, where the coral reefs are in pristine condition and the water is crystal clear is also cited. “Wherever it’s given a chance the ocean shows enormous power to bounce back, and fast,” Pope writes approvingly. “The race is on. Can adequate protection be put in place fast enough to prevent the complex weave of ocean ecosystems from unravelling?”

It’s a good question. I wish I knew the answer. I would like to think that with pressure from local communities and NGOs, appropriate technologies based on cutting-edge science, and good amounts of political will by relevant governments, it is possible. The idea of marine parks where fishing fleets using industrial dredging methods are kept out and fishing stocks are allowed to replenish is certainly a good idea. But does that mean that all fishing as in Chagos has to stop? That doesn’t seem very sensible. Something else must be going on.

On 1 April 2010, the then Labour Government created a marine reserve in the Chagos Archipelago. To bring Frank Pope up to date, in April 2012 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office corrected the size of the reserve upwards, from 544,000 to 640,000 square kilometres, citing a “clerical error”.

At the time of its creation, the Chagos reserve was the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. Now it is the third-largest following the declaration on 23 February by the UK Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands of a new MPA measuring 1.07 million square kilometres. This was followed by a further announcement on 28 August by the Cook Islands declaring that almost 1.1 million square kilometres of its territory was being set aside for “integrated ocean conservation and management”.

Both South Georgia-South Sandwich Islands and the Cook Islands, like almost all MPAs, will use zoning so that economic activities like fishing, tourism and even mineral extraction are compatible with “core biodiversity”. In other words, people can have livelihoods at the same time as the environment is protected. Very sensible.

So why no fishing in the Chagos Archipelago? Well, as Wikileaks revealed the “no take” policy put paid to the right of return of the 1500 or so islanders, who Pope mentions in passing were “relocated”. He adds: “The move remains controversial in terms of human rights, but for the ocean it was one enormous win.”

Controversial in terms of human rights? You can say that again. The Chagos Islanders’ African slave ancestors were first brought to the island of Diego Garcia, now home to one of the US’s most important bases, by French plantation owners in the late 18th century. Between 1968 and 1973 the Islanders were forcibly removed from all of the islands in the Archipelago by the British authorities and dumped at the dockside in Mauritius and the Seychelles and left to fend for themselves. The episode is undoubtedly one of the most shameful in recent British colonial history. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t gone unchallenged.

After a series of spectacular victories in the British courts, the Chagossians suffered a narrow 3-2 defeat regarding their right of return in the House of Lords in 2008. The case is now pending at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Yet as John Reed, writing in last Friday’s Financial Times, tellingly noted: “British officials have expressed regret over the Chagossians’ plight in recent years, but have never formally apologised.”

There is a further point. How can Pope or anyone else know precisely what Chagos would be like today if the population had not been sent into exile? My guess is that the likelihood of a couple of thousand people living on a few of the 55 coral atolls in an area larger in size than the Iberian Peninsula having huge adverse effects on the Chagos ecosystem is close to zero. So, the problem I have with environmentalists like The Times’s Ocean Correspondent is this: humans seem to be useful if they are perceived to fit the green agenda, say, in the Philippines but expendable if they don’t as in the case of Chagos.

Why should this be? Having attended several conferences at which a number of conservative conservationists, based at UK universities or working for NGOs, have either tried to defend the indefensible regarding the expulsion of the Chagos Islanders – the clear blue waters and the size of the fish in BIOT are compensatory in some weird calculation in their metaphorical environmental ledger – or sat on the fence in terms of their organisations’ public position towards the islanders’ right of return, I have come to the conclusion that many don’t really like their fellow humans.

Or rather, they apparently like people like themselves, English-speaking, upper-middle-class types (British or American) with a passionate professional or private interest in the environment. But they don’t seem to trust working-class Creoles, who are deemed incapable of being stewards of an ecosystem in which they lived very successfully for the best part of two centuries.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 14 September 2012

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