BBC in row over misleading Chagos programme

By Sean Carey

A letter signed by a galaxy of reef scientists, academics, parliamentarians, lawyers, broadcasters, the Patrons and Chair of the UK Chagos Support Association and Chagos exile, Roch Evenor, and the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, has been sent to BBC Complaints regarding a programme broadcast on Radio 4 earlier this month.

The programme, ‘OK Coral’, which focused on some of the world’s coral reefs, included an interview with Rachel Jones, Deputy Team Leader of the Aquarium at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) about the Chagos Archipelago, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Former UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, unilaterally declared the Archipelago, which had been excised from the colony of Mauritius in breach of international law prior to independence in 1968, a Marine Protected Area (MPA) on 1 April 2010.

Amongst other things, the signatories of the letter take exception to the idea that the current health of most coral reefs in the Chagos Archipelago can be explained by the absence of a human population after the forced removal of around 1600 islanders from their homeland by the British authorities between 1971 and 1973, which allowed the US to build its military base on Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the Archipelago.

Apparently, the science of the coral reefs of the Chagos Archipelago is much more complex than Ms Jones and her colleagues in the Chagos Environment Network (CEN), which actively lobbied for the creation of the MPA, claim. The signatories accuse the programme of undermining the work of all those who are engaged in trying to reconcile the rights of the Chagos Islanders to return to their homeland with the need to conserve this unique marine environment. They have invited the BBC to commission a further programme, which balances the arguments on all sides. 

Letter addressed to BBC Complaints 

 Dear Sir

Costing the Earth – OK Coral – Radio 4 – Broadcast 2 & 3 March 2011

One part of your programme in the Costing the Earth series, ‘OK Coral’ which was broadcast on 2 and 3 March 2011 on Radio 4 contained serious errors of fact and as a result is likely to have misled listeners.

The programme was concerned with coral reefs and the “unexpected toughness of reefs”. It was structured mainly on interviews with leading coral reef scientists, including Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Dr John Pandolfi, Professor David Smith, Dr David Suggett, and a PhD student, Caroline Palmer. We agree with much of what those interviewees said.

The programme also interviewed Ms Rachel Jones, Deputy Team Leader of the Aquarium at ZSL, who had been a member of an expedition to the Chagos Archipelago in 2006. Unlike the other contributors, she is not an established coral reef research scientist. Ms Jones’ interview is to be found between the times 13.42 to 16.50 on the iPlayer version.

This part of the programme centred on the Chagos Archipelago, formally called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which on 1 April 2010 was declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA) by the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. The programme introduced this as a “conservation zone”.

Ms Jones painted a rosy picture of the health of the Chagos reefs, which she attributed to the lack of a human population since the 1970s, apart from a military base on one island. Specifically she claimed that in the Chagos islands the coral reef “reverted to its natural conditions” following the removal of the inhabitants in the 1970s. She went on to describe the corals as being in “incredible condition” with “amazing coral cover everywhere”, that the Chagos reefs have “a huge impact on the rest of the Western Indian Ocean”, being “able to replenish other reefs further downstream” and acting as a “source of new genetic material for reefs in the region”. She described “how incredibly resilient natural systems are when they are given a chance” and that the Chagos corals “have recovered better than they have anywhere else in the Indian Ocean, more quickly and completely” following seawater warming in 1998.

Whilst we commend Ms Jones’ enthusiasm for conservation, it is with these statements that we have significant concern. In each case we will detail the material inaccuracies but first need to set in context the importance of this part of the interview and why it should have been better grounded.

Between 1968 and 1973 the Chagos islands were depopulated by the UK Government to make way for a US Military Base on the principal island of Diego Garcia, in breach of international law. What happened attracted the opprobrium of the United Nations under General Assembly Resolution 2066 (XX), and continues to be heavily criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee. The former islanders, Chagossians as they are known, have campaigned for their right to return, including a series of cases in the UK Courts during the last decade. There is currently pending a case before the European Court of Human Rights, and an application for a Judicial Review against the MPA consultation process. Moreover, construction of the military base on Diego Garcia entailed extensive blasting operations after the Islanders’ eviction and these were far more destructive of the reefs and ecology than the lifestyles of the former residents – another fact overlooked or unknown by Ms Jones.

A campaign for the Chagossians’ former islands to be declared an MPA was launched in 2009 by a consortium of organisations known as the Chagos Environment Network (CEN), including ZSL of which Ms Jones is an employee. The CEN produced publicity material in support of their campaign. Ms Jones appeared in that and also in an interview posted to YouTube. We contend that much of what was represented by CEN during the campaign was factually incorrect. Ms Jones’ interview for your programme repeated many of those inaccuracies. The overall effect gives the impression that previous human habitation in the Chagos may have been detrimental to the health and viability of the coral reefs, thereby leading your listeners to believe that any return of the Chagos Islanders would be damaging to the future conservation of the Archipelago. This undermines the work of all those who are engaged in reconciling the rights of the Islanders to return to their homeland with the need to conserve this unique marine environment – in which the Islanders would have a keen vested interest.

We are a group comprising a former Deputy Commissioner of BIOT, Parliamentarians, authors, broadcasters, lawyers, academics, a former resident of Diego Garcia, and coral reef scientists who believe that conservation and human habitation can work to the benefit of both and that this should be presented fairly and honestly, whether in the courts or in the media.

The specific complaints

In each of the quotes highlighted above, Ms Jones misinterprets the known scientific facts. Contrary to what she says about the reef reverting “to its natural conditions” (whatever this may be) after the islanders were removed, surveys of the reefs actually show that the island-wide coral cover declined from an average of 59% in 1978 when the first survey was conducted, to only 36% 18 years later [1][1]. This is evidence that the reefs were in much better condition shortly after the last plantations were closed in 1973 than after a subsequent period of 18 years of depopulation. Additionally, after the ocean wide thermal warming and consequent death of corals in the Chagos and elsewhere in 1998, mean coral cover in 2006 from the two northern atolls which had been surveyed in 1978 and 1996 was reported to range between about 25 and 35% and archipelago wide cover was also very variable [2][2]. To the experienced coral reef scientists amongst us, this is hardly the “incredible condition” or “amazing coral cover everywhere” that Ms Jones describes; indeed the latter statement also runs counter to what is known and understood about the zonation of reefs.

There is also no published evidence that the Chagos reefs have recovered “more quickly” and more “completely” than “anywhere else in the Indian Ocean” as Ms Jones states. Indeed at sites heavily impacted by humans in the eastern Indian Ocean where two of our number work, corals are observed to recover from perturbations equally well if not better, whilst on Aldabra which, like the Chagos, is similarly remote and little impacted, documented recovery since 1998 has been very poor. The ability of reefs to recover from disturbance and to be described as “resilient” is much more scientifically complex than was portrayed and is clearly not only related to population pressures.

Finally, the proposition that the Chagos reefs are a source of new genetic material to replenish other reefs downstream is as yet unsubstantiated by any published scientific evidence.

We agree with Ms Jones’ statement: “how incredibly resilient natural systems are when given a chance” in the context of coral reefs. However, the implication that the Chagos reefs had somehow been damaged by the plantations and their human habitation over a 200 year period is unsubstantiated, and any implication that future resettlement by the Chagossians would necessarily reduce this resilience is unjust.

Any protection afforded to the reefs of the Chagos in the last 240 years has nothing to do with the very recently declared MPA but is due in part to the Chagossians’ former way of life and their past dependence and respect for this ecosystem together, more recently with the remote location of these islands. This protection however does not extend to the effects of changes in the world’s climate, nor to prevent people visiting them (many dozens of yachts anchor in the lagoons of Peros Banhos and Salomon each year), nor to prevent the large quantity of human rubbish that is carried onto their shores [3][3] [4][4] each year from many thousands of miles away.

Whilst the Chagossians are powerless on their own to resist global climate change, they have a future in protecting and preserving the coral reefs and islands of the Chagos as wardens of the new Marine Protected Area but to do so they need to reside in the islands. It is a role that they have expressly endorsed. By misrepresenting the facts, Ms Jones’ broadcast interview unfairly dismisses the rights of the Chagossians, and promotes the false notion that the Chagos Archipelago is unquestionably better maintained as a wilderness park.

In the interest of fairness and accuracy in reporting, we would invite the BBC to consider commissioning a further programme specifically dealing with the ecology of the Chagos Archipelago and the new Marine Protected Area which balances the arguments on all sides and includes both coral reef scientists and other participants, not least Chagossian voices.

Yours sincerely

Lord Avebury – Professor David Bellamy OBE – Sir Peter Bottomley MP – Professor Barbara E Brown, Emeritus Professor of Tropical Marine Biology, Newcastle University – Dr Sean Carey, Research Fellow, Department of Social Sciences, Roehampton University – Jeremy Corbyn MP, Chairman of the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group – Richard P Dunne, Former Royal Naval Officer, Barrister, coral reef researcher – Professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo – Roch Evenor, Chair UK Chagos Support Association – Ben Fogle, Broadcaster, Writer and Patron UK Chagos Association – Andrew George MP – Richard Gifford, Legal representative, Chagos Refugees Group (Mauritius), Chagos Social Committee (Seychelles) – Dr Philippa Gregory, Author and Patron UK Chagos Support Association – Tom Hooper MBE, Trustee – Marine Education Trust – Dr Peter Jones, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University College London – Baroness Kinnock – Lord Luce – Lord Ramsbotham – Andrew Rosindell MP – Professor David Simon, Professor in Development Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London – David Snoxell, Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, British High Commissioner to Mauritius 2000-04, Deputy Commissioner of BIOT 1995-7, Chairman of the Marine Education Trust – Lord Steel – Baroness Whitaker – Celia Whittaker, UK Chagos Support Association

 8 March 2011 

* * *  
  1. Sheppard CRC (1999) Changes in coral cover on reefs of Chagos over 18 years. In: Sheppard CRC, Seaward MRD (eds) Ecology of the Chagos Archipelago. Linnean Society, London – see pages 95-96 & Table 1.
  2. Sheppard CRC, Harris A, Sheppard ALS (2008) Archipelago-wide coral recovery patterns since 1998 in the Chagos Archipelago, central Indian Ocean. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 362:109-117 – see Figs 3b & 5
  3. Price ARG (1999) Broadscale coastal environmental assessment of the Chagos Archipelago. In: Sheppard CRC, Seaward MRD (eds) Ecology of the Chagos Archipelago. Linnean Society, London – see page 290 & Fig 4.
  4. Major Peter Carr, RM, Executive Officer British Party Diego Garcia in Chagos News 35 – January 2010 – see pages 10-15.

* Published in print edition on 25 March 2011

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