Sean Carey

Mauritius boycotts UK meeting about ‘marine protected area’ in Chagos


— Sean Carey


The last meeting about creating a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Archipelago in August 2009 was boycotted by two scientists who were uncomfortable about representatives from the Mauritian government and the exiled Chagos Islanders not being invited. This latest workshop, about related social and economic issues, was boycotted by Mauritius itself.

The workshop, “Managing a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Archipelago: Socio-Economic Considerations”, held by the Marine Education Trust, an NGO devoted to environmental education, was held at the Royal Holloway College on 7 January.



Thirty-three delegates attended the event. Unfortunately for the organisers snow and ice took its toll on the number of participants attending the workshop, meaning that a third of those who signed up didn’t make it.

One of those missing was the Mauritius High Commissioner, Abhimanyu Kundasamy, who was one of four speakers billed to give an opening statement. But his absence had nothing to do with the weather and a lot to do with instructions from Port Louis.

Reports from Mauritius indicated that the government led by Dr Navin Ramgoolam was not happy with the way things were shaping up in discussions with Britain and so it was decided to boycott the workshop.

This was confirmed when the Mauritian Minister of External Affairs, Dr Arvin Boolell, said in an interview on Radio-Plus last week that his government had decided to postpone a third round of talks with the UK following the failure of the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to follow through on his undertaking which, according to Dr Ramgoolam, had been made at November’s Commonwealth summit. This was to discuss the proposed MPA at the bilateral talks in January.

But back to the event: glossy handouts were available to delegates in the reception area which underlined the importance of a marine reserve in the Chagos Archipelago. One was a report of the August workshop held at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and published by the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

In it we learnt that the main justification for the MPA is “the size, location, biodiversity, neo-pristine nature and health of the Chagos coral reefs, likely to make a significant contribution to the wider biological productivity of the Indian Ocean.” Identifying various “knowledge gaps” were also highlighted in the text using the latest fashionable scientific jargon including the “deep sea geophysics in BIOT area”, “open ocean plankton studies and abundance estimates for top predators (blue water fish and sea mammals)”, and the “biological connectivity of BIOT area wider region (via genetics, tagging and modelling, and including open-ocean fisheries)”.

Another publication, the December issue of Forum News 35, produced by the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum had a front page headline “Chagos Archipelago Marine Protected Area – your chance to influence policy”. Further down the page we find out that the “Chagos Archipelago (or British Indian Ocean Territory, BIOT) contains the world’s largest coral atoll and is the site of the greatest marine bio diversity in the UK and its Territories by far.” The brochure also had an acknowledgement of the current legal position regarding the exiled population: “Many readers will be aware of the controversy over re-settlement rights of the Chagossians, and it should be noted that the current consultation over environmental protection is being undertaken without prejudice to the outcome of current, pending proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights.”

Speakers at the workshop included Dr Chris Mees (MRAG) who argued that a strict “no take” fishing policy in the MPA would almost certainly increase the risk of illegal fishing, especially by Sri Lankan fishermen. Preventing this would require new forms of onshore and offshore surveillance, perhaps even the use of satellite technology. Dr Mees also pointed out that Mauritius had historical fishing rights in BIOT and noted that if the Chagos Islanders were to return to their homeland they would almost certainly start off by fishing in the most vulnerable reef and bank areas in order to feed themselves and earn a livelihood.

Pippa Gravestock (University of York) stated that “the lack of human impact” in the Chagos area “provides an unusual opportunity for scientific ‘baseline’ studies on a relatively undisturbed ecosystem”. Ms Gravestock also said that putting an economic value on the Chagos Archipelago was very difficult but that “its greatest value may lay in returning a large and unmolested reef system” for the benefit of future generations. She did, however, suggest a figure for visitors to the Archipelago based on Aldabra, part of the Seychelles, where tourists from “cruise ships, super yachts and dive boats” contribute around €180,000 per annum. It was feasible, therefore, to envisage that around 3000 visitors annually would be able to visit Peros Banhos and Salomon which at £100 per head would generate revenue of £300,000 per annum.

Ms Gravestock also noted that some 3-4 million people in South West Indian Ocean countries including Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and the Seychelles derive their livelihoods from the currently abundant resources of the Indian Ocean so the establishment of a MPA would have important economic and political implications in the region.

Participants also heard from Professor David Simon (Royal Holloway College) who chaired the workshop. He questioned the assumption put forward by several speakers that the only activities that returning Chagos Islanders could be involved in were fishing and tourism. “Why couldn’t they be employed in scientific monitoring of the islands and reefs?” he asked.

Bashir Khan (representing the Chagos Refugee Group) made a telling point when he observed that historically the Chagos Islanders had always been on the receiving end of decisions made by people and groups more socially powerful than themselves. “Their voices must be heard this time,” he declared. He also said that there was widespread concern in Mauritius and elsewhere that Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the Chagos Archipelago, would be excised from the proposed MPA in order to protect the US base from environmental scrutiny and put it beyond the claims of Mauritian sovereignty. “This would be a double excision,” he said.

Richard Gifford (Clifford Chance) stated that there would be a significant advantage in having a resident population on the Chagos Islands and that any discussion about a MPA in the Chagos Archipelago should start from this position.

However, one environmentalist questioned the validity of this proposition. Alastair Gammell (Chagos Environment Network) said that a MPA did not necessarily need people “although there might be other reasons why a population might be there. We need to look at the scenarios of Chagossian settlement and no settlement.”

Mr Gifford who has been the Chagos Refugee Group’s UK legal representative since 1998 was evidently not impressed with a “no settlement” scenario and he was backed by David Snoxell, the former British High Commisioner to Mauritius, Chairman of the Marine Education Trust, and Co-ordinator of the UK Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), who stated that “local people should be fully engaged” and “at the heart of discussions” about the proposed MPA. Mr Gifford also suggested that in order to gain an accurate assessment of the environmental impact of human settlement on the outer Chagos Islands “an environmental audit of the US presence over the last 40 years on Diego Garcia should be carried out.”

The summing up was provided by Professor David Simon. He established that everyone at the workshop was in favour of the proposed MPA in the Chagos Archipelago.

My overall impression: the workshop was a very useful exercise in establishing some of the parameters. However, a lot more work needs to be done in identifying and filling the large number of “knowledge gaps” not only on the important scientific issues relevant to the proposed MPA but also on the practicalities and sustainability of human resettlement.

In any event, the results of the January 7 workshop were discussed a few days later at the APPG which held a meeting on 12 January. Its chairman, Jeremy Corbyn MP, made it clear when he addressed the MPA workshop in the morning session that whilst British parliamentarians supported the proposed MPA, Chagossian interests had to be protected. The Chairman also reported to the APPG that he had written to Barbara Lee, Chair of the US Congressional Black Caucus, and that a date for the Group to meet with William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, would be arranged in the near future.

But while further research will almost certainly be funded by the British government it is important in the interest of transparency that any work should be carried out by independent consultants and the results placed in the public domain as soon as possible. This is particularly relevant given the suspicion to be found among some key stakeholders that the conclusions of a report commissioned by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 2002 on the feasibility of resettlement had been deliberately manipulated in order to block the Chagos Islanders returning to their homeland.

So it would seem that there are a lot of loose ends to tie up before an MPA gets the necessary support from all relevant stakeholders. Furthermore, although discussion of Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty to the Chagos Archipelago was beyond the scope of the workshop there can be little doubt that without the agreement of the Mauritian government it would be legally almost impossible for the UK to declare a marine protected area in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps it was for this reason that Dr Boolell in his radio interview last week felt confident enough to say: “We expect the British government to clarify its position soon.” Mauritians must be hoping that he is right.


Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University

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