Sean Carey

No people in Chagos: A conservative approach to marine conservation


— Sean Carey


Frank Pope’s article in The Times last week,“Investment is essential for biological wonderland of the Chagos islands”, was written to highlight the pristine state of the British Indian Ocean Territory and why the area should be designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA). “There is none of the fertiliser, pesticide, silt or construction debris that are choking reefs elsewhere,” he says before issuing a series of warnings about the various categories of people who, with the notable exception of “scientists who go without sunscreen for fear of contaminating the water”, would mess up the area if allowed in. Put simply, the claim is that the current pristine quality of the Archipelago is all down to “the lack of inhabitants”. Tourists are particularly problematic we are told: “Conservationists warn that even small numbers of visitors would risk destroying the area’s value as a scientific reference point against which to gauge climate change.” Fishermen are also dangerous because according to one marine scientist “the position of the islands and the prevailing currents helps to seed fish stocks and reefs elsewhere in the Indian Ocean”.

But then we come to Pope’s real target: the possible return of some of the exiled Chagos Islanders whose case is currently before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Their return to their homeland would involve “constructing an airport and town” which would be “both financially and environmentally ruinous” to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office although Pope conveniently omits to mention that Mauritius has stated that it will pick up the costs of resettlement and install suitable transport links (not necessarily an airport) once sovereignty of Chagos is regained from the UK.

It is also revealing that Pope does not provide any details of the negative environmental effects of the population of around 3500 people (who may or may not use sunscreen) composed of US and British military personnel and their predominantly Filipino workforce on the base on Diego Garcia, the largest in southernmost island in the Chagos Archipelago. For the record, the base boasts the world’s longest runway built on crushed coral — after a total of 5 million cubic yards of ‘coral fill’ was blasted and dredged from the reef and the lagoon for construction purposes (or “harvested”, as the US Navy puts it).

Nor do we read anything about the significant number of people that sail through the area and armed with the appropriate £100 a month permit issued by the BIOT authorities can moor on the outer islands of the Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon where some of the Islanders once lived.

In fact, Pope’s highly selective account well illustrates a general problem with a traditional and conservative approach to conservation that has a long but not very glorious history. Last year leading US investigative journalist, Mark Dowie, published Conservation Refugees: The Hundred –Year Conflict between Conservation and Native Peoples (MIT Press) where he exposed some of the injustices that have often been at the heart of many apparently successful land conservation projects.

At Yosemite in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, for example, there was a concerted and ultimately successful effort from the mid-19th-century until 1914 when the area became a national park, to expel a small group of Miwak Native Americans who are thought to have settled in the valley some 4000 years ago.

Similarly, nearly all of the other national parks in the USA, including Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, and Zion, were created by expelling, sometimes violently, tribal peoples from their homes and hunting grounds so that the areas recovered could remain in a “state of nature” free from human contamination.

This process has been replicated in other parts of the world as well. Indeed, Dowie estimates that over the last 100 years at least 20 million people, 14 million in Africa alone, have been displaced from their traditional homelands in the name of nature conservation by consciously employing “the Yosemite model” (which in Africa was renamed “fortress conservation”) often with the tacit backing of NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the African Wildlife Foundation.

Exactly 40 years ago, a British social anthropologist, Mary Douglas, in a lecture delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London pointed out that in assessing risks to environments caused by “human folly, hate and greed” it was vitally important to achieve a moral consensus by carefully scrutinising the concepts and theories which powerful groups used to explain things to themselves (and others).

But Douglas also issued a warning that relying on mainstream scientists who had absorbed not only the biases of their own professions but were also possessed by the emotional (and she might have said political) attachment to system-building was of little use for guidance in trying to resolve serious environmental problems. Insight was much more likely to come from those operating at the margins or where a number of disciplines intersected, she claimed.

History has proved Douglas right. According to Mark Dowie and others, the old model of conservation which falsely opposed nature (good) and culture (bad) is being replaced with something much more dynamic, a new transnational conservation paradigm. A younger generation of scientists recognise that properly engaged indigenous and traditional peoples have a vital role to play in preserving fragile ecosystems.

Which brings us neatly back to the Chagos Islanders. They may be relatively recent inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago (they first arrived in 1783) but no one can legitimately claim that they do not possess the status of an indigenous or traditional people just like those descendants of former African slaves and Indian indentured labourers who live on other Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues and the Seychelles. And the only reason the Chagossians no longer reside in their homeland, part of the colony of Mauritius until it was illegally excised in 1965, is because they were forcibly removed by the British authorities.

While the evidence is clear that uncontrolled fishing can have catastrophic consequences the idea that a small settlement of Chagossians and a carefully controlled number of eco-tourists are going to destroy the pristine qualities of the proposed MPA in the Chagos Archipelago is nothing short of preposterous and flies in the face of evidence from other parts of the world like American Samoa, Australia, Chile, Indonesia and the Philippines where indigenous and traditional peoples are fully involved in the conservation and maintenance of marine reserves.

Environmentalists like Pope may be able to line up a fair number of scientists and traditionally-minded conservation groups to back their argument, but the rest of us realise that the game has moved on. This is not just because of evolving social and political realities which have undermined a hierarchical view of the world based on the principle that conservationists always know best, but because the old opposition between nature conservation where humans were seen as “the enemy” in the preservation of biological diversity has been rightly found wanting and is being slowly but surely being replaced by a much better model.


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

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