A lasting legacy for Gordon Brown:
Let the Chagos Islanders go home and settle the sovereignty issue with Mauritius
— Sean Carey
Whoever came up with the bright idea that turning the Chagos Archipelago, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, into a Marine Protected Area (MPA) would be a fitting and lasting legacy for Gordon Brown’s premiership must be scratching his or her head. Why? Because the two genies — Mauritius’s claim to the territory and the position of the exiled Chagos Islanders who were removed from their homeland by the British authorities some 40 years ago — are now well and truly out of the bottle. Last month at a workshop held at Royal Holloway College to discuss the socio-economic implications of the proposed MPA, the Mauritian High Commissioner, Abhimanu Kundasamy, who was due to give an opening address pulled out at the last minute on instructions from Port Louis.
In a letter to The Times a few days later Kundasamy spelt out in no uncertain terms how his government viewed the British government’s initiative over the MPA. “The right of Mauritius to enjoy sovereignty over the archipelago, and the failure of the promoters of the marine project to address this issue meaningfully, are serious matters,” he declared. “There can be no legitimacy to the project without the issue of sovereignty and resettlement being addressed to the satisfaction of the government of Mauritius.”
But the plan to turn an area of 210,000 square miles, twice the size of Great Britain, into a marine reserve has some very influential supporters including many of the leading conservation groups in the UK such as the Linnean Society, the Marine Conservation Society, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. They are all operating under an umbrella organisation, the Chagos Environment Network (CEN), which, in turn, is backed by the Pew Environment Group, a large and very influential US environmental charity which persuaded President George W Bush to declare the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a marine reserve in 2006.
Despite giving some recognition to the plight of the exiled Chagos Islanders whose case is currently before the European Court of Human Rights these conservation groups would be very happy if no one apart from a few scientists were allowed visiting rights to the Archipelago.
The argument about the compatibility of people and their presence in conservation areas has changed significantly in recent years as witnessed by the number of leading academics who have taken the time to sign a petition organised by the Marine Education Trust (MET), a UK-based NGO, to allow the Islanders to return to their homeland. This came about as a response to another petition circulated by a commercial organisation, Care2, working on behalf of CEN which has gathered thousands of signatures from people who have no knowledge of the history of the Chagos Islands and its former inhabitants.
Those who have signed the MET petition include Richard Ambrose (Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, UCLA), Andrew Balmford (Professor of Conservation Science, Cambridge University), Barbara Brown (Emeritus Professor of Tropical Marine Biology, Newcastle University), David Bellamy ( Professor of Adult and Continuing Education, Durham University), Chris Perry (Professor of Tropical Coastal Geosciences, Manchester University), John Eade (Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Roehampton University), Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Professor of Social Anthropology, Oslo University), and David Simon (Professor in Development Geography, Royal Holloway College).
Prominent politicians have also added their names. They include Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP and Chair of the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Committee, Vince Cable, Deputy Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, and Cassam Uteem, former President of the Republic of Mauritius. So why have they and over one thousand other people including students, teachers, lawyers, photographers, software engineers and home makers signed up? Simply because of a recognition that while marine ecosystems and tropical coral reefs are under threat in the Indian Ocean and need to be protected, it is clear that a failure to adequately involve the Chagos Islanders and the Mauritian government in the construction of the proposed marine reserve would both damage its legitimacy and its long-term effectiveness.
In September 2009, I conducted an interview for New Statesman with Peter H Sand, about his new book United States and Britain in Diego Garcia: The Future of a Controversial Base. His reflections on the plans to establish the Chagos Archipelago as an MPA were illuminating. “When I started to do research on all those new “green” ocean reserves, it turned out that most of them happened to enclose or adjoin some strategically important military bases – such as Guam, Wake, Johnston and Midway in the Pacific, or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. That’s what aroused my curiosity about the real motives behind this sudden wave of big-power environmentalism.”
So here is some advice for Gordon Brown about a lasting legacy for his time as British Prime Minister: let the Chagos Islanders return to their homeland and settle the issue of sovereignty of the Archipelago with Mauritius once and for all. Apart from those traditionally-minded conservationists we will all thank you for it.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University