The Chagos Environment Network and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Playing the numbers game in a post-colonial era
— Sean Carey
“I didn’t know anything about the islanders until tonight when I heard some of them speak,” an elderly Australian woman told me as she sipped carefully from a complimentary glass of red wine in the foyer outside the Huxley Lecture Theatre, part of the London Zoo complex in Regents Park, last Wednesday evening. “I wish I hadn’t signed the petition now — I feel I’ve been had.”
“The islanders” are of course the Chagossians, the 2000 or so people who were either sent into exile or forcibly removed from the Chagos Islands between 1968 and 1973 by the British authorities so that the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago, Diego Garcia, could be turned into a US military base.
And “the petition” refers to the one organised by the Chagos Environment Network (CEN), an umbrella group including many of the leading conservation groups in the UK. Due to backing from Greenpeace and online advocacy group Avaaz.org the petition had gathered according to the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds “more than 275,000 signatures” by the time the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office consultation about the proposed marine protected area (MPA) in the British Indian Ocean Territory closed last Friday.
The Australian woman and around 150 others were at London Zoo for an open meeting, entitled ‘The Chagos Protected Area: A Unique Scientific and Conservation Opportunity for the UK’ sponsored by the Zoological Society of London, part of CEN. The chair, Alistair Gammell from the Pew Environment Group, reminded the audience in his closing address that numbers are very important in consultation exercises. He said that it would be very difficult for the UK government to ignore the kind of overwhelming support that CEN had obtained.
This is certainly true. But the big question is: how many of those 275,000 people were in the same boat as the Australian woman who knew nothing at all about the shameful history of the Chagos Archipelago when she signed the CEN petition? She heard it first hand when a dozen or so islanders and their descendants made a special trip from Crawley in East Sussex, where they and around 1000 of their compatriots live, to the meeting at London Zoo.
Undoubtedly, CEN ran a clever and well-paced campaign which made only a passing reference to the Chagos islanders’ case which is currently before the European Court of Human Rights, and made no mention at all of Mauritius’s claim to the territory, which was illegally excised under international law in 1965 (though not British law) prior to independence. CEN also actively cultivated links with “Chagossian leaders”, especially Allen Vincatassin of the Crawley-based Diego Garcian Society which supports British sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.
An alternative petition was created by the Marine Education Trust (MET), chaired by the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, as a response to the CEN initiative. It argued that a full “no take” fishing policy would severely disadvantage any returning islanders and that Mauritius should be fully involved in setting up a marine reserve.
The MET petition did not have access to the same level of resources as the Chagos Environment Network, which is backed by the Pew Environment Group, an immensely wealthy US charity. Nevertheless, the MET website which cost a mere £105 to set up and maintain managed to collect 1579 signatures among whom were some of the world’s leading marine and conservation scientists, academics and UK parliamentarians, including Alan Beith, Vince Cable, Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Davey, Kate Hoey, Chris Huhne and Jo Swinson.
But back to London Zoo. Some of the most interesting conversations I had were with marine scientists some of whom worked for the Zoological Society of London. It was clear that they were fully behind the proposed marine reserve. They felt that this was indeed A Unique Scientific and Conservation Opportunity for the UK, as suggested by the name of the event. More to the point, they couldn’t quite understand what all the fuss concerning human rights was about, or why it should delay the MPA. I wondered whether these scientists so very keen to protect marine life are still not fully informed about the other reasons why the reserve may be convenient for the UK government, and that the MPA is just the latest step in a series of actions to keep the Chagos islanders from returning to their homeland.
But the big blunder that the Chagos Environment Network and their allies in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office have made is to ignore the issue of human rights and sovereignty at a time of a dramatically changing socio-political context in the Indian Ocean region. This may be a post-colonial era but you wouldn’t know it from the sneaky and deceptive behaviour of CEN and the Foreign Office which have acted as if they were still the people in charge who could tell the natives – in this case, the Mauritian government and the Chagos islanders – exactly what to do without any comeback.
They got a nasty surprise last week at the opening of a training centre for the Chagos Refugees Group, in Pointe aux Sables, a village on the coast a few miles from the Mauritian capital, Port Louis.
Mauritian Prime Minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, in the presence of the British High Commissioner, John Murton, made clear his feelings. He said: “Mauritius is appalled by the British government’s decision to press on with consultations for the creation of a protected marine park project around the Chagos Archipelago.” Then he added for good measure: “It is unacceptable that the British claim to protect marine fauna and flora when they insist on denying Chagos-born Mauritians the right to return to their islands all the while.”
Such a breach of public etiquette amongst representatives from fellow Commonwealth countries is almost unprecedented. So what’s going on? Well, the simple fact is that the UK’s influence over Mauritius has weakened considerably in recent years as preferential trade agreements, especially in relation to the island’s sugar exports to Europe, are phased out.
Mauritius’s new friends are China and India who are both investing heavily in the palm-fringed island in order to access the developing markets in mainland Africa. Put simply, this means that economic and political power has shifted away from the UK and Mauritius is no longer obliged to keep its mouth shut about issues that it has long regarded as important for the sake of its economic health.
The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office which employs some of Britain’s finest minds really should have seen this coming. The truth is that an MPA is a perfectly good idea. It is backed by the overwhelming majority of Chagos islanders and the rest of the Mauritian population. Moreover, the establishment of a marine protected area is entirely compatible with limited human resettlement according to many of the world-renowned conservationists and marine scientists who signed the MET petition.
But with general elections looming in both the UK and Mauritius the MPA in the British Indian Ocean Territory, designed to be a lasting legacy for Gordon Brown’s premiership, must now be in doubt. Apart from anything else, this latest episode in the long-running Chagos saga means that the Foreign Office and its partner CEN will have learnt the hard way that the strategy they chose to run a politically sensitive environmental campaign was flawed from the outset.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University