Chagos Regained Conference, London
Emotions and controversies marked the event
— Sylvia Edouard-Gundowry
Mixed feelings at the Chagos Regagne (Chagos Regained) conference at the Royal Geographical Society in London last week.
Organised by the UK Chagos Support Group with the help of British writer Philippa Gregory and broadcaster and environmentalist Ben Fogle, the aim of the conference was to open a debate on the possibility of Chagossian people working on environmental projects on some of the Chagos islands. More than 150 Chagossian people from Manchester, Crawley and the Seychelles attended the conference. Olivier Bancoult and Robin Mardemootoo travelled from Mauritius to participate in the event. It was undoubtedly an event rich in emotions and controversies.
The importance of protecting the eco system of the Archipelago was pressed by environmentalists. Everyone agreed that the Chagos Islands are worth protecting. Human impacts on the BIOT are minimal and there are no significant economic activities on the islands, other than those associated with the US military base on Diego Garcia. The Chagos coral reefs are of good quality, the waters are unpolluted, bird numbers are expanding, and turtles are coming back to live on the islands. Having said that, the Chagos reefs are not pristine, and they are threatened by climate change and human activities including fishing and pollution.
Dr John Turner, a marine biologist from the University of Bangor, made it clear that as a scientist, he was not happy about the prospect of people returning to the Chagos Islands, as this would pose a threat to the health of coral reefs. This view was also supported by William Marsden, Chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust. “Resettlement is incompatible with conservation,” he said bluntly. However, Dr Mark Spalding, a marine conservation biologist from the University of Cambridge, although in favour of a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos was not completely against resettlement. He referred to places like Vanuatu for example where people are living in relative harmony with reefs.
All these discussions were in line with the plan of the UK Chagos Support Group to gather together views and perspectives on the possibility for Chagossian people from all around the world to work as conservators and guardians of the MPA. This would include the setting up of a small eco-village on one of the outer Chagos islands. However, it was clear that many of the Chagossian people present at the conference did not show much interest in environmental issues. At times, they talked over the participants and expressed vigorously their frustration by shouting, “Compensation ki nu le”.
Their reactions were different though when David Vine made his presentation. The American anthropologist and author of ‘Island of Shame’ recalled the circumstances under which the Chagossian population was removed from the Chagos more than 40 years ago. He condemned the Strategic Island Concept adopted by the US government and which proposed that the solution to their plan of establishing a military base in the Indian Ocean was simply to remove the people. It was then left to the British government to do “the dirty work”. David Vine displayed a number of previously secret documents including one which mentioned the three final words, “ABSOLUTELY MUST GO”.
For Vine, there is no doubt that the forced removal of the Chagossian people is an act of racism. The islanders were removed because they were black, were in small numbers and lacked economic power. The academic referred to another example of removal in the Pacific Ocean where the US government had let the local people return on their land. “The only difference was the skin colour,” he said while the audience applauded.
Later, the MPA was condemned categorically by Philippe Sands QC, who is representing the Mauritian government against the UK in its legal dispute over the MPA. “The MPA is illegal,” he declared. “The rights of all Chagossians must be paramount. They should be able to return to their lands and no environmental plan can intervene with this.” Professor Sands reassured the Chagossians present in the auditorium that the Mauritius government has the support of African Union countries against the MPA and mentioned that all the organisations that are supporting the MPA are guilty of “aiding and abetting”. He finished his presentation on a note that dovetailed with David Vine’s views. “When it looks like a racist and colonial policy, it probably is a racist and colonial policy”, he said albeit emphasizing that he was speaking in a personal capacity.
Some Chagossians expressed their vehemence once again after a speech by Richard Gifford. The British solicitor who has represented the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) in its legal battle in the UK said he was hopeful about the outcome of the Chagossian case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “The European Court has the power to order a return as well as compensation,” he said. However, Hengride Permal, leader of the Chagos Island Community Association (CICA) and sister of former Mauritian minister, Ariane Navarre-Marie, blamed Gifford for the negotiations, which led to the granting of the British passports, because it has divided so many families. She deplored that Gifford has not done the job for which he has been paid so generously. Her hostility towards the lawyer was cheered by many Chagossians in the audience. However, later on Jeremy Corbyn MP, chair of the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group, stated that it was very unfair to blame Richard Gifford for the policy and practice of the immigration service.
Money indeed seems to be another controversial issue at the conference as some Chagossians in the hall were openly calling for compensation. “Koz compensation ar nu, pa parc marin,” they said. It was clear that they showed very little interest in the environmental proposals. They talked over participants, booed others and interrupted a few presentations. What is not so clear is the reason why. It would be easy to say that what matters to them most is the compensation, which might well be a legitimate claim. On the other hand, their obvious irritation and dissatisfaction might as well be a result of the communication difficulties. There was no official interpreter at the conference. Dr Laura Jeffery, one of the participants at the conference who can speak reasonable Mauritian Creole, kindly took over the interpreting job. Later Robin Mardemootoo, a Mauritian lawyer representing CRG, tried his best to convey the accurate meaning of the participants’ speeches.
Apart from the language barrier, the conduct of some Chagossian people could also be put down to their lack of experience in speaking in a public setting. Another explanation might be that they were simply not interested in compromising the right of return to their homeland. Allowing Chagossian people to be involved in environmental projects on their islands might look like a compromise to some and a device that might be used to undermine the right of return. Put simply, many Chagossians might not want to go as ‘workers’ on their own lands.
At the end of the conference, the organisers said they were pleased with the way the day had gone although Philippa Gregory confessed that while “we knew it would be energetic and controversial, it was noisier and more controversial than we thought.” But then what is to be expected when a displaced people experiencing the pain of exile is gathered together to talk about their home, or talk about what others think they should do with their homelands?
After all, they have had their fate decided FOR them 40 years ago and now other people have suggestions FOR them. Maybe it’s up to them to decide for themselves. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter if they don’t share the same aspirations as those who want so much to help. Those who want to return surely have the right to do so – but on their own terms. Those who don’t want to return must also be respected. And those who want compensation are also right, although my guess is that no amount of money will ever compensate for what they have lost and been forced to endure. Which raises a big question: can loss of identity ever be repaired?
1. Chagos archipelago
2. Chagos islanders at the Royal Geographic Society
3. Philippa Gregory, British writer and organiser of the conference