The Chagos archipelago: Britain's environmental responsibility

As anyone who has seen the film The End of the Line will know, one of the greatest failures of governance in the world today is in the management of marine resources and unsustainable fishing practices in particular. This month the United Kingdom may have an opportunity to make an important difference for the better. By quirk of history the U.K. still governs the Chagos archiplego , the largest system of coral atolls in the world and home to a stupendous abundance of life that remains relatively undamaged.

A public consultation on the future conservation status for the islands, now extended to 5 March (see FCO pdf ) lists the following options: a full no-take marine reserve for the whole of the territorial waters; a no-take marine reserve for the whole of the territorial waters with exceptions for pelagic fishery such as tuna; and a no-take marine reserve for the vulnerable reef systems only. Based on the consultation, and other factors, the Foreign Secretary and the Commissioner for what is still known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) will then make a decision.

Most conservation groups, unsurprisingly, favour the first of the three options (see Project Chagos). Some critics, however, charge that the process is a greenwash because it fails to address the claims of the Chagossian people, who were forcibly removed from Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago, in the 1960s to make way for the giant U.S. air base. (see The Chagos archipelago - where conservation meets colonialism by Fred Pearce) . Others also have their eyes on Chagossian resources: the U.K. has promised to cede the archipelago to the Republic of Mauritius once it is no longer needed ‘for defence purposes’.

Justice for the Chagossians and their descendants, who number about 4,000 (and descend from labourers first brought to the previously uninhabited by the French and British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), is a vital matter. And there is a strong case that the U.K. has failed to meet its responsibilities. But conservation groups continue to argue that this doesn’t have to be inconsistent with better protection for the natural environment right now. “The political issue needs a solution but it is largely a separate matter” Alistair Gammell, Chagos Campaign Manager for the Pew Environment Group says to ourKingdom; “The key thing is there is an opportunity now to improve protection of the area. If the Chagossians do return in future at least the resources will have been kept in a better state for them.”

Patrolling the islands to reduce illegal fishing currently costs the British authorities about £1.7 million a year. Under a strict no-take designation the authorities would lose about £700,000 currently generated from the issue of a few permits for legal fishing. At a time when government finances are under enormous pressure the temptation to continue or increase the number of permits may be considerable. On the other side is the opportunity to double the size of the world’s marine protected areas at a stroke, centering on the protection of coral reefs whose future is in doubt. Unexploited, Chagos can be of huge benefit for marine science and a part of the heritage of future human generations. Environmental economics, which (in contrast to the conventional economics that has got us into our current situation) seeks to tell the truth about prices, suggests that the economic benefits of coral reefs maintained in a healthy state can be between U.S. $100,000 - $600,000 per square km per year. Protection costs in BIOT are about $5 per sq km per year, suggesting a virtually risk free annual return on investment of between 20,000% to 120,000%. Not bad for a day's work.

As long as America seeks to remain a global power and that power relies on the deployment of aerial and naval ‘assets’ from Diego Garcia, so long is it unlikely that the islands will be returned to the Chagossians or indeed the government of Mauritius or other international actors. There may yet be time to protect Chagos and achieve justice for its people.

About the author

Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's Globalisation Editor from 2002 to 2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs.

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Sign a petition asking the UK to protect the Chagos archipelago environment at the protectchagos.org website