Troubled history tinges marine plan

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So what do you think: should the Chagos Islands archipelago be turned into a marine reserve, or shouldn’t it? If you care either way, you have until the end of the week to give the UK government your views.

If you don’t care either way… well, read on, and perhaps you’ll decide whether it matters or not.

The colonial history of the Chagos does not make a pretty tale.

Discovered by Vasco da Gama in the 1500s and pretty much uninhabited as far as early explorers could tell, the territory was claimed in the 1700s by France, which decided the place ought to be inhabited so plantation owners could grow coconuts and make a profit.

It became British with the fall of Napoleon in 1814. The plantations eventually failed, but some of the workers remained.

Many places that were annexed and traded between colonial powers have similar tales to tell, of course. But whereas most of those tales end with independence some time in the middle of the last century, this one doesn’t.

Instead, it continued with perhaps the darkest move of all; the deportation of all 2,000 inhabitants of the largest island – Diego Garcia – in the late 60s and early 70s in order that the US could establish a military base there.

A series of recent court judgements has ruled that displaced Chagossians have the right to return home. Only a ruling in 2008 by the UK House of Lords prevents the government from having to allow them back – perhaps being forced to fund their return in full.

The legal saga isn’t over, with Chagossians pursuing their cause now through European courts.

But if there can be a silver lining to such a history of man’s capacity for inhumanity to man, it is that nature has flourished in the scarcely populated archipelago.

With no indigenous fishermen left and with international fleets largely barred from its territorial waters, with tourism conspicuous by its absence, the islands and their extensive coral fringes are now arguably the largest unvisited and unspoilt chunk of life-rich waters on the planet.

Which is why nine conservation organisations comprising the Chagos Environment Group are campaigning to see full protection conferred on the archipelago, to make its seas a full marine protected area with all fishing and other forms of exploitation banned.

The government likes the idea, and last year opened a public consultation [863KB PDF]. Originally scheduled to end last month, it now closes on 5 March – this coming Friday.

If approved, the huge size of the territorial waters would make this one of the biggest marine protected areas in the world, covering more than half a million square kilometres – a little larger than the total area of US-owned Pacific Ocean protected as one of George W Bush’s final environmental acts.

And what riches it contains: more than 1,000 species of fish including rays, sharks and tuna, and 200 corals; endangered green and hawksbill turtles; the world’s biggest land crab, the metre-spanning coconut crab; and breeding colonies of terns and shearwaters, the most diverse in the region.

The Chagos Environment Group makes the point that protecting these reefs and atolls could well bring benefits to other parts of the ocean by providing a secure nursery for fish.

And with no-one but a few thousand military personnel in the place, no-one’s lives would be compromised by new constraints.

So what’s not to like?

One concern surrounds the Chagossians, who still hold out hope of securing a passage home.

Once there, they would need to live – and fishing, for local consumption or export, would be an obvious option.