Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Chagos Islands

The Chagos Islands are 55 tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. This archipelago is renowned for it almost pristine coral reef and is home to numerous coral species and fish, sharks, turtles, rays and many other varieties of marine life, making it a globally recognized and important hub of biodiversity. On October 31st 2010, the British government officially made the Chagos Islands the largest no-take (no-fishing) marine protected area (MPA) in the world. The protected area covers 545,000-sq-km area around the archipelago.

These islands also used to be home to the Chagossians, who were displaced between 1967 and 1973 to make way for a US nuclear air force base at the height of the Cold War. Since then the Chagossians have been battling for their return in the British and European courts.

This MPA is a landmark in paving the way for governments’ commitment to conservation and the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) estimate that currently less than two per cent of the world’s oceans are under any marine protection with only less than one per cent being classified as no-take zones. If governments ever want to meet their agreed targets from the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, they should be establishing more MPAs the world over.


The Chagos Island MPA bans all fishing, collection of corals and hunting of turtles and other wildlife. The ban could also mean less chance for the Chagossians returning to their homeland as at face value the MPA denies them their main livelihood; fishing. The MPA is supported by some of the world’s largest environmental bodies, such as Greenpeace, but some Chagossian support groups feel that humans have come second to the marine life. Roch Evenor, secretary of the UK Chagos Support Association, has been quoted as saying “The conservation groups have fallen into a trap. They are being used by the government to prevent us returning. The fish would have more rights than us" (source: The Guardian 29th March 2010)

But other Chagossians don’t view the situation as man vs nature. Allen Vincatassin, founder of the UK-based Diego Garcian Society (DGS), believes the MPA and their right to return are two separate issues and he is delighted by the “brave decision” to protect the area. He says "we don't want another state to come and exploit the area, do massive construction of hotels and bring in commercial fishing. Then the area will be finished" (source: BBC News 1st April 2010). The DGS also works closely with the CCT in order to preserve their homeland.
The UK government have assured that the protected area would not ban the Chagossians from returning and that if they did conservation measures could be adjusted. Today Chagossians number in the four thousands and live in exile in Britain, Mauritius and elsewhere. No provisions were made for those exiled in Mauritius and many still live in destitute and poverty. Those living in Britain, mostly in Crawley, are more fortunate with support mechanisms in place to help with employment, benefits and education.

I wanted to write about this as it is a rare environmental success, but the celebration is tainted with controversy and debates of who is more deserving. Strangely enough the sentiments that can be applied to this debate were expressed in an altogether different source. In the Observer Magazine also on the 31st October 2010, is an article by journalist Steven Kotler, describing his personal journey and experience of setting up and running a dog shelter for dogs destined for euthanasia due to their disabilities or diseases. He spoke about the realization that once you begin to live as equals with the dogs; you begin to treat them as you would a human. He recounts the example of Salty, a dog with a bad heart condition and a potentially fatal fear of thunder. This makes it virtually impossible for Kotler and his wife to go out for dinner, leaving the dogs alone. But as Kotler explains: “If I thought Salty less worthy of the same type of compassion and respect that I would extend another human being, then Salty’s happiness would have been sacrificed for a snack and what kind of altruist would I be then?” (source: “A Man’s 20 Best Friends” by Steven Kotler, Observer Magazine, 31st October 2010, page 36).

Returning to the Chagos, the questions and answers should really be focused on what is mutually beneficial. It is a known fact that protecting biospheres and conserving species can and do replenish the food chain and preserve the natural world in which humans are part of, not master over. One of nature’s most amazing characteristics is its ability to bounce back if given the space and time to do so. As humans we need to un-train our quick-fix minds and look for long-term solutions for both humans and animals.

For more information:
Protect Chagos

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