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Greenpeace and the Chagos Islands

You may recently have received a petition from a well-meaning friend with a request to sign it and circulate, or it might have come to your notice in the form of an appeal from Greenpeace – “it” being the planned creation of one of the world’s largest marine reserves around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

In November last year, the UK Marine Bill was passed into law for the purpose of protecting the seas around Britain through the creation of Marine Preservation Areas (MPAs) which we can all agree I am sure, are very good things to have. The protection of the seas, as opposed to fisheries, has long been neglected and the world’s oceans have for long enough been our common dumping grounds. So any initiative along the lines of MPAs can only be another Very Good Thing surely, particularly if championed by Greenpeace? Well not entirely.

You see another initiative announced by the Foreign Office in November 2009 was the setting up of two consultations – one to look at ways of providing better environmental protection for Antarctica, and the other to consider whether the Chagos Archipelago, which is a British Indian Ocean territory, should become an MPA. Many of you will be becoming aware I am sure by now, that an issue is beginning to emerge here.

Greenpeace is at present galvanising their membership to write to David Miliband the Foreign Secretary, calling on him to make sure that this reserve is in fact created and to help the consultation committee with their comments.

The consultation period closes on the 12th February so the time for action is limited as they point out. My suggestion however is that people should indeed write to Miliband urging him not to agree the creation of such a reserve on the basis of the dismal history of Diego Garcia, the main island of the Chagos Archipelago, which the British Government had such a treacherous hand in.

The background history of Diego Garcia and the fate of the Chagossians, or the Ilois people to give their correct ethnic name, is a story of treachery and betrayal which began in 1965 the year when Chagos, along with Mauritius, was to have received its independence. The Labour government of Harold Wilson at the insistence of the United States, leased the islands to Washington for 50 years making 2015 the year that the lease should run out. However, the US was also given the option of a 20 year extension which they appear, without consultation with the Ilois, to have taken up.

But then nobody has ever consulted them, not in 1965 when every man, woman and child was evicted from their island home with no compensation and no right of return. It was wholescale ethnic cleansing leaving the islands clear for the Americans to build a military base there. The base was used in the first Gulf War during the bombing raids on Iraq and again during the second war against Iraq and will probably be used in whatever other adventures the US regime embarks upon in the region.

The Ilois themselves have disappeared from view more or less. Many settled in Mauritius, inhabiting squalid slums, some came to Britain and have argued their case in the courts. They actually won the right to resettle. New Labour, however, has blocked all their attempts to return and continues to ignore the rights of these quiet people.

It is an outrage which has gathered little notice or controversy. The deliberate secrecy of the original deal with Washington and the continuing deception and betrayal are ugly and cruel. Therefore the issue of the plight and brave fight of the exiled people of Diego Garcia should be supported and publicised, with demands made for a right of return for all those who wish to and full consultation on the creation of an MPA. Marine reserves do not depend on the total clearance of humans, after all more such reserves are being considered for Britain. Why should Chagos be any different?

Fiona Harrington
5 February 2010

Your comments


Sue says:

I live in Northern California were over 100 more MPAs are being proposed within a 3 miles of the coastline. We already have over 100. The Pew and the Packard Foundation are funding the process to create more closed areas that only effect the small local hook and line fishermen and native americans. Trawlers are not affected at all and other uses such as aquaculture, oil exploration/extraction, power generation and the use of weapons by the Navy are allowed. Pollution and other degrading effects are not even a concern. Large corporate fishing fleets are not being controlled but have been given increased quotas with the small ecological (no bycatch) being regulated off the water. Recreational fishermen too are seeing their catch being handed over to the trawlers. This is a global takeover of our coastal inshore waters. MPAs will fail as temperature changes that occur naturally will force the fish off these parks into the trawler nets on a regular basis and if all the fish get wiped out then the corporations have stocks in aquaculture. So they win anyway. The ocean is now being leased out to different interests by way of spatial planning. It is the next big "land grab".


Deenesh says:

Hi Fiona, This issue has been going on for far too long. The UK pathetic government has to assume responsibility with blood still dripping on their hands. The house of Lords has even overturned their own system high court to keep the US happy. There are hardly 500 people who used to be living there still alive today in Mauritius and they have the right to go home. They lived there for 5 generations and they were evicted by the UK government and military.

If the Uk is too weak to say no to the yanks...So may be the Queen should use the power from the white gloves. If it's her territory she should not be a US Muppet. Right now is the time to act - this land should go back to the Mauritius Integrity and they can manage to its best. How can you prevent one from visiting their home land and their dead. Or even snatching away their identity and paper work by the military before putting them in a boat to Mauritius. Why suddenly the Uk government want to set up a protected area when the lease is finishing in 2016. Hong Kong was returned to China. So Chaos has to be retuned to Mauritius not finding ways to cover it up. Thank God the British stopped the US military to erase the tombs of the Chagossians to erase every possible trace.

But there are living people with memories, pictures, artefact, local knowledge and endless more. Collateral damage would be in evitable and if the case is not settled once and for all very soon it would be phenomenal. We have to remember we all have a duty of care. We also have to find those responsible and bring them to account like the Nazis are still being brought to court. But how did we cover up this living atrocity and assist make it happen for the US by the UK. Seems that there is a few types of laws. If you lose one you can hide behind the other. UK Law, US law or endless right to appeal and to prove the world wrong. Hey no WMD in Iraq so far...But what if it were you on this land and the army came to deport you, your family, your home and you see you own parents die in front of you due to the shock or hear of suicides of your friends... These people have endured too much so it's time we act fast and smart.


Fiona says:

Thanks for the comments. More on the Chagos issue, including the Greenpeace marine reserve area controversy, can be found here on the Chagos Support site


Peter says:

Fiona, a great article.  It is a shame that more people are not able to see the issues as clearly as you are!  Environmental protection and human rights can go hand-in-hand in Chagos, and I hope that a settlement can be found that will satisfy all parties.

restive5relic - even the UK Government has long since admitted that the Chagossians were more than just "contract workers."  They were the indigenous people the archipelago, and are rightly recognised as such.  I'm happy to say that very few people now adhere to your discredited version of events.


Penny says:

The issue here can't be either the rights of the people forcibly removed from Deigo Garcia OR the protection of this marine environment. It has to be possible to achieve both! The British government could achieve both tomorrow - overturn the order in council preventing the population from returning AND make the area a marine nature reserve and take it from there. We can support the nature reserve AND oppose the political status quo. Making a false opposition between people and planet is not the way to protect the environment. We are also part of nature.

It is arrogant to assume that the people who long to return to the island don't know what a unique and wonderful place it is and want to protect it. The fact that they went there as indentured labourers doesn't mean they don't have the right to return - that kind of thinking takes us to a very dark place!  We must urgently recognise that the economic rapacity of profit-driven corporations and the militaristic states that defend them, that threaten the planet's remaining wildernesses. That's what the US base at Diego Garcia is all about!

But it is also wrong to assume that returning people to Diego Garcia WITHIN THE CURRENT ECONOMIC SYSTEM would not damage the environment. Given the chance, island peoples would protect their heritage. Across the Indian Ocean in Mauritius, ordinary people try to challenge the mass tourism industry that is progressively destroying what was also once a paradise island. Our comrade and AWTW founder member, Marie Aubelock, who died recently, was a leading light in this movement. She knew that this fight could not be won WITHIN the existing system - only by overthrowing it and replacing it with a system that ends the current alienation of humans from their mother earth. We can then start to focus on conserving the whole of nature - including ourselves and our 'spreading circle of descendents'.


Fiona replies:

Oh great, coral reefs have more rights than mere humans, I'm so pleased for the corals and the other marine life. That being the case then let's just deport the entire population of the British Isles in order to preserve the marine and terran wildlife here - to where exactly? But then I'm forgetting, the environment in these parts is no longer 'pristine' what a relief, I can stay put. "Mindless and unjustified concern" my oh my you do sound bitter! The most significant replacement for those people you so deplore was and is the large American military base which you mention, I wonder what they have to say about maintaining a pristine reserve, considering that the area has also been used by them as a dump for obsolete nuclear arms. The "agreement" was no such thing in that it omitted the little matter of seeking the agreement of the local populace, whom you dismiss as "contract workers" a category of people you appear to consider to be undeserving of any respect or recognition.

I will check out Agalega.


restive5relic says:

Dear Fiona

While the description of historic events in the Chagos which you put forward in your post has become conventional wisdom in certain circles, through energetic and disingenuous repetition, it remains utter rubbish. It would be a great shame if this rare opportunity to block any future human depredations in such a relatively pristine marine environment were thwarted by mindless and unjustified concern for a long absent population of contract workers and their spreading worldwide circle of descendants.

The Chagos can become, as now is Agalega, a last refuge for wild marine genetic diversity. The real difference between the Chagos and Agalega (do you know where that is and how long it has been what it is?) is that the archipelago is a hundred-fold larger and more significant.

Had not the Diego Garcia base agreement removed the commercial copra plantation it replaced, there would likely be little left in the archipelago reefs today, a half century later, to preserve.


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