Archive for April, 2011

The Chagos marine reserve: One year on

Posted in CCT, conservation, Labour, MPA on April 17th, 2011 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

Lagoon, Egmont Island (Photo: Karin Sinniger)

Lagoon, Egmont Island (Photo: Karin Sinniger)

This month the Chagos Environment Network is marking the first anniversary of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Chagos. But while we celebrate the preservation of a wonderful natural habitat, let us not forget that the exclusion of the population and the prohibition on fishing have left the marine reserve vulnerable.

Conceived in haste, and declared in the dying throes of the last government, the MPA was almost universally condemned in the House of Commons and House of Lords within days of its birth. It is now challenged in the High Court in London by the unlawfully removed inhabitants, and at the UN tribunal on the Law of the Sea by the neighbouring state of Mauritius, which claims that the UK has no right even to act as the sovereign power.

Two senior FCO officials admitted that the MPA plan was a device to exclude the residents, according to documents released by Wikileaks. But scientists, sadly, have played along, while failing to protest against the environmental damage caused by the US base.

This ill-conceived, ethnically-cleansed marine reserve is more fragile than it need be, and it may not last long.

A rotten little story

Posted in events on April 16th, 2011 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

Bandwagon Theatre Company are taking their play about the eviction of the Chagos islanders, A Rotten Little Story, to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

The show will be on at Greenside Venues from 5-13 August at 12.45pm each day. To find out more visit bandwagon-theatre.com. More information and tickets will be available soon on the official Fringe site.

The play has previously toured schools, and is also on this summer at the Halliwell Theatre in Carmarthen on 9 and 12 June and at the Wexford Arts Centre in Wexford, Ireland on 14 June.

UPDATE 2/6/11: Date of Carmarthen shows (above) amended in light of comment (below).

What the Chagos marine reserve has achieved

Posted in FCO, Labour, MPA on April 2nd, 2011 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

Gliding Turtle, North Brother Island (Photo: Karin Sinniger)

In a report on the Chagos marine reserve one year on, the Pew Environment Group gives an upbeat account. It talks of the initiation of scientific projects and the ban on fishing in Chagos, but overlooks some pretty important points.

When planning the new marine reserve, the (previous) Government could have done it in a way that made resettlement of the islands practicable. It chose not to.

The Pew Environment Group’s report says that 275,000 people joined the Chagos Environment Network’s call to protect the islands – but doesn’t mention that in a petition organised by Avaaz, more than 250,000 called for the Government to “work with the Chagossians” to protect the area – something the Government failed to do. In fact, another 1,500 signed a petition by the Marine Education Trust which specifically argued for the reserve to allow some fishing in some areas, so the ecosystem could be preserved while still allowing the islands to be resettled. That didn’t happen.

The Pew Environment Group also cites “conservation training for Chagossians” as one of the achievements of the marine reserve, but this has apparently been limited to diving training for two people and “chainsaw safety and management” training for one other.

Finally it mentions that the islands provide a home for the coconut crab. Great news, but we can’t help but note that the crab is not the first interesting creature (in the past it’s been boobies, turtles and sea slugs) to have its rights prioritised over the people of Chagos.

There’s one thing the marine reserve has definitely achieved – continuing to obstruct the rights of the people of Chagos. Documents published by Wikileaks since the creation of the marine reserve reveal that the Foreign Office expected the plan to put paid to the Chagossians’ hopes of resettlement – while claiming publicly that it would make no difference.

Chagos islanders visit their homeland

Posted in events, FCO on April 2nd, 2011 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

The US air base that now occupies Diego Garcia (Photo: unknown)

A group of twelve Chagos islanders have had the chance to see their islands in a visit organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The 10-day trip, taking place this week and next, will take the group to Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and Salomon, including the graveyards on Ile du Coin and Ile Boddam. It follows previous visits for groups of islanders in 2008 and 2006 – the first time that any Chagossians had been allowed to return to the islands since the eviction in the 1970s (in the meantime, numerous US servicemen, British administrative staff, support staff from other countries and yachters had been allowed to visit and live on the islands).

It’s fantastic news for those who have been able to take part. Our assistant secretary Sabrina Jean is one of those on the trip and on Monday we had a message from her saying “we are on diego wow wow”. However the vast majority of Chagossians and their descendants (there are thousands living in Mauritius, several hundred in the UK and more in the Seychelles) have not had the chance to see their homeland since they were illegally thrown off.

The government said the visit “forms part of a wider commitment to an open dialogue with the Chagossian communities”. Henry Bellingham, MP, minister for the Overseas Territories, is quoted as saying:

“I am pleased that we have arranged for a small group of Chagossians from the UK and the Seychelles to visit the British Indian Ocean Territory from 28 March to 6 April.

Although the Government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagossians to the European Court of Human Rights on resettlement and compensation, we believe it is vital that we continue to engage with the communities and this visit is an important part of that commitment.

The Government is very keen for such visits to continue and I hope to be able to offer more visits in the future including opportunities to take part in environmental projects ongoing in the Territory.”

If we take the government’s claims of being committed to engaging with the islanders at face value, that’s a great thing. Unfortunately the coalition doesn’t have great form on the Chagos issue.

Senior Conservative and Lib Dem figures indicated before the election that they would seek to bring justice to the islanders, and Vince Cable even claimed since the election that the case against the islanders at the European Court of Human Rights would be dropped. But someone had their wires crossed, and Henry Bellingham quickly corrected Cable with the official line: that the government would continue with the New Labour policies – blocking the islanders’ right of return and supporting the Marine Protected Area, which was introduced without proper consultation, and which we now know from Wikileaks to have been used as a way of obstructing resettlement.

The small group of islanders who have been able to take part are thrilled, and the visits which have been allowed in the last few years have been among the few positive developments in the recent history of Chagos. But the islanders don’t just want to visit when the Foreign Office allows it – this is their homeland and they want the right to return.