Archive for May, 2011

‘The fight for justice will go on until justice is won’

Posted in Ben Fogle, CCT, CICA, conservation, CRG, events, Mauritius, MPA, Philippa Gregory on May 22nd, 2011 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

An aerial view of Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

The Chagos Regagné conference, held at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday 19 May, was a landmark event that brought together conservationists, scientists, supporters, anthropologists, charities, academics, politicians and media, for the first time in the long history of campaigning.

It felt as if everyone with an interest in Chagos was there; the historian David Vine had flown in from the US just for the conference, and Chagos researcher Laura Jeffery came in from Mauritius for the day. Historic campaigner Olivier Bancoult came from Mauritius to speak and the Prime Minister of Mauritius authorised his legal representative to make a powerful public statement. For the first time Chagos people attended a conference about their future in force – about 150 people came in the coaches laid on from Crawley and from Manchester. An attentive and noisy group, they raised issues that were not on the agenda but were welcomed by the organisers. The issue of passports and compensation, and the passionate sense of urgency for the cause of return were powerfully expressed.

The conference was arranged so that every session with speakers was followed with comment, debate and questions from the floor. Chairs Sue MacGregor (of the BBC) and Professor Rebecca Stott (from Royal Holloway College, London) made sure there was as much debate as possible. Chagos people insisted on translation into Creole; Laura Jeffery served as a generous and friendly interpreter for two of the sessions.

The first debate was entitled ‘Reef Health Now’ – and scientists Mark Spalding and John Turner explained their research. Dr Spalding concluded that the reefs were a precious and delicately balanced environmental haven, but he thought that a carefully managed presence of Chagos people would not cause damage. Dr Turner presented research from Dr Charles Shepherd as well as his own work, and emphasised the importance of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) as the best preserved coral reef in the world — with others under threat from climate change, overfishing and pollution.

The second debate looked at the human presence in the MPA. David Vine reported on the history of the Chagos islands and the reasons for the expulsion of the people. He reported that the architect of the American base concept believed before he died that the indigenous people could live near the base. William Marsden of the Chagos Conservation Trust spoke in favour of the conservation work and training done. John Howell, author of a previous plan to return, reminded the conference of the practical proposal agreed by Chagos people for their return to the islands.

Before lunch, a Guardian photographer recorded the historic coming together of so many Chagos people. Paul Gardiner of the Mantis Group of Resorts opened the afternoon’s debates by talking about how he and his family and the indigenous people of the Cape area of South Africa had found the motivation and the way to reintroduce animals into a desolate area. His example suggested that indigenous people can learn and work as guardians of their own heritage. Sean Carey talked about the history of the diaspora of the Chagos people. Laura Jeffery spoke about her work to consult the Chagos people and establish their views and hopes for the future. She invited people to contact her to make sure that her work – funded by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council – reaches a wider audience so that people really know what the Chagos people hope and fear. Richard Dunne presented a stunning report on what a science station with a green eco-village might be like, what it might do and, importantly, what it might cost. In line with the best scientific advice, Richard Dunne advised the establishment of a small settlement, of perhaps 100 people, and argued that trained and motivated Chagossians might protect the valuable Chagos coral reefs better than they are being protected now.

The next session was given over to the lawyers. Philippe Sands QC delivered a statement  approved by the Prime Minister of Mauritius, presenting strong legal arguments against the creation of the MPA. He accused the UK and the US of behaving illegally, and the conservation charities who supported the MPA of being “aiders and abettors”. Sands promised a hearing at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and further action at the United Nations. This was a speech which challenged the conservationists and warned them that future decisions about the Chagos marine reserve will have to be taken in consultation with the Chagos people.

However there was a strong feeling from the floor of the conference that the Mauritian government had not supported the Chagos people historically, and some Chagos people made clear they did not want Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos. Allen Vincatassin expressed his commitment to the UK and his distrust of Mauritian motives. The High Commissioner of Mauritius, who attended the conference for the whole day, was interested and engaged by the discussion and reassured the organisers that he welcomed the open debate.

Richard Gifford, lawyer for the Chagos Refugees Group, spoke next outlining the long campaign which brought the Chagos cause to the European Court of Human Rights. He got a stormy response from the floor when people demanded swifter action, and complained bitterly about the situation regarding British passports — which some Chagossian family members have had trouble obtaining (this, of course, is not Richard Gifford’s responsibility, but the Government’s).

The final session was about agreeing the way forward. Olivier Bancoult gave a powerful speech and contributions from the floor were passionate and sustained. Conservationists reminded the conference of the importance of the natural environment. Ben Fogle, patron of this association, closed the conference with an appeal for unity and his certainty that the cause would be won. The room was then filled with the moving music of the choir of Ifield Community College singing ‘Calling my Children Home’, a fitting end to an emotional day.

Conference organiser Philippa Gregory said: “We didn’t get to an agreed conclusion but the important issues were powerfully raised in a public forum in a way which cannot be mistaken. The Chagos people spoke up and demanded compensation, fair acknowledgement of their British subject status, and the right to return. Many conservation groups represented at the conference confirmed that they had no problem with the return of a limited population to the islands and that they had no intention that the Marine Protected Status of the area would exclude Chagos people. We have a clear message to take to the Foreign Office, and I am very very pleased that even while the conference was in progress, we were offered a date to meet the Foreign Secretary. Roch Evenor, Ben and I will tell him clearly that the Chagos people will not accept the current situation and that the fight for justice will go on until justice is won.”

Fighting on

Posted in Ben Fogle, conservation, coverage, events, Philippa Gregory, Uncategorized on May 20th, 2011 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

There’s been some great coverage in the Guardian yesterday and today of the Chagos Regagné conference in London.

Today’s piece by Fred Pearce in the Environment Blog focuses on disagreements between environmentalists on allowing people back to Chagos. This, unfortunately, has become a key issue because of the way some conservationists have supported the introduction of the Chagos marine reserve while remaining quite about how it trampled on the islanders’ rights.

Two articles yesterday by Sam Jones provide a general overview of the topic and a report from the event, highlighting how the islanders remain in exile while a major military base occupies the main island, Diego Garcia.

Ben Fogle

Our patron Ben Fogle said before yesterday’s event:
“I am an optimist but I’m also a realist and I don’t see why we can’t come up with a workable, sustainable solution… Now is the time to do this.”

Hope for a return

Posted in APPG, Ben Fogle, CCT, CICA, conservation, CRG, events, Mauritius, MPA, Philippa Gregory on May 17th, 2011 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

An aerial view of Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

Great piece in the Telegraph at the weekend about this Thursday’s conference on the future of the Chagos islands.

 

The people of Chagos have faced secrecy and deceit from successive governments. Thursday will be a great opportunity to have a proper open discussion and learn how conservation can go hand in hand with the rights of the Chagossians.

Chagos regagné

Posted in Ben Fogle, conservation, events, Philippa Gregory on May 2nd, 2011 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

A unique conference on the future of Chagos is being held in London later this month, with conservationists, politicians, anthropologists, the Chagos people themselves and their supporters invited to take part.

Roch Evenor

Roch Evenor

Chagos Regagné (Chagos Regained) will be hosted by Roch Evenor, chair of Committee Chagos and of the UK Chagos Support Association, along with patrons Ben Fogle and Philippa Gregory. It is to be held at the Royal Geographic Society on Thursday 19 May. Transport is being laid on for Chagossians living in Crawley and Manchester who want to attend.

Philippa Gregory said: “The conference is to gather current thinking on the desirability of a small eco-village, science station to house Chagos people and host visiting conservation scientists to be established on one of the outer islands. The plan is that Chagos people from all around the world would be able to visit, and some would stay on short-term contracts to work as conservators and guardians of the MPA, staffing and assisting at a science station, and patrolling. They would live in eco-houses and practise sustainable small-scale fishing and market gardening. Perhaps some of the older people would like to stay for long visits.”

Philippa Gregory

This proposal is to be considered while the Chagos people’s legal claim to return to their islands goes through the European Court of Human Rights. Philippa Gregory said: “I have such a sense of urgency for the Chagos people. Some of the older people especially want to return at once. I am hoping that the scientists and politicians will agree that this is a way that people could return immediately.”

Scientists, anthropologists, Chagos representatives and consultants will outline the possibilities and the difficulties of this plan, and delegates will be able to discuss the arguments for and against. The papers presented will form part of a briefing that will go to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has expressed interest. Conservationists have responded to Ben Fogle’s call for openness.

The conference will be made up of four sessions. The first will look at Chagos reef ecology now. Lead speakers will be Mark Spalding, John Turner and Bernadette Dugasse.

The second will be a debate on human impact now. Lead speakers will be John Howell and the US author and historian David Vine.

Ben Fogle

The afternoon will open with a debate about the possible future of the islands led by Richard Dunne, Sean Carey, Paul Gardiner, and a Chagos conservation volunteer. Additional information will come from the Mauritius lead legal advisor Philippe Sands and Richard Gifford of the Chagos legal team.

An open discussion will follow and Ben Fogle will close the meeting with a discussion with Sabrina Jean and other Chagos people.

Senior politicians, advisors and scientists have confirmed their attendance, some flying in to the UK specially. “I hope this will open the debate for the new government at an entirely new level,” said Philippa Gregory. “I believe that this is an opportunity for the Chagos people to work out how they can return to their islands with the support of conservationists, scientists and the British government.”

Chagos Regagné will be held at the Royal Geographic Society in London, May 19 2011, 10-4pm. Tickets are available from info@philippagregory.com for £30.