In defence of resettlement: Olivier Bancoult stresses that Chagossians can help to protect the Chagos marine environment
Chairman of the Chagos Refugee Group, Olivier Bancoult, has had a letter published in the influential Science in Parliament journal (reproduced below), taking issue with a number of claims made by the Chagos Environment Network’s Professor Charles Sheppard. In particular, Mr Bancoult refutes Prof Sheppard’s suggestions that a resettlement of the Chagos islands by its indigenous population would be counter-productive to the aim of environmental protection.
In 2009, Prof Sheppard, who is Professor of Marine Sciences at Warwick University but is also employed by the UK Government as its BIOT Scientific Adviser, wrote in Science in Parliament (full text available here) that the environmental conservation of the Chagos islands could be best achieved by keeping the islands free from human habitation:
Examples of good habitat, like that in Chagos, are running out, so should we now revert to preserving a few â€˜legacyâ€™ areas which, on one hand, are in good condition now for whatever reason, and on the other have a good chance of remaining so? Candidate sites are few and diminishing, and we must remember that once gone, all past evidence shows that we cannot get it back.
Chagos is probably the only remaining site in the Indian Ocean where this could work. The social dimension may still need a solution, but the science is pretty clear â€“ the ocean needs Chagos as it is.
The signal from this passage is that Prof Sheppard’s vision for marine protection in Chagos simply does not include the Chagossians. Rather, Prof Sheppard seems to unashamedly prioritise the goal of conservation far higher than the need to address the rights of the archipelago’s indigenous people – two things that he appears to portray as being mutually exclusive.
Let there be no doubt: keeping Chagos “as it is” would involving keeping the Chagossians in exile.
In response to criticism of its campaign, the CEN has been at pains to stress that it is not opposed to a Chagossian resettlement of their islands, instead suggesting that their proposals for a no-take reserve in Chagos are entirely “without prejudice” to the possibility of resettlement. However, the content of this article from Prof Sheppard – who is listed as an individual member of the CEN coalition alongside organisations like the Pew Environment Group and the RSPB – calls that claim into question.
In his letter to Science in Parliament, Mr Bancoult takes issue with Prof Sheppardâ€™s claims.
He points out that Sheppard is wrong to argue that attempts at involving local people in husbanding their environments have invariably failed, citing Elinor Ostrom’s work on how user-managed natural resources can actually be preserved much better than those covered by Government regulation (work for which Ostrom was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in Economics last year).
Mr Bancoult further cites UN Environment Programme studies into coral conservation, “community-based habitat regeneration and site preservation activities” in the neighbouring Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, as well as ongoing conservation activities in Mauritius as reasons why Prof Sheppard’s dismissal of community engagement is unfounded.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr Bancoult directly challenges the credibility of Prof Sheppard’s claim that “a recent survey” of Chagossians had indicated that “only about a dozen individuals [would] wish to return permanently.”
In fact, Mr Bancoult points out that, to his organisation’s knowledge, no such survey has taken place in either Mauritius or the Seychelles, where the majority of Chagossians now live (given that the CRG is the biggest Chagossian organisation, it is likely that its members would have heard of such a survey if it existed). Furthermore, estimates by the CRG have concluded that as many as 150 Chagossian families want to return to their islands.
Overall, then, Mr Bancoultâ€™s letter raises still more questions about the conduct of the CENâ€™s campaign to promote a no-take marine reserve in Chagos:
Why does Charles Sheppard appear to have used a prestigious parliamentary journal to lobby in favour of keeping Chagos â€œas it is,â€ off-limits to its native population, when the CEN claims not to have policy against resettlement?
And what exactly was this â€œsurveyâ€ of Chagossians’ views, which so many Chagossians in Mauritius and the Seychelles have never heard of?
Full text of Olivier Bancoult’s letter to Science in Parliament:
British Indian Ocean Territory
Professor Charles Sheppard (British Indian Ocean Territory 66/4) makes a strong case for enhancing conservation efforts in the Chagos archipelago which our organisation fully supports. However, Professor Sheppard appears intent on excluding native Chagossians from conservation initiatives by claiming that involving people in husbanding their habitats has been a failure. This fits conveniently with the British Government’s refusal to countenance resettlement of the outer islands, but it does not sit comfortably with the overall evidence of the importance of community participation in conserving natural resources.
It is in recognition of her empirical work on the management of common access to natural resources (particularly Governing the Commons, Cambridge 1990) that Elinor Ostrom has recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her work stresses not only the necessity of active community participation but also describes the cases where management by users has been more effective than government regulation.
On coral marine environments specifically, the United Nations Environment Programme study (People and Reefs, 2004) describes a number of case studies in successful community engagement in marine protected areas. Nearer to home, there have been successful community-based habitat regeneration and site preservation activities in Rodrigues Island as well as successful training of communities throughout Mauritius in conservation and monitoring.
In such vulnerable marine environments, the importance of training individuals and educating the wider community is clearly essential, as is the need for pro-conservation economic incentives within the community. These are lessons that the Chagos refugees have come to recognise, as well as the importance of an enforceable regulatory environment.
Our concern about Professor Sheppard’s objectivity in dismissing the success of such community involvement is reinforced by his claim that a recent survey of Chagossians indicates that only a dozen individuals wish to return permanently. To our certain knowledge there has been no survey conducted in either Mauritius or the Seychelles, and our own consultations (published in Returning Home: a proposal for the resettlement of the Chagos Islands) suggest that there would be around 150 families with economically active members willing to return immediately, with a similar number prepared to wait a little longer before deciding on permanent return.
Olivier Bancoult OSK
Chagos Refugee Group,