• John Howell

Guest Blog: Returning Home 10 years on, and a few steps closer

In the latest in our Guest Blog series, John Howell, former director of the Overseas Development Institute, looks back at the Returning Home report on resettlement of the Chagos Islands he worked on.

His report explored how the Outer Islands (that is, not including Diego Garcia) could be resettled. Looking at the situation in 2016, now the UK government has admitted return is "practically feasible" based on a KPMG report, he reassesses what he learned producing his rpeort and what this could mean for the future.

Like all our Guest Blogs, Dr Howell writes as an individual and does not necessarily present the views of UK Chagos Support Association

Returning Home: 10 years on

By Dr John Howell

In 2006, the Labour government decided to appeal the House of Lords decision to reverse an earlier court decision to allow Chagossians the right to return to Peros Banos and Salomon (the 'Outer Islands').

In response, the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA) decided it needed to up its game significantly in terms of the public and parliamentary profile of the Chagossian case; and it secured a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to do just that.

Part of the grant was to assist the Mauritius-based Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) to prepare its own resettlement proposals. These would provide the first opportunity for a Chagossian voice to be heard on resettlement and, hopefully, contest the Foreign Office/British Indian Ocean Territory view that a return lacked any economic justification and would be environmentally unsustainable.

The case for resettlement: tourism, investment, environmental protection and food production

I shared the indignation of most UKChSA supporters over the continuing injustice towards Chagossians, but when I was approached to lead work on the CRG proposals, I - like most others probably- had not followed the arguments over the practicalities of resettlement. But, on reading the background technical papers provided, I was surprised to see how little positivity there had been towards the economic prospects of the Chagos Islands.

Elsewhere, small tropical island economies had flourished - in part due to expanding demand for all types of natural health and beauty products, and to the spectacular growth in environmental tourism to the more remote parts of the world.

I was also struck by the apparent disregard of influential economists such as Elinor Ostrom who, in 2009, was to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on the long term benefits of community managed natural resource conservation. Surely, I felt, even the Outer Islands alone had better prospects than most Overseas Territories, such as the massively supported St Helena for example?

So I went to Port Louis feeling we could at least contest the views on economic and environmental viability that would be presented to the House of Lords in the forthcoming Foreign Office appeal case.

With the invaluable support of Robin Mardemooto and his colleagues, and the Rev. Mario Li Hing, I was able to interact with a large number of Chagossians (from both Mauritius and Seychelles) and had opportunities to meet with local business people, environmental NGOs, and consulting engineers. I was particularly impressed by the practicality and determination of many Chagossians seeking to return, and interested to hear of the broadly similar small island circumstances that had facilitated conservation work and employment on Mauritian Rodriques.

The conclusion of my visit was agreement with CRG to focus economic opportunities on both food self-sufficiency and on private investment in high end 'boutique' environmental tourism and in fresh fish exports. I felt a return to commercial coconut production could not be a central proposition because the limited scale of planting on the two islands would not be sufficient given the global market competition in coconut products.

The Challenges

In terms of contesting the anti-settlement UK Foreign Office line, the proposals in Returning Home (2008) boiled down to three things : first, incomes for settlers, as it was particularly important to show that the recurrent costs of services and rents could be partially met; second, revenues for the islands to help offset the capital costs of establishing infrastructure; third, practical measures to protect and conserve the marine environment through the engagement of settlers.

I was happy with the proposals we produced, but two things troubled me: first, the costs of transport infrastructure for the two islands. Air transport was a necessary component of economic development but, although I took evidence from other small island and remote area construction and operating costs, it was clear that airport construction anywhere is virtually immune from cost control because of the number of environmental and safety concerns that emerge.

Second, I found many Chagossians were unfamiliar with the legal arguments that had led to the Outer Islands focus, and they could not see why they should be confined to the risky and challenging options of Peros Banos and Salomon when there were facilities available for settlement on Diego Garcia - the island most knew best and most considered to be their home. I felt it might be difficult to get economically active pioneers for Outer Island settlement.

The long-term effect: Diego Garcia back on the table

Diego Garcia, now an option for returned Chagossians, which it was not at the time of Dr Howell's report, which in his view makes return even more achievable

Anyway, we did our best in Returning Home to encourage a rethink on resettlement and, although the legal process went against us, the momentum of the political and parliamentary process received several boosts and this eventually led the Foreign Office to accept the need to look again at resettlement.

The commissioning of the KPMG study in 2013 was important in itself but, critically, it lifted the previous bar on considering Diego Garcia as a potential location for returnees. If I were involved in any new proposals for Returning Home, my focus would be upon Diego first. Relative to the outer islands, Diego Garcia does have space and, of course, there is infrastructure that, with the goodwill of the US military base, could mitigate many of the difficulties and costs that characterised such provision in the 2008 proposals.

Turning to incomes and employment, it is clear that the base itself constitutes a very significant market not only for paid work but also self employment through the wide range of fresh supplies required to support the facility and provide a better leisure experience for those stationed there. For entrepreneurial Chagossians, the base is a real opportunity to capitalise on their skills in poultry, market gardening, handicrafts,sailing etc.

For others in formal employment, Diego would not simply provide relatively menial jobs on the base. There is a pressing need to investigate and monitor the entire Chagos archipelago and Chagossians could provide a trained conservation cadre based on a long advocated BIOT research station on Diego Garcia. In due course, the eco-tourism and fisheries industries, as well as coconut rehabilitation, could be considered once a success had been made of Diego Garcia.

In Returning Home (commissioned by UKChSA and hence regarded as an adversarial contribution not requiring engagement), we emphasised costs and the need for cost recovery. In the KPMG study (commissioned by the Foreign Office and subject to exemplary consultation processes), there is also much emphasis on costs. But cost recovery is little discussed and, as a result, I feel much more engagement is now required with Chagossians on income and livelihood opportunities,especially with respect to an initial phase of resettlement on Diego Garcia.

Such an engagement could well offset current official UK government concerns, that uncomfortably echo the views that were presented in the narrowly-won House of Lords appeal of 2008.

*Returning Home: A Proposal for the Resettlement of the Chagos Islands, Chagos Refugees Group/UKChSA March 2008. You can download the full report as a PDF by clicking here.

**John Howell is the former Director of the Overseas Development Institute and has acted as the Economic Adviser to the Chagos Refugees Group (

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