Guest Interview: Chagossian return and future of Chagos MPA
Jessica Lobo, an environmental legal specialist, has recently published a fascinating paper on the future of the Chagos Marine Protected Area, and how it come evolve to facilitate a returned Chagossian community.
In her paper, 'The Chagos Marine Protected Area: A Whole Kettle of Fish,' Ms Lobo argues that "adopting a model of community based conservation will better serve the Chagos Marine Protected Area, reconcile the conflicting interests and provide a more successful and sustainable solution to the interests of the Chagossian community and all those involved."
We caught up with her recently to discuss her paper further. Our conversation is summarised below.
UK Chagos Support Association: How did you get interested in the relationship between the environment of Chagos and the Chagossian people?
Jessica Lobo: My background is in environmental law and I’ve spent time studying the establishment of Marine Protected Areas. I’ve been particularly interested in the difficulties around setting them up, and the interplay of so many different issues that comes with these attempts at conservation.
When I was doing my research, the Chagos Marine Protected Area (MPA) was particularly interesting, as it had just been found to be illegal under international law by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. But I didn’t really have much sense of the history until I started my research.
I picked up the David Vine book ‘Island of Shame,’ and that was a really shocking read, to hear how the Chagossian community was treated over the past half century. It is a really incredible account of everything that went wrong. Which seems to be pretty much everything.
It feels really close too. The 1960s and 1970s is so recent for something like this to happen.
What really struck me in my research was both the frustration the community must have felt, and the determination they have shown, with so many false hopes and setbacks over the years.
UKCHSA: What role do you see for the Chagossian community in the management of the environment of the Chagos Islands going forward? And how would that differ from what we’ve had so far?
JL: I think the Chagos MPA came out what is now a very archaic idea that if we want nature to flourish, we need to keep people as far away from it as possible.
That idea itself isn’t actually sustainable anyway. Without local communities what you often get is these ‘paper parks,’ that are protected in name only, as there is no capacity to monitor or enforce regulations.
If Chagossians do ever win the right to return, then I think it becomes even more important to make sure the MPA, or whatever it becomes, can bring together both environmental protection and human development.
For example, in areas where there is a total ban on fishing, often this is more likely to cause community resentment and illegal fishing than protect the environment.
Chagossians obviously love their islands and their land. They have a natural vested interest in protecting the environment and are therefore going to be the best wardens of their own waters.
The formal role they could have would depend on the form of any return to the islands. They could take up ‘warden’ roles on the islands, or could be given property rights. But certainly I think they have a strong role to play as the people with the real interest in protecting their homeland for their children.
UKCHSA: So you think Chagossian return is entirely compatible with continued protection of the Chagos Islands environment?
JL: Yes absolutely. From my research it came across strongly that Chagossians care deeply about the environment of their homeland, and as I said they have a vested interested in protecting that homeland for future generations.
Also, practically speaking, with an area as big as the Chagos MPA, you need people to monitor and enforce it for any laws or regulations to be meaningful. That’s something the Chagossian community could be involved in, and make it compatible with their interests.
Another thing which struck me in my research was that the MPA doesn’t apply for three miles around Diego Garcia to allow leisure fishing by the US military. It seems an obvious solution would be to give, or at least share, that quota with a returned Chagossian community.
In fact considering the scale of the MPA [around the size of France], and the likely size of any returned Chagossian population [recommended model in a KPMG report in 2015 was between 50-150], I really can’t see the negative impact that some people have predicted on the environment just from small-scale fishing.
UKCHSA: The UK government has always maintained that the MPA was not designed to and would not prevent Chagossian return. Do you have any thoughts on that?
JL: I think the timing of the creation of the MPA was unfortunate, coinciding with the election. It’s impossible to say exactly what the government’s intentions were and I wouldn’t comment on that, though of course we’ve all read the leaked cables. [link to Wikileaks cable, in which senior British say Chagossians would find it "difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claims for resettlement on the islands."]
KPMG’s report on the feasibility of Chagossian return did say the MPA would not have to be changed or not changed significantly to allow some models of Chagossian return. But I think there’s a broader problem of what in the literature is often called ‘Fortress Conservation,’ where opportunities to marry environmental protection with human development are ignored.
I think the government were guilty of that approach in the designation of the MPA, and it seems to have caused a lot of resentment and made the community feel victimised.
In a nutshell, practically the rules and regulations of the MPA wouldn’t really prevent Chagossian return, or might only need minor adjustments. It’s the ideals around it’s creation that would need to change.
UKCHSA: In your paper you mention ‘Indigenous Protected Areas’ as an alternative model of conservation. Do you have an idea of how that might work in Chagos and how it would differ from the current model?
There’s a few models I looked at and they differ quite quite a bit – in some areas populations act as wardens, in others they have formal property rights. But basically it gives the power to make decisions to the people living on the land. Which has not been happening, and wouldn’t happen, in the Chagos MPA as it is set up at the moment.
UKCHSA: Broadly speaking, what did you think was the balance between these different models during your research? Is there still a preference for an ‘exclusionary’ approach to environmental protection, or is the idea of allowing community involvement now more popular?
JL: There are always going to be people on both sides of that debate. And unfortunately there are some people who’s default position will be to keep people out. And maybe there are some circumstances where that is right, where the environment benefits from not having a permanent population.
But I don’t there’s cause to even consider that in Chagos.
Broadly the direction of travel, from as far back as the 1970s, in international law and environmental protection has been about engaging more with the community, rather than a narrow top-down enforcement and education approach.
Now we talk a lot more about sustainable development, rather than just protecting the environment, which brings community’s needs and aspirations together with environmental protection. And I think that’s definitely the right direction”
UKCHSA: In your paper you mention the Permanent Court of Arbitration judgement [delivered in 2015] on the MPA, where Mauritius successfully challenged the validity of the UK-declared Chagos MPA.
You add that this means the aspirations of Chagossian return should now feature more prominently in any UK-Mauritius negotiations on the future of the Chagos Islands. Can you explain why you came to this conclusion?
JL: The court found that UK had not properly consulted with Mauritius on the MPA, considering that it is acknowledged that Mauritius has a stake in the future of the islands [the UK has promised to cede the islands to Mauritius when they are no longer required for defence purposes].
Chagossian resettlement has been a big priority for the Mauritian government, so it seems now that any discussion between the UK and Mauritius on the future of the Chagos MPA needs to include resettlement, which I don’t think it really has so far.
The attitude of at least some seems to have been ‘these are the environmental issues, these are the political issues, and we need to treat these separately.’ But that’s absurd. We’re talking about the same place that will be affected, we’re talking about the same people that’ll be affected. We need to address the issue holistically and take everything in to consideration.
UKCHSA: What is a good model for the future?
JL: I think Mauritius and the UK need to declare the future of the MPA jointly, coming to a joint agreement about exactly what that means. And that new model needs to allow for the potential return of the Chagossian community. If a new MPA is created or recreated which doesn’t allow for resettlement, it’s just going to create more problems down the line if and when a Chagossian population does return.
There’s lots of ways they could do that. Whether it’s catch shares or altering quotas.
But fundamentally it looks like some of these political issues need to be sorted out. We can’t just leave the MPA in limbo.
And whatever happens next the UK government need to consult better with all the other parties, including Chagossians, about the future of the Chagos Islands. That lack of quality communication seems to have caused a lot of the problems so far.