It was big news last April when the U.K. announced – backed by nine prominent international environmental groups – that it was turning its Chagos Island group in the Indian Ocean into the world’s largest marine reserve.
But a cable included in the Wikileaks dump suggests that reasons other than “environmental protection” may have been the impetus for the set aside.
Known as “the other Galapagos,” the Chagos Islands are regarded as one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems. The 55-islands that make up the chain are home to the world’s largest coral reef atoll (the Great Chagos Bank), 220 species of coral, nearly 800 species of fish, dozens of nesting seabirds types, endangered green turtles and critically endangered hawksbill turtles, coconut crabs and endemic plant life which has thrived there for the past 4,000 years.
One reason for the creation of the 545,000 square kilometer park – twice the size of the U.K., bigger than California and France — was to ban commercial fishing from the area for at least five years, maybe longer.
“This measure is a further demonstration of how the U.K. takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously,” said U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband upon the reserve’s announcement.
But the allocation sparked a resettlement fight that had been going on in European courts for a couple decades. Between 1967 and 1973 roughly 4,000 Chagossians were deported from the islands to make way for a giant U.S. nuclear air force base on the group’s largest island, Diego Garcia. Since then, other than endangered turtles and coconut crabs, the only inhabitants of the islands have been American military. The former Chagossians have been living in exile in Britain, Mauritius and other islands since, many hoping to one day return home.But setting the islands aside as a marine reserve essentially shut the door on those claims for good, with both environmentalists and human rights activists apparently choosing to look the other way.
At the time, leaders of those wanting to return home claimed loudly that environmental groups were being “used” by the government.
“The fish have more rights than us,” said Roch Evenor, secretary of the UK Chagos Support Association, who left the island when he was four, said at the time of the reserves creation.
“The environment groups were beguiled [into giving their support],” said former high commissioner of Mauritius, David Snoxell. “If the government designates a protection area they would be erecting a psychological, legal and economic barrier against the Chagossians, and send a strong message that they would not be welcome in their homeland. It would be highly prejudicial.”
Now, thanks to Wikileaks, it looks like those concerns were correct.
As reporter Dan Bacher uncovered in cables sent from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Director, Overseas Territories to the U.S. embassy, setting up the marine reserve effectively “stymied the return of the former islanders.”
The U.K. Guardian published the embassy cable on its website. “We do not regret the removal of the population,” Colin Roberts wrote in May 2009, “since removal was necessary for the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) to fulfill its ‘strategic purpose.’ “
He went on: “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT.”
Apparently the British government was less concerned with protecting endangered marine life and more about protecting its relationship with the U.S., which has allegedly used Diego Garcia as a destination for deposing terror suspects.
While the marine park set up banned fishing from the islands, when it was being conceived British officials assured the U.S. that its creation would in no way impede the island’s uses for military purposes.
The park was announced with the blessing of the U.K. government, the Obama administration and the support of nine prominent environmental groups ranging from the Pew Environment Group to Greenpeace.
[image via Wikimedia commons]