- What are the Chagos islands?
- Why protect Chagos? Why does it deserve recognition and protection?
- Why a no-take MPA?
- What about the Chagossian people?
- Does the MPA prevent Chagossians returning to the islands?
- Does CCT work with Chagossian groups?
- Is the presence of the military base a threat to the Chagos ecosystem?
- Can I visit Chagos as a tourist/volunteer/photographer/journalist etc?
- Where can I find out more?
The Chagos islands and surrounding waters are a British Overseas Territory, also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and the Chagos archipelago. These 55 islands, located in the central the Indian Ocean, are tiny in size and are distributed amongst a vast area of coral reefs and open sea. The land area totals only 55 square kilometres (21 square miles) but is spread over a total oceanic exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 544,000 square kilometres (210,000 square miles), twice the size of the UK’s land surface. The largest island, which comprises about half the land area, is Diego Garcia.
The Chagos contains the world’s largest coral atoll and the greatest marine biodiversity by far under UK jurisdiction. It also has one of the healthiest reef systems in the cleanest waters in the world, supporting half the total area of good quality reefs in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the ecosystems of Chagos have so far proven resilient to climate change and environmental disruptions. The Chagos Marine Reserve is as important as the Galapagos or the Great Barrier Reef, and with the whole of its territorial waters included, is the world’s largest marine reserve.
The Chagos Marine Reserve protects one of the world’s most resilient coral reefs at a time when scientists recognise that reefs face rapid decline due to pollution, warming and ocean acidification. If Chagos is managed well, these reefs may provide an opportunity for marine life to seed recovery of degraded reefs elsewhere.
The Chagos Marine Reserve helps to maintain the pure and unpolluted waters of Chagos, providing a safe refuge for its rich marine life, including many threatened species, such as turtles and sharks, and globally important populations of seabirds.
World fish stocks have declined catastrophically because of destructive and unsustainable fisheries practices. The Indian Ocean has been badly affected in this regard, given its heavily populated rim of countries. This large ‘no-take’ protected area assists fish population recovery, potentially increasing fish numbers over a much wider area. The Chagos Marine Reserve also provides a temporary refuge for migratory species, such as tuna, from exploitation.
In the long-term, the Chagos Marine Reserve will contribute to a richer ocean and should benefit people living in and around that ocean, such as the coastal countries of East Africa and elsewhere.
Chagos is one of the few marine locations in the world where there are almost no ongoing, direct human impacts over almost all of its areas. The marine reserve can serve as a reference site for global scientific research to aid in our understanding of such things as climate change, tropical marine ecosystems and the impacts of commercial fisheries.
The deep oceanic waters around the Chagos Islands, out to the 200 nautical mile limit, include an exceptional diversity of undersea geological features (such as 6000m deep trenches, oceanic ridges and sea mounts). These areas almost certainly harbour many undiscovered and specially adapted species.
Over 175,000 pairs of seventeen species of seabirds breed on the atolls, and ten of the islands have formal Birdlife International recognition as Important Bird Areas. Seabirds and nesting turtles too will benefit from the additional conservation measures that the Chagos Marine Reserve will bring. Both groups are recovering from severe depredations of the past in a way that is not possible in most places.
UK international commitments
The creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve represents an important contribution by the UK to at least seven international environmental conventions. It also contributes to the UK’s global commitments, such as halting the decline of biodiversity by 2010, establishing marine protection networks by 2012, and restoring depleted fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2015.
There are very few places left on earth that have been so little affected by human presence that they are still in good condition. Chagos is one of these places.
In 2009-10 the UK Government held a consultation to inform its conservation policy in Chagos. As there are no people living within the proposed MPA1 , it was possible for the government to consider the highest possible level of marine protection– a ‘no-take’ MPA, where all fishing and other extractive activities would be banned. This option was supported by CCT as the best possible conservation outcome for Chagos.
A number of high-profile conservation organisations agreed that a no-take marine protected area would be the best option in the current context. These included the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Read more about our partners in the Chagos Environment Network (CEN) who helped establish the MPA.
No-take MPAs (also known as “marine reserves”) can lead to a rapid increase of fish stocks. An evaluation of data from over 200 studies carried out on 120 marine reserves across the globe, showed that on average, biodiversity increases by 21% and fish biomass by 446%, inside reserves boundaries . Furthermore, the same study showed some organisms were up to 161% more abundant and 28% larger within marine reserves.
Achieving the highest level of protection in this part of the world is crucial to allow the ecosystem in Chagos to continue to thrive and benefit communities all over the world.
If Chagossians return to the islands in future, we believe that they will benefit from the no-take MPA’s existence since 2010, as it will have helped preserve the archipelago’s environment.
If the islands do become inhabited, CCT would seek to work with Chagossian communities and the British government to negotiate new terms for the MPA that will enable the population to meet their needs through sustainable fishing, whilst maintaining as much of the Chagos as possible as a no-take reserve. In this event we would be keen to extend our current conservation education work with the Chagossian community.
1The US military base on Diego Garcia and the water to three miles from its shoreline is not part of the MPA. Recreational fishing here is permitted, but is restricted and carefully monitored.
The Chagos Islands have been a British Territory since 1814 when they were ceded to Britain with Mauritius (which then included the Seychelles). Following the French practice, they were administered as a dependency of Mauritius until 1965, when by agreement they were detached to form the new British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Three other island groups, formerly part of the Seychelles, were returned to the Seychelles, when the Seychelles gained independence in 1976.
The islands were uninhabited until the late 18th century, when the French established coconut plantations using slave labour in 1793. After emancipation, many slaves became contract employees and remained on the islands. Following the decision in the 1960s that the islands should be set aside for defence needs, the UK purchased the freehold title to the land in the islands in 1967. The copra plantations were run down as their commercial future was already unviable and the last of the contract workers and their families left the territory in 1972/3. The islanders (originally called Ilois but now more often termed Chagossians) were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Successive British Governments have expressed regrets about the way resettlement was carried out.
Although many Chagossians still live in Mauritius (and a small community with Chagossian links lives in the Seychelles), some have moved to the UK when they gained British citizenship under the UK Overseas Territories Act 2002. Over recent years , some Chagossian groups have brought a number of claims against the UK Government and there have been several court judgements on this matter.
In December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the case brought by a Chagossian group claiming their right to return was inadmissible. Read more about the ECHR ruling here.
Whilst the CCT is fully aware of the legal challenges brought by Chagossian groups against the UK Government, we believe that these islands need conservation now and that this will be beneficial under all future scenarios. CCT is an environmental conservation organisation. It remains strictly neutral on whether or not the Chagossians should be allowed to settle on the islands. That is a political decision for the UK Government.
We cannot predict the future. We believe that the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters should be protected for the resources and values they have today. The Chagos Marine Reserve was designated as a no-take reserve “without prejudice” to the outcome of the legal process. This designation means that the Chagos Islands and their resources will remain healthy no matter what the future holds, but that conservation arrangements can be modified if necessary in the light of a change in circumstances.
For more information on the Chagos Islanders, please visit our History page.
It has been suggested that the no-take MPA prevents any future resettlement by Chagossians, as it does not allow fishing. Additionally, it has been suggested that the creation of a marine reserve presents a legal barrier to the Chagossians returning.
In fact, the MPA presents neither a legal nor a practical barrier to Chagossian return, if that were granted, because the current conservation arrangements can be adapted to accommodate the needs of any future inhabitants. For example, fishing could be licensed in parts of the marine area to support a small population.
The British Government is currently reviewing its policy on the islanders’ resettlement. If the Chagossians are given the right to return, CCT would be keen to continue and expand our work on conservation education with the community.
Read more about our work with the Chagossian community below, or on our Chagossian Community page.
CCT has been engaging with members of the Chagossian community based in Crawley, the largest Chagossian community in the UK, for several years.
“As I saw on my recent visit to Diego Garcia and the Chagos, the pristine environment of the archipelago has to be continuously preserved. We are keen to work in partnership with the Chagos Conservation Trust. Preservation of the environment goes beyond the sphere of politics.”
Allen Vincatassin, President of the Provisional Government of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, Chagos Environment Network launch, April 2009.
Since 2011, CCT has funded a place for one member of the Chagossian community to accompany every scientific expedition to the Chagos. Read about Rudy Plothin’s experience of accompanying a scientific expedition to Chagos in November 2012.
Through our partners the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and with the support of other members of the Chagos Environment Network, CCT runs an outreach and training programme for Chagossians based in Crawley and Manchester that allows Chagossians to take part in learning more about the Chagos environment. Participants learn about diving and the protection of coral reefs. Watch a video about the Chagossian Community Environment Project here.
“I will do my ‘A’ level Biology and then I hope to go to University to do Marine Biology. In the future I might do research out here [in Chagos].”
Pascaline Cotte, 19, Chagos Conservation Trust scholar.
You can learn more about the Chagossian Community Environment Project and ZSL’s other work in Chagos on the ZSL website.
We are also currently exploring ways that we can work with Chagossian communities living in the Seychelles and Mauritius, and hope to expand the Chagossian Community Environment Project to these countries within the next couple of years.
The island of Diego Garcia where the military base is located is in the far southeast of the archipelago, and is tens of miles, and in many cases hundreds of miles, away from most other islands, reefs and their surrounding waters. Whilst there has been damage to some reefs close to the military area of Diego Garcia, it is not highly significant in the context of the tens of thousands of square kilometres of reefs in the entire Chagos ecosystem. Even around the Diego Garcia military base, ecological and water chemistry results show that the area remains in good condition.
Unfortunately, these islands are very remote making visiting them impractical. There are no commercial tours to the Chagos archipelago. Rules regarding private visits are very strict and it is only possible to visit one or two sites by private yacht – and then only with permission of the BIOT government. Most non-government visitors to Chagos are highly skilled scientists who land a coveted position on one of the occasional research expeditions to the area. Therefore unfortunately there is almost no possibility of visiting or volunteering on these islands.
If you would like to do more to help conservation on the Chagos, you can become a supporting member of the CCT. To find out how to become a members, please visit our Join CCT page.