Response: The Chagos islanders have nothing to fear from this marine reserve

Josh Reichert | The Guardian, Tuesday 7 June 2011

You reported claims that the designation of the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean will prevent Chagossians from returning (A land neglected and decaying, but it’s still our home; Environmentalists warn exiles of ‘delicate balance’, 20 May). We disagree.

As your article says: “The islanders were evicted 40 years ago to make way for an American military base on Diego Garcia.” Since then, the UK has maintained that the Chagossians have no right of abode on the islands. Clearly, their exclusion long predates the establishment of the marine reserve in the waters round the islands in April last year.

The Chagos archipelago is one of the few places in the world’s oceans where the ecosystem remains healthy. This area is biologically critical to the fish and other marine life of the Indian Ocean, upon which millions of people rely for their livelihoods and basic protein. For these reasons, the Pew Environment Group worked with a range of organisations and individuals – including Chagossians – to advocate its establishment as a highly protected marine reserve.

You report that the Mauritian government and others “accuse [Pew] of helping to undermine the Chagossians’ right of return”. We have done no such thing. Our position on Chagossian resettlement was stated clearly in a February 2010 submission to the Foreign Office as part of the public consultation on the reserve. We are aware of the legal challenges brought by Chagossian groups against the UK, but this issue has been in dispute since the 1960s and remains a matter for the UK government to resolve.

We believe the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters should be protected for the resources and values they have today without prejudice to the outcome of the legal process. If the Chagossians are allowed to return, it is always possible to modify the reserve in order to accommodate their needs.

You report: “More than 150 exiled Chagos islanders … gathered in London … to press for a return … and to discuss the area’s environmental future”. But these Chagossians were not “up against environmentalists.”. Indeed, many Chagossians, including the provisional government of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, support protected status for the archipelago.

The marine reserve will not disadvantage Chagossians. In fact, it will ensure that the spectacular environment of the archipelago will be maintained in the best possible condition, whatever the future may hold. This is to the advantage of those who wish to return, as well as of the world as a whole, which desperately needs better ocean conservation. Many Chagossians support that.

You correctly stated that “the designation [of the marine reserve] delighted some environmentalists”. Today, nearly half the world’s coral reefs are diseased and dying, many fisheries worldwide are in steep decline, and less than 1% of the planet’s marine environment is fully protected from exploitation. Against this bleak seascape, the designation of the Chagos archipelago as the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve is a bright spot we should all celebrate.

You can read the article on the Guardian website here: Response: The Chagos islanders have nothing to fear from this marine reserve

Chagos, MPA, Marine reserve, outreach