[Coral-List] Chagos Conservation

Richard Dunne RichardPDunne at aol.com
Fri Jan 29 10:46:14 EST 2010

Dear Listers

This is an extract from the Mauritius Times published on Friday, 29 
January 2010 written by Dr Sean Carey (Research Fellow at the Centre for 
Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at 
Roehampton University, UK)

The original posting is 


It refers to an article published in the Times Newspaper (London) on 26 
Jan 2010 to which Charles Sheppard drew our attention in his post that 
day (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article6997414.ece)


Frank Pope’s article in /The Times /last week,“Investment is essential 
for biological wonderland of the Chagos islands”,was written to 
highlight the pristine state of theBritish Indian Ocean Territory and 
why the area should be designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA). “There 
is none of the fertiliser, pesticide, silt or construction debris that 
are choking reefs elsewhere,” he says before issuing a series of 
warnings about the various categories of people who, with the notable 
exception of “scientists who go without sunscreen for fear of 
contaminating the water”, would mess up the area if allowed in. Put 
simply, the claim is that the current pristine quality of the 
Archipelago is all down to “the lack of inhabitants”. Tourists are 
particularly problematic we are told: “Conservationists warn that even 
small numbers of visitors would risk destroying the area’s value as a 
scientific reference point against which to gauge climate change.” 
Fishermen are also dangerous because according to one marine scientist 
“the position of the islands and the prevailing currents helps to seed 
fish stocks and reefs elsewhere in the Indian Ocean”.**

But then we come to Pope’s real target: the possible return of some of 
the exiled Chagos Islanders whose case is currently before the European 
Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.


Their return to their homeland would involve “constructing an airport 
and town” which would be “both financially and environmentally ruinous” 
to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office although Pope conveniently 
omits to mention that Mauritius has stated that it will pick up the 
costs of resettlement and install suitable transport links (not 
necessarily an airport) once sovereignty of Chagos is regained from the UK.


It is also revealing that Pope does not provide any details of the 
negative environmental effects of the population of around 3500 people 
(who may or may not use sunscreen) composed of US and British military 
personnel and their predominantly Filipino workforce on the base on 
Diego Garcia, the largest in southernmost island in the Chagos 
Archipelago. For the record, the base boasts the world's longest runway 
built on crushed coral -- after a total of 5 million cubic yards of 
'coral fill' was blasted and dredged from the reef and the lagoon for 
construction purposes (or “harvested”, as the US Navy puts it).

Nor do we read anything about the significant number of people that sail 
through the area and armed with the appropriate £100 a month permit 
issued by the BIOT authorities can moor on the outer islands of the 
Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon where some of the Islanders 
once lived.

In fact, Pope’s highly selective account well illustrates a general 
problem with a traditional and conservative approach to conservation 
that has a long but not very glorious history. Last year leading US 
investigative journalist, Mark Dowie, published /Conservation Refugees: 
The Hundred –Year Conflict between Conservation and Native Peoples /(MIT 
Press) where he exposed some of the injustices that have often been at 
the heart of many apparently successful land conservation projects.

At Yosemite in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, for 
example, there was a concerted and ultimately successful effort from the 
mid-19^th -century until 1914 when the area became a national park, to 
expel a small group of Miwak Native Americans who are thought to have 
settled in the valley some 4000 years ago.

Similarly, nearly all of the other national parks in the USA, including 
Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Mount Rainier, 
Yellowstone, and Zion, were created by expelling, sometimes violently, 
tribal peoples from their homes and hunting grounds so that the areas 
recovered could remain in a “state of nature” free from human contamination.

This process has been replicated in other parts of the world as well. 
Indeed, Dowie estimates that over the last 100 years at least 20 million 
people, 14 million in Africa alone, have been displaced from their 
traditional homelands in the name of nature conservation by consciously 
employing “the Yosemite model” (which in Africa was renamed “fortress 
conservation”) often with the tacit backing of NGOs like The Nature 
Conservancy, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the African Wildlife 

Exactly 40 years ago, a British social anthropologist, Mary Douglas, in 
a lecture delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London 
pointed out that in assessing risks to environments caused by “human 
folly, hate and greed” it was vitally important to achieve a moral 
consensus by carefully scrutinising the concepts and theories which 
powerful groups used to explain things to themselves (and others).

But Douglas also issued a warning that relying on mainstream scientists 
who had absorbed not only the biases of their own professions but were 
also possessed by the emotional (and she might have said political) 
attachment to system-building was of little use for guidance in trying 
to resolve serious environmental problems. Insight was much more likely 
to come from those operating at the margins or where a number of 
disciplines intersected, she claimed.

History has proved Douglas right. According to Mark Dowie and others, 
the old model of conservation which falsely opposed nature (good) and 
culture (bad) is being replaced with something much more dynamic, a new 
transnational conservation paradigm. A younger generation of scientists 
recognise that properly engaged indigenous and traditional peoples have 
a vital role to play in preserving fragile ecosystems.

Which brings us neatly back to the Chagos Islanders. They may be 
relatively recent inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago (they first 
arrived in 1783) but no one can legitimately claim that they do not 
possess the status of an indigenous or traditional people just like 
those descendants of former African slaves and Indian indentured 
labourers who live on other Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius, 
Reunion, Rodrigues and the Seychelles. And the only reason the 
Chagossians no longer reside in their homeland, part of the colony of 
Mauritius until it was illegally excised in 1965, is because they were 
forcibly removed by the British authorities.

While the evidence is clear that uncontrolled fishing can have 
catastrophic consequences the idea that a small settlement of 
Chagossians and a carefully controlled number of eco-tourists are going 
to destroy the pristine qualities of the proposed MPA in the Chagos 
Archipelago is nothing short of preposterous and flies in the face of 
evidence from other parts of the world like American Samoa, Australia, 
Chile, Indonesia and the Philippines where indigenous and traditional 
peoples are fully involved in the conservation and maintenance of marine 

Environmentalists like Pope may be able to line up a fair number of 
scientists and traditionally-minded conservation groups to back their 
argument, but the rest of us realise that the game has moved on. This is 
not just because of evolving social and political realities which have 
undermined a hierarchical view of the world based on the principle that 
conservationists always know best, but because the old opposition 
between nature conservation where humans were seen as “the enemy” in the 
preservation of biological diversity has been rightly found wanting and 
is being slowly but surely being replaced by a much better model.

**************************************** /*


Richard Dunne

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