WikiLeaks, a forgotten people, and the record-breaking marine reserve

The British government used “marine-protected areas” as a means to preserve the Chagos Archipelago a

A US embassy cable, released by WikiLeaks last week, revealed the real reason why a British territory in the Indian Ocean was designated a "marine-protected area" (MPA) earlier this year.

The leaked documents show that the MPA had been dreamt up by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to preserve the Chagos Archipelago – officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and and home to one of the world's most abundant coral reefs – as a military outpost, and prevent the native Chagossians from returning.

The indigenous population of the archipelago was deported in the late 1960s and early 1970s to enable the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands and home to most of their inhabitants. Britain paid £3m to the Mauritian government in compensation after excising the archipelago, with the proviso that the territories would be returned when they were "no longer needed for defence purposes".

After pointing out that the islands' strategic usefulness would not be hampered by the establishment of a marine reserve, the cable goes on to state that "the BIOT's former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands".

In a letter to the Guardian today, the television presenter and joint patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Ben Fogle, claims that he was tricked into supporting the marine reserve. He writes:

As a long-term advocate of conservation, I am horrified that the UK government has used this to keep the islanders from returning to their rightful home, and that I was duped into supporting the creation of the marine sanctuary under false pretences.

Meanwhile, the Mauritian prime minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, told fellow parliamentarians yesterday that his government was carefully considering its options to counter the unilateral declaration of the marine-protected area. The MPA was instituted on 1 April – despite an undertaking from the then British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, that the Mauritian government would be consulted.

Ramgoolam said this was particularly important, given that the UK's coalition government has shown no sign of deviating from the course set by the previous government "about the MPA and the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago".

He continued: "With regard to the marine-protected area, it is now clear, in light of what WikiLeaks revealed last week, that there is a Machiavellian agenda behind this project, to prevent the Chagossians [from returning] to their homeland and to defer discussion on the sovereignty of Mauritius indefinitely, as I have always maintained. Ce qui prouve, à ce stade, que notre position était justifiée!"

Nick Leake, the new British high commissioner to Mauritius, probably thought he had got a posting to paradise when he took up the position in June. He must have other thoughts after being summoned to appear at the ministry of foreign affairs in Port Louis this week to explain the duplicitous behaviour of the British government. He won't get a comfortable ride from the foreign minister, Dr Arvin Boolell.

These revelations did not come as a surprise to Olivier Bancoult. One of a lost generation of Chagossians, born on Peros Banhos, an island in the archipelago, to a family of refugees, Bancoult grew up to become the most prominent activist on behalf of this forgotten people. He was one of the founders of the Chagos Refugees Group, and eventually he took the British government to court.

He began legal proceedings against the UK government in 1998 and won a series of judgments at the high court and Court of Appeal before losing his case by a narrow 3-2 majority in the House of Lords in 2008.

"It's all very consistent with the way British officials have behaved towards us in the past," he told me, speaking from his home in the Mauritian capital. "Our fundamental rights have been trampled upon for years."

Nevertheless, he thinks that the WikiLeaks cable might be the smoking gun the Chagossians need. The new evidence of the real reasoning behind the establishment of the MPA has significant implications for the Chagossians' case, which is before the European Court of Human Rights.

"This is very important for our cause and we have instructed our lawyers to submit the new evidence contained in the WikiLeak to the court in Strasbourg," he continued.

Bancoult also revealed that he and other Chagossians has been inundated with messages of support from well-wishers, both in Mauritius and elsewhere, since the WikiLeak was released. And like many others, including no doubt the 42 members of the Chagos all-party parliamentary group in Britain, he is particularly keen to know more about the clearly racist reference to the Chagos Islanders as "Man Fridays" used by Colin Roberts, commissioner for the BIOT.

"This is very shameful for the British government," says Bancoult. "I am going to ask Henry Bellingham [the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa and British overseas territories], who I met a few months back when I came to London, whether he approves of the use of this sort of language.

"This is not a way to treat people. We are human beings – we should not be insulted in this way."

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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