Gordon Brown must let the Chagos Islanders go home

Conservation projects should not stop the exiled islanders from returning.

Whoever came up with the bright idea that turning the Chagos Archipelago, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, into a Marine Protected Area (MPA) would be a fitting and lasting legacy for Gordon Brown's premiership must be scratching his or her head. The two genies -- Mauritius's claim to the territory and the position of the exiled Chagos Islanders who were removed from their homeland by the British authorities -- are now well and truly out of the bottle.

Last month a workshop was held at Royal Holloway College to discuss the socio-economic implications of the proposed MPA. The Mauritian High Commissioner, Abhimanu Kundasamy, who was due to give an opening address pulled out at the last minute on instructions from Port Louis.
In a letter to the Times a few days later Kundasamy spelt out in no uncertain terms how his government viewed the British government's initiative over the MPA. "The right of Mauritius to enjoy sovereignty over the archipelago, and the failure of the promoters of the marine project to address this issue meaningfully, are serious matters," he warned. "There can be no legitimacy to the project without the issue of sovereignty and resettlement being addressed to the satisfaction of the government of Mauritius."

But the plan to turn an area of 210,000 square miles -- twice the size of Great Britain -- into a marine reserve has some very influential supporters including many of the leading conservation groups in the UK including the Linnean Society, the Marine Conservation Society, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and the RSPB operating under an umbrella organisation, the Chagos Environment Network, which is backed by the Pew Environment Group, a large and very influential US environmental charity, which persuaded President George W Bush to declare the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a MPA in 2006. And it is clear that although these conservation groups give a nod towards the exiled Chagos Islanders, whose case is currently before the European Court of Human Rights, they would be very happy if they were not allowed the right of return.

In fact, their attitude 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 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-19th-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 Foundation.

Exactly 40 years ago, British social anthropologist Mary Douglas 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 the 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.

While the evidence is clear that uncontrolled fishing can have catastrophic consequences, the idea that a small settlement of Chagossians involved in subsistence fishing and a carefully controlled number of eco-tourists would 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 Australia, Chile, Indonesia and the Philippines where indigenous and traditional peoples are fully involved in the conservation and maintenance of marine reserves.

Traditionally minded environmentalists may be able to line up a fair number of scientists and traditionally-minded conservation groups to back their argument, but the truth is that the argument has moved on as witnessed by the signatories of a petition organised by the Marine Education Trust to allow the islanders to return to their homeland in the proposed MPA who include Andrew Balmford (Professor of Conservation Science, Cambridge University), Barbara Brown (Emeritus Professor of Tropical Marine Biology, Newcastle University), David Bellamy ( Professor of Adult and Continuing Education, Durham University) and Thomas Eriksen ( Professor of Social Anthropology, Oslo University).

Why have these people signed up? Well, it's not just because of evolving social and political realities, which have undermined a hierarchical view of the world, informed by the principle that conservationists always know best. It is also 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.

So here is some advice for Gordon Brown about a lasting legacy for his time in office: let the Chagos Islanders return to their homeland and settle the issue of sovereignty of the Archipelago with Mauritius once and for all.

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