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

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle