CHAGOS ISLANDERS MAY WIN BACK THE RIGHT TO RETURN says Royal Holloway Report

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The Foreign Secretary was asked to consider alternative options when deciding the best strategy for the protection of the Chagos Archipelago, and the return of its people to the British Overseas Territory.

A just published report of findings of an academic workshop calls into question the current approach being taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which does not take account of the interests of the exiled Chagos islanders and Mauritius.

The Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean (BIOT) are being considered for Marine Protected Area (MPA) status, and the UK FCO launched a consultation on the issue, which closed on 12 February 2010.

The reefs of Chagos make up just under 40 per cent of the total reef area in the Indian Ocean that remains in the least disturbed, low threat category.

The report takes the view that establishing an MPA recognises the importance and value of the Archipelago and provides an opportunity to promote wide recognition and effective and long-term protection.

In particular, the report concludes that the MPA should withstand future challenges that might arise through resettlement and/or a change in sovereignty, and so none of the three options identified in the FCO consultation are suitable.

The report identifies a preferred fourth option, which would reflect the possibility of such changes by making provision for limited sustainable utilisation of natural resources through zoning or other means.

It is an option that needs to be explicitly recognised by the UK government for further development at the international level.

The report goes on to suggest that, given the desirability of a no-take MPA having international and regional recognition as well as cost-effective enforcement, Chagos Islanders and the Mauritius Government should be closely involved in the MPA discussions and in the planning process.

Unless these aspects are addressed, future legal or political developments could jeopardise the long-term status of the MPA, or at least result in a significant decline in its effectiveness, delivering only a ‘paper park’.

The report was compiled by a team from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), NERC, the universities of Plymouth, Cambridge and London, and conservation NGO, the Marine Education Trust (MET).

It is the outcome of a workshop held on 7 January 2010 at Royal Holloway, University of London.

This workshop brought together experts from NERC-supported marine research centres, Universities, and NGOs, as well as Chagossian, UK Government and marine industry stakeholders.

Its purpose was to discuss the socio-economic considerations of the establishment and management of an MPA in Chagos.

Royal Holloway’s Professor David Simon, who chaired the workshop, said, ‘This specially convened meeting formed a vital step in the contentious process of negotiation over the future status of the renowned Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

‘It brought together many interested parties and stakeholders who debated how to secure the environmental integrity of the islands and their marine resources in a manner compatible with the interests of the Chagossian people who were evicted some 40 years ago and who may yet have their right of return restored by the European Court of Human Rights.

‘Viable proposals must also take account of the possible future change of sovereignty from Britain to Mauritius.’

Jeremy Corbyn, MP, Chair of the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group, said ‘I was pleased to address this very useful workshop and I welcome the conclusions of its report. It is clear that the balance of scientific opinion demonstrates that there is a need for a fourth option in the proposed MPA which will not prevent the Chagossians who return to the islands, from pursuing their traditional way of life.

‘Indeed local fishing will initially be the only form of economic activity available to them.

‘I hope the Government will take note of this and discuss with the Chagossians and Mauritius what is required to make the MPA both workable and legitimate.

‘Local people and an MPA can work to the benefit of conservation and the long term future of the Chagos Islands. This is what happens in MPAs everywhere else in the world.’

Hengride Permal, the Secretary of the Chagos Island Community Association said: ‘I myself have written a letter to the FCO protesting that the Chagossian people have not been included in this MPA project.

‘It is good to have people to help us out because it is unfair to the Chagossians not to be included.

‘We are human beings and the Foreign and Commonwealth office cannot just forget about the human beings who were driven off the island and then just protect the wild life and the environment. They must protect the people too.

‘We are the native people there and we should have a part in these projects and have our say.

‘And we have written a petition letter against the project because we want to be included in the project.

‘The FCO has only considered the opinion of academics and we want the Chagossians to have their say in whatever negotiations are going on over the future of the island.

‘We still want to have our rights to go back to our island’ Permal said.

She concluded: ‘Nothing is going to stop us.’