Geoffrey Lean in The Telegraph today, March 31st:
At first sight it looks great, doesn’t it? Create the world’s biggest marine reserve, larger than mainland France, in one if its most pristine stretches of ocean, home to unspoiled corals and rare fish and other life. But Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is expected imminently to decide in favour of it, and supportive environmental and scientific organisations – ranging from Greenpeace to the august Royal Society – risk setting the cause of conservation back decades.
Not that the area isn’t worthy of preservation. The Chagos Archipelago – 55 islands spread over 210,000 square miles in the middle of the Indian Ocean – is home to fully half of its remaining healthy coral reefs and over a thousand species of fish, including 60 critically endangered ones. Dubbed the ocean’s Galapagos, it is one of its key nurseries of life, giving birth to larvae and young fish that populate the entire region, and providing a critical breeding area for dolphins, sharks and turtles. On this basis, it’s scarcely surprising that the organisations – others include Kew Gardens, London Zoo and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – support plans to ban fishing, construction and other human activities there.
Except that the islands are also home to people, or ought to be. Britain forcibly removed their 2,000 inhabitants in the 1970s to make way for a US base that now dominates Diego Garcia, their principal atoll. They have been fighting to return for decades, winning cases in British courts only to lose ultimately in the House of Lords two years ago, and gaining the support of the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 2000, only to see the Government overturn his decision after 9/11.
They are taking their case this summer to European Court of Human Rights. But the bans would deny them a means of making a living, so they understandably view the proposed reserve as a cynical plan to make their return impossible. And their suspicions are only deepened by the fact that the base would be exempted from the restrictions, even though its 3,200 inhabitants do far more damage to the environment than they would ever be likely to perpetrate.
The plan and its supporting organisations appear to be flying in the face of probably the most important development in conservation over the past 30 years, a growing realisation that respect for nature has to go hand in hand with concern for local people – indeed, that it can only be assured when it benefits them as well as wildlife. Now the evicted people of the islands are bitterly pointing out that they being accorded less rights than the area’s sea slugs. How could they possibly be expected to respect the reserve if they win the right to return?
The plan’s supporters say that, if the islanders do win, the rules of the reserve would have to be amended to allow them to live there. At the very least Mr Miliband should spell this out, go into specifics, and cast a guarantee in stone. But, even so, the islanders have good reason to be deeply cynical about British Government promises. Why not at least wait until after the European Court has made a decision and then work with the islanders, whether they won or lost, to create something commanding their support as well as that of conservationists? Could it possibly be that an unseemly rush to establish a green legacy before the General Election is far more important to Mr Miliband than either the wildlife or people of the Chagos Archipelago?
- Quoted in entirety to spare you the "comment'-section.
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