Chagos Islands: Imperialism with an environmental face
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Chagos Islands: Imperialism with an environmental face

The Chagos Archipelago is a group of over 60 islands located in the Indian Ocean some 500km (310 miles) south of the Maldives. The isolated location of the islands resulted in a unique ecology and culture. It was also deemed strategic by the US and UK militaries.

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West Island, Chagos, pic: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr CC)

In 1965 the UK bought the Chagos and within 8 years forcibly removed all its human inhabitants, who resettled on Mauritius, the Seychelles and in the UK. The island of Diego Garcia was converted into a military base. It is the only inhabited island of the Chagos, the entire population consisting of US and UK military personnel and their civilian employees. Before being deported, the population of Diego Garcia was around 2,000 Chagos Islanders. Their legacy remains in the form of ghost towns and overgrown graveyards. Ironically, Western travelers are able to visit the island while the native population remains in forced exile.

From an opinion piece in the Guardian:

The sunlight streaked through the stained glass windows of the church and the small copra factory remained largely intact. I was horrified to find dozens of international travellers living among the ruins while the islanders themselves remained pariahs, exiled by their own government. Why were these itinerant travellers allowed to stay?

More recently, the argument to keep the Chagos Islanders away from the land of their birth is environmental, or more specifically, based on the conservation of the islands’ unique ecology. I guess we are meant to believe that an American military base has no environmental impact.

2,000 islanders who lead a basic, low-impact existence compared with 1,700 US military personnel and 1,500 civilian contractors who built shops, restaurants, an airport, a harbor and a cinema. You do the math.

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Conservation? pic: Official U.S. Navy Imagery (Flickr CC)

In 2010 a WikiLeaks cable from US diplomats to the British Foreign Office revealed that the setting up of a marine reserve in the Chagos would effectively end native claims for resettlement. The conservation argument appears to be a smoke screen. If it isn’t, surely some agreement could be reached allowing the island’s natives to return.

Read more about the Chagos Islanders’ plight in Scientific American.

In September 2010 a Swiss-Italian billionaire named Ernesto Bertarelli offered to finance the marine reserve (aka military reserve), which was at risk from UK Government budget cuts. Now why would he want to go and do that?