African business, politics and lifestyle
Should we really care about the Chagossians?
Should we really care that Britain’s House of Lords upheld a British government appeal on Wednesday, blocking the return of hundreds of Chagossians to their Indian Ocean homes?The decision by the House of Lords ends a years-long battle to secure the Chagos Islanders the right to return to their archipelago, from where they were forcibly removed in the 1960s and ’70s to make way for an American airbase on Diego Garcia.
By a ruling of 3-2, the lords backed a British government appeal that argued that allowing the islanders to return could have a detrimental effect on defence and international security. It’s a tough decision and an agonizing result for the Chagos islanders. They continue to suffer appalling injustice because of the British government, who booted them out of the Chagos islands – also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) – to make way for a US military base.
But now the estimated 5,000 Chagossians are mostly scattered between Mauritius, Seychelles, and Britain. And the younger generations (many of whom are half Chagossian) don’t seem so keen to return. One expert has said that about 1,000 Chagossians could return to two of Chago’s six atolls, making a living from coconuts, fishing and ecotourism. But others say this outline plan has grossly underestimated the costs and practical difficulties. Should we, in fact, breathe a sigh of relief at the House of Lords’ decision?
Small islands like those in the Chagos Archipelago tend to have an incredibly rich variety of plants and animals, often found nowhere else. Scientists and sailors visiting the islands describe a near paradise of coral reefs teeming with fish. And examples from elsewhere in the Indian Ocean – Mauritius, Madagascar, Reunion, Comoros, and the Seychelles – show just how badly human populations can damage the environment.
The Chagos Archipelago, for example, has the largest coral atoll in the world, 10 so-called Important Bird Areas, ideal nesting conditions for two turtle species, and – according to tests in 1996 and 2006 – some of the world’s cleanest waters too. And while a 1998 rise in water temperatures killed as much as 95 percent of coral in some areas, Chagos’ reefs grew back probably because there is so little human activity, scientists say. The nearby Maldives were not so lucky.
A sense of justice tells us that Chagossians should be allowed to return. But if these islands truly are on the frontline in the battle against extinctions and if such clean and isolated regions are truly a rarity, then should we really be upset by the block on Chagossians’ return to their homeland?