Monday, April 27, 2009

Keeping Chagos ‘Pristine’ Needs Bomber Base Approval

By David Altaner, March 9 (Bloomberg)

The Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, home to a U.S. military base, deserves British government protection as a breeding ground for eastern Africa’s fish and a laboratory for global-warming research, scientists and environmentalists say.

Declaring an ocean-conservation zone would limit fishing, ban construction and prevent ships from anchoring on reefs among the 55 islands that comprise the British Indian Ocean Territory, the world’s largest above-water coral atoll.

“There are so few places left on the planet which are unspoiled, and Chagos is one of those,” said Anne Sheppard, a marine biologist on the executive committee for the Chagos Conservation Trust, which is coordinating the campaign for legal protection. “The water is the cleanest in the world; even the Antarctic isn’t this clean.”

The plan can be blocked by Britain or the U.S. military, which operates a Navy base and refueling station on the largest island, Diego Garcia, that was used to launch bomber jets for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former residents of the region, descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured laborers, want to return, complicating the conservation campaign.

A U.S. Navy spokeswoman said today that it would be “inappropriate” to comment until the organization is presented with an official proposal. The Navy seeks “environmental stewardship” with the communities in which it operates and has a “strong relationship” with Britain, she said.

Human Settlement

Britain’s Foreign Office said it has “already signaled its desire” to work to preserve the environment. In an e-mailed statement March 6, it said “the very high standards of preservation there have been made possible by the absence of human settlement in the bulk of the territory and the environmental stewardship” of the administration and the U.S. military.

Preservation advocates are seeking marine-habitat protections for a 500,000-square-kilometer (193,000-square-mile) region around the Chagos islands much like those the U.S. declared in January in the Pacific near Guam, west of Hawaii, and in the American Samoa.

The islands are unspoiled because they were “swept clean and left pristine” after Britain moved residents out, said Julian Hanford, a spokesman for the U.K. Chagos Support Association. The group represents former islanders who were removed by Britain between 1967 and 1973 so the U.S. could build a naval base.

In October, Britain’s House of Lords ruled that the Chagossians couldn’t return home, overturning a lower-court ruling.

Global Warming

The environmentalists see the Chagos islands as a base from which to research global warming, because its reef is unspoiled and will survive longer as others die.

“We can buy 30 years of time because it’s not being harmed by sewage, dredging and over-fishing,” said Sheppard’s husband, Charles, a University of Warwick professor, speaking at a press conference today in London. The environmentalists are backed by the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group, the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Olivier Bancoult, chairman of Chagos Refugees Group, said the Chagossians would be the best guardians of the islands. “We are best placed to protect the pristine environment and to ensure it is not over-fished, or illegally occupied by wealthy itinerant yachtspeople,” he said by e-mail from Mauritius, where many of the former islanders live.

Ecological Goals

Some of the ex-residents’ proposals for how to sustain themselves are incompatible with the ecological goals, such as one for an airport for tourists, said William Marsden, chairman of Chagos Conservation Trust.

“It’s very difficult to come up with a solution which is fair to both the Chagossians and also protect this very, very special place,” said Sheppard of the Trust. “Everyone’s trying to do what’s right for both parties.”

The U.S. military dredged and dynamited reefs to build the base, and major fuel spills went unreported, said Peter H. Sand, of the University of Munich’s Institute of International Law, writing in January’s Journal of Environmental Law.

“It’s largely stopped now -- this is past damage,” Sand said in a telephone interview. “Yet there is lasting damage.”

The reefs were harmed as the base was built, yet they are so healthy that they had rebounded within a decade, said Charles Sheppard. Today, the water is so pure that instruments could hardly register any contaminants, he said. In a 2006 trip, researchers tested water samples in the shadow of the Navy’s ships.

“They do look after it,” he said of Diego Garcia. “When it comes to chemical pollution, there’s none.”