By Sabrina Jean
Many believe that the Chagos Islands need protection. Those of us who call it home wholeheartedly agree with them.
For many years, the Chagossians were the guardians of these beautiful islands in the Indian Ocean. We grew our own food, fished from the sea and enjoyed a way of life that had sustained our ancestors for generations.
Before our expulsion from the islands in 1968 by the British government, to make way for a US military base, the islands were in pristine condition – far better than they are today.
The military base set up on Diego Garcia has been responsible for causing significant damage: much of the island’s vegetation has been destroyed, large areas of the island have been concreted over, a deep-water harbour for the vast military arsenal has been created, oil spills have seeped into the freshwater reservoirs and the coral base of the islands, whilst industrial-scale fishing of tuna from the local waters has left stocks depleted.
Over the last 46 years, many of us have set-up what we have continued to hope would be temporary homes in Mauritius and the United Kingdom. Witnessing the destruction of our islands from afar during that time has upset us deeply, as has the refusal by successive British governments to allow us to return to the islands, even just to visit and tend to the graves of our ancestors.
We are in favour, as the judges recognised earlier this month, of a high level of conservation in our natural paradise. Our crucial role in guaranteeing this was recognised by a number of leading conservation agencies at the Chagos Regagne Conference in 2011, when they signed a declaration in favour of our return.
In addition, an independent feasibility study we commissioned supports what we have argued all along, that there is no reason that we should not return; our presence will not endanger the beautiful corals or remaining fish stocks.
It’s for this reason, we find ourselves in the awkward position of having to oppose a Marine Protection Area (MPA), not because we do not want to preserve our islands and the waters around them, but because we know that it is just one of a number of strategies aimed at preventing us from returning to the islands – a hunch which has since been born out through the cables recently revealed by WikiLeaks.
We find the suggestion that this is the real reason for the MPA far more compelling than we do the argument that our return would be detrimental to the island, particularly when 1,500 servicemen and 2,000 civilian workers currently live there.
Regardless of the legality or illegality of the MPA, or the recent rulings which deemed the Wikileaks information inadmissible in court, we know the truth. And we will never stop believing that as the indigenous population of the islands, we are their natural custodians.
With the re-negotiation of the lease of our islands due to take place between Great Britain and the United States over the next 18 months, we look forward to participating in the discussions around what will happen to the care of our islands and what remains of their natural beauty, in the coming years.
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