Chagos MPA - can you divorce science and politics?

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By Dr Peter JS Jones, Dept of Geography, University College London (P.J.Jones [at]

An interesting Response by Charles Sheppard (2014, Marine Policy 47, 85–86) to the article by Peter Harris: Fortress: Safe haven or home? The Chagos MPA in political context (2014, Marine Policy 46, 19-21). Charles  Sheppard attempts to annul the marriage between science and politics which Peter Harris' paper has reported. This left me pondering some questions.

Given that Charles clearly and understandably  cares about the marine biodiversity around the Chagos archipelago (as do many, including myself and probably Peter Harris), is it feasible or realistic to divorce science from politics, i.e. can you care about something but be divorced from the politics involved in governing that thing?

Given that the Chagos Environmental Network has provided and communicated scientific advice and papers which link the 'pristine' status of the ecosystems within the MPA with the uninhabited nature of the islands since 1973 (3,000 - 5,000 military base personnel catching ~50 tonnes of fish per annum aside, recognising that there were only 2,000 Chagossians living on the archipelago islands), is it realistic to argue that the science is divorced from the politics concerning decisions about the MPA and the return of Chagossians to islands within it?

Is it realistic to say that the Chagos MPA is not due to 'Fortress Conservation' (in relation to De Santo et al. (2013) Fortress conservation at sea: a commentary on the Chagos MPA) when a wiki leak revealed the UK government's view (from the US State Department's perspective) that "establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents", who were previously referred to as "Man Fridays"? It would seem, as we argued in De Santo et al (2011) prior to the release of the wiki leak, that the question of the return of Chagossians was at least in a relationship with designation of the MPA, even if the two were not married.

Is the right of return of Chagossians (which few would take up, in reality, but they should have the right) necessarily wedded to a resumption of commercial fishing within the Chagos MPA?

In my view, the answer to these four rhetorical questions is clearly 'no', other views welcomed! The marriage between science and politics may be an uneasy one, but it is a difficult one to ignore and not a feasible one to deny, and a divorce does not seem to be a realistic prospect.


When did Chagos go from being called a Marine *Protected* Area to being called a Marine *Preservation* Area, the terminology Dr. Sheppard uses in his response piece? It's interesting to consider the implications of preservation versus conservation (notably that many view conservation as a "use" that can include "tools" such as biodiversity offsetting, whilst preservation is much more hands-off) - has anyone else noted this change in terminology? It is also worth emphasizing that the legal process Dr. Sheppard refers to regarding human rights was ongoing over several decades, yet was coming soon to a result when the Chagos MPA (whatever P stands for) was "declared". The timing was insensitive and perceived as such by the people involved in the case, which harms the prospect of MPAs down the line. That being said, I do agree that it was a long-term issue that continues in the courts today (with Mauritius trying to gain sovereignty over Chagos in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, as the UK separated the two prior to giving Mauritius independence - an action that was in breach of its own rules on de-colonization). Dr. Sheppard also claims that "fortress conservation" had nothing to do with the decision to declare an MPA, but as you say Peter, and as we said in our letter to MPA News at the time, the Wikileaked documents from the State Department highlighted conversations between them and FCO that showed the MPA was very much a way of keeping people away from the base in Diego Garcia, thus in the US's military interest. This is not the traditional "fortress conservation" that we have seen of fencing in areas and keeping people out, but a whole new way of interpreting the term, i.e. keeping the military protected! And on a final note, we all agree that very large MPAs are a great way to protect biodiversity and ensure ocean productivity... if enforced! Don't even get us started on how unenforceable large areas currently are, and how poorly Chagos is policed, in particular. Let's hope that the work Big Ocean and others are doing on improving enforcement approaches will help prevent these large MPAs from being paper parks.

An interesting article about waste water discharges into Diego Garcia lagoon in Chagos MPA This undermines the case against the return of Chagossians to this 'pristine' environment when treated sewage from 1000's of people has been being discharged into the lagoon for years, impacting the coral reef ecosystems due to their sensitivity to nutrient-lade waste water discharges - "campaigners fighting for Chagossians to be allowed to return accused the British and US authorities of double standards by using the unspoilt character of the archipelago as a reason to prevent repopulation while themselves creating pollution"

Since I posted links to this blog thread and the article you mention from the Independent on my twitter account yesterday, I have been tweeted at repeatedly by Rewild Britain, arguing that "more people means more pollution"... and "humans will pollute and degrade anywhere they are allowed to set up camp" - so, opponents to resettlement will take this as further evidence that people don't belong there at all. I'm surprised that this "revelation" about the military base is being portrayed as such - we knew that they were fishing significantly, doesn't it make sense that they would also be dumping waste as well? Seems logical given they are excluded from the MPA - otherwise perhaps their actions could be regulated... if resettlement is to proceed, the Chagossian people will surely be held to tighter restrictions than the US military, shouldn't we question why and how the UK is willing to let its US tenants treat a "marine preservation area" in this way?

Comment by Tom Appleby, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of West England, Bristol, followed by response from Peter Jones:- Thanks for opening up this for discussion Peter. As a trustee of the Blue Marine Foundation (though this is my views not BLUE's) I must say I've always been a little bemused by the fortress conservation take on the Chagos marine reserve. Legally the decision to declare a no take marine reserve is the exercise of a sovereign right in exactly the same way that the decision to lease out the fishery is (which had been the practice until then) so I cannot quite understand why the no take reserve attracted such scrutiny while the decision to allocate the fishery to foreign fishing interests did not. I am also mystified how the declaration of a marine reserve can 'put paid to the resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents' as the Wikileaks cable put it. It is incredibly difficult for a Minister to bind their successors. The website Wikileaks is essentially not very good evidence of Ministerial decision making. I am sure this was not the reason why David Milliband or William Hague designated the reserve. If it was (which as I said I doubt) it may have had precisely the opposite effect because shortly afterwards Mauritius took the UK to International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea over the Chagos, thus putting the whole sovereignty in question. In short I don't think the reserve itself is a very good example of fortress conservation, it is a great example of the way conservation gets snarled up in politics though. Peter's Response:- I am not sure why you are "bemused" and "mystified", Tom. To quote you "I cannot quite understand why the no take reserve attracted such scrutiny while the decision to allocate the fishery to foreign fishing interests did not." Let me explain why, it's simply because the leasing of the fishing rights did not restrict if not foreclose the opportunities for the return of Chagossians to Chagos, where the designation of the entirely no-take MPA did. Are you seriously arguing that the wikileaked statement quoted in the original posting is not indicative of an intention, amongst others, to use the MPA to prevent the return of the Chagossians in order to assuage the US State Department's concerns that the most strategically important air and navy base in the world does not have its security compromised by having Chagossians living on Diego Garcia? There are, of course, other very good conservation grounds for this designation, but the wikileaked statement indicates these grounds are linked to the military security grounds. You seem to denigrate this evidence because the word 'wiki' appears in its source, but it is important to remember that the wikileaks were not fabricated, they were leaks of official communiques, the veracity of which has never been denied. Having accepted that, I fail to see how you can be bemused by claims of a link between American strategic military interests and the UK government's decision to declare the entire area a no-take MPA, clearly restricting if not foreclosing the opportunities for the return of Chagossians. The quoted statement is really quite clear in this respect, unless the 'admissibility' or veracity of this statement is rejected. The High Court may have judged this evidence inadmissible, for wider political reasons, but you surely cannot think that the link - between military and conservation interests that this statement reveals - does not exist?

I am not saying that the link may not exist in the minds of some government officials, but what I am saying is that it may not be the driving reason to create the MPA inside the mind of the Foreign Secretary when he made the designation. I am not at all sure why creating an MPA of itself stops the Chagossians returning. Having set up a no take zone myself on behalf of a local community, there's all sorts of reasons (which we all know) as to why NTZ's benefit local people. For returning Chagossians I would have thought that having abundant wildlife would have made potentially great source of wildlife tourism. You could equally make the argument that it would be better for the UK to completely knacker the fishery to keep out the Chagossians, that way they would have nothing to return back to. As for Wikileaks, the High Court judged the evidence as inadmissable for its own arcane reasons (I have read the judgment and it is amazingly complex and turns on very technical detail rather than the substance of the leak or politics). The UK Courts are independent (as the decision to release Prince Charles' letters last week will confirm - potentially constitutionally explosive). Wikileaks will give part of the story, but nowhere near the whole story and certainly in no way can be said to be represent what was going through David Milliband's or William Hague's minds when they decided to make the designation. You will have to ask them why the did it.... Anything else is conjecture, and wikileaks adds some tantalising colour to that conjecture but little more, and it is dangerous to give it too much weight. Moreover however you slice it if the UK did intend to permanently keep out the Chagossians via the MPA. It didn't necessarily work because it was the grist to the Mauritian challenge over UK sovereignty (mind you that raises the question of whether Mauritius would in reality want to relocate the Chagossians if it wins the case, only time will tell) .... If this was meant to be a fortress conservation it hasn't worked very well. Personally I draw a line between the Chagossian human rights claim (which is being dealt with very professionally and passionately by all involved) and the marine conservation side. I see my role to make the MPA work, and I am content to rely on the justice system to make sure the Chagossians are not hard done by. I am not sure there is much mileage in trying to entangle the two as it loads it up with politics.

Tom, I agree with you that the judgment is arcane and their rationale for discarding the leaked documents has more to do with security and procedural reasons - however the content of the leaked cables includes a very clear statement that the US government considered an MPA to be in its strategic interest (i.e. keeping the BIOT militarized aka de-populated). I'm not supportive of the Wikileaks movement or the threat it poses to national security, however the shared US and UK opinion is clear, and that is what the "fortress conservation" terminology we used in our article is getting at. This is not the same as creating a park with a fence to keep the people out, this is a whole other level of militarization (i.e. hiding behind conservation rhetoric) and it poses serious questions for all MPAs containing military bases, in my opinion. When you say "your role" - have you actually been involved in the designation? I ask out of curiosity and research interest, not to be flippant. The leaked cables can be seen here: The particular language I'm referring to above is "[FCO Director] Roberts responded that the terms of reference for the establishment of a marine park would clearly state that the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, was reserved for military uses"

This is an interesting academic debate, but without getting drawn in may I make 6 points: 1. Conservation only became embroiled in the politics from about 2006. I leave others to judge why. 2. The MPA was initially a Pew, later a CCT concept, taken up by officials and then Miliband to provide Labour with a green legacy. Officials saw that it could also provide an additional obstacle to resettlement. Hague inherited it and was persuaded by officials that it should be kept in place. 3. The security/defence/intelligence argument was primarily an FCO deployment for use in the Courts, with which the US went along, especially post 9/11. THE US never asked for all the people to be removed from all the islands, only from DG. The weakness of the argument has now been exposed by the T0Rs of the new feasibility study which charge the consultants (not yet announced) with also looking at the possibility of a resettlement on DG. This would not have been included in the ToRs if the US had been against it. In fact it probably offers the best solution for all interests concerned. It was an idea espoused by the Chagos Islands (BIOT) APPG and put to the Foreign Secretary last July. 5. The new feasibility study, for which the APPG pressed since 2008, offers a way out of this maelstrom and a large enough fig leaf for the FCO to cover the essentials. 6. The FCO will eventually work out a timetable for discharging its international obligation to Mauritius to return the Islands to Mauritius, when no longer needed for defence purposes. The 54 Outer Islands have and will never be so required. But FCO want to deal with resettlement first, although the APPG is advocating that discussions on the future management of the Archipelago be taken forward in parallel with Mauritius. David Snoxell Deputy Commissioner of BIOT, 95-97; High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000-04; Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) APPG from 2008

Thank you David and Peter. When I say my role, I was involved in some of the negotiations, as the Blue Marine Foundation and the Bertarelli Foundation (with Chagos Conservation Trust and Pew) helped to negotiate the reserve with both David Milliband and William Hague's administration. As a result I found the Guardian article rather irritating when it came out. There is (and always was) obvious legal problems with the views attributed to Colin Roberts in the text, and these are alluded to in the wiki leak (but bless them) the Guardian didn't put them in italics. Firstly it was not in the FO's purview to ban the return of the Chagossians as the matter is sub judice, nor would they (as a matter of policy) bind successor administrations (thus they refer in the leak to the potential Tory administration's policy - which, of course they did not know at the time). There is also a right to innocent passage in UNCLOS, so boats can't be excluded the Chagos EEZ. I know a number of 'sea gypsies' who've landed on Diego Garcia .. the classic excuse is to claim 'engine problems' and put in for repairs, the numbers of yachts doing that was never great, because the islands are incredibly remote, but the position with piracy off the Horn of Africa has been so bad for a number of years that I hear through the sailing grape vine that very few people are transiting that route now. So from my perspective the Chagossian designation still remains rather a good example of conservation. The real issue of the designation is and always has been ensuring sufficient enforcement against fisheries incursions. Even that too can be worked on over time if the will remains to do so. The problem I think with the fortress conservation argument for this case is that I do believe (as I think David Snoxell is hinting at) that both David Milliband and William Hague did the designation for genuinely green reasons: when politicians think they are 'doing the right thing' and then get nasty publicity for their pains this can be upsetting and could have the effect of derailing the Chagos reserve altogether. That I think would be bad for all parties. In short the reserve does not stop the Chagossians returning (it can't as that's up to the courts) - if they do return, I don't want to put words in their mouths but I suspect they would want waters full of fish rather than depleted stocks. The reserve doesn't stop yachties (blame the pirates for that) and it has been at least partially effective (there has been more successful enforcements inside the Chagos EEZ than on the small Lamlash Bay reserve I helped to set up with the Community of Arran Seabed Trust - even when the Arran incursions have been caught on camera and had several eyewitnesses). Of course I would say this given my involvement, but my sense is that that the UK authorities actually need support over this rather than criticism. Everyone was remarkably silent when it was licensed as a fishery, but now the politicians try and do something for posterity they grief for their pains. Not Wikileaks finest hour.

Well, Tom, I may not consort with Swiss plutocrats or have connections to the trans-ocean yachties’ grapevine, but I do know that I am more concerned about the human rights of Chagossians than I am about the sensitivities of HMG’s ministers. I do not doubt that David Miliband was motivated by genuine conservation motives in pursuing the Chagos MPA designation, with enthusiastic encouragement from the FCO, and I suspect that William Hague is very keen to address the issue of the rights of Chagossians to return, hence the inclusion of this option in the current feasibility study, as well as being keen to improve the enforcement capacity for the Chagos MPA, and I support the UK government in all these respects. However, I am puzzled by your enigmatic talk of ‘smoking guns that can backfire’, is this in relation to the Wikileaks? Why were you ‘irritated’ by the Guardian article, was it because it pointed to humans rights and social injustices in relation to the Chagos MPA designation or because this was based on the Wikileak? Without getting drawn into a wider debate about the Wikileaks, I do not think it is realistic to argue that the reported comments by Colin Roberts of the FCO are invalid as they are taken out of context, and that this debacle can in any way be blamed on Wikileaks: they were only the messenger. The MPA was clearly seen by the FCO as a vehicle to ‘put paid’ to attempts by a few ‘Man Fridays’ (actually around 3000) to return to the Chagos islands, even though the US military had not requested the depopulation of the islands (though they did arrange the subsequent repopulation by 3000-5000 military base personnel). If the entire ‘EEZ’ (legally this is not its title) around the islands is strictly closed to all fishing (50 tonnes per annum by military personnel aside), it must be accepted that this makes the return of a few Chagossians practically impossible, unless small-scale fishing activities for domestic consumption are provided for, which is likely to be one of the options the current feasibility study will explore. Of course, the reality is that very few Chagossians want to return but they SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT TO, with strict controls on numbers and what they can do, including small-scale fishing, similar to that undertaken by military base personnel and your yachties. The FCO’s motives for wanting the MPA to be a way of preventing the return of Chagossians may be more related to their intransigent view that Chagossians should not be allowed to return and a resistance to doing a U-turn in this respect: perhaps this was not the FCO’s finest hour, but I would leave Wikileaks out of this. The military, FCO and marine conservation agendas became aligned in the MPA designation, hence our use of the term ‘fortress conservation’, meaning the continued and unfair exclusion of people from a protected area that they used to call ‘home’. Remember, we applied this term before the Wikileaks, so it was used more in a neo-colonial social injustice sense than a military sense. This is, however, essentially an academic debate about lexicon. In the midst of talk of ‘sea gypsies’ (which I presume does not include the yachties) and ‘smoking guns’ (an ironic metaphor given the presence of one of the US government’s biggest overseas military bases, with its associated impacts related to coral blasting, introduced species, illegal lagoon pollution, etc.), it is important to remember that the rights of Chagossians cannot be ignored or dismissed as an irritating aside. As I said at the start, I may not consort with Swiss plutocrats or have connections to the sailing grapevine, but I have had many discussions with representatives of the Chagossian community, and they movingly convey the wish of some to at least have the right to visit the islands in which they were born before they die, along with a few more intrepid youngsters to return, at least for certain periods, to live and work at scientific monitoring and MPA surveillance facilities, alongside other people, perhaps even high end ecotourism. Nobody wants a return of purse seiners or the potential for overharvesting of turtle rookeries, disturbance of other wildlife, etc., but the limited right to return can be integrated into the MPA and should have been included as an option in the MPA consultation and the designation. This should be the aim, rather than seeing shadows of smoking guns, be these held by Wikileaks, the FCO or the US military. BTW, it was Elizabeth De Santo who asked about your role….

Tom you say that "the UK authorities actually need support over this rather than criticism" and I have to say that I find it exasperating that people insist on making this a black and white issue. It is not heretical to question the validity of the Chagos MPA given the fact that it was put through (1) as a green political move (Bush did the same thing on leaving office with the Pacific monuments, BTW), (2) whilst the ECHR was deliberating the Chagossian case, and (3) excluding the US military's impact on the region. We all agree that it's better to have an MPA than not, especially if there was unregulated fishing going on - definitely a victory. But who is policing it? Will it achieve its conservation objectives? And what bridges have been burned with local communities worldwide with this human rights debacle. None of us want to see people come in and decimate the area - we all want to see effective conservation, here and everywhere. But pushing forward an MPA without a realistic enforcement strategy (and that excludes the US military's impact on the area) doesn't mean as much as we would like it to, and frankly it hurts MPAs in the long run. For the most part globally, MPAs are a tough sell. And, now we're faced with Mauritius arguing in the PCA for jurisdictional rights over Chagos which may render the whole experiment null and void - what lessons do this case study provide the rest of the world, which is struggling to balance conservation and development? So no, I'm not going to support the UK's (or anyone else's) blinkered approach to conservation, this "all or none" or "us versus them" mentality that is being pushed by many in the international community - conservation and human welfare are connected and if we can't learn how to do this right, we're going to realize we've done too little, too late. PS - I asked about your role in order to clarify whether you were part of the decision-team (and thus perhaps not at liberty to comment freely) or part of the lobbying that went into the reserve being established.

.... this video illustrates the opportunity that we all agree on: the priority of effectively protecting the Chagos MPA

Peter and Elizabeth, great to air this topic and we are going to have to differ on some of our views on Chagos I am afraid. Blue's role for the records was deeper than just lobbying as we helped to pay for it (thus I am fully aware of the implications for future funding on adverse publicity). The trouble is that all reserves to be effective end up displacing human activity. With the Chagos case, there were few legitimate human activities to displace from the BIOT EEZ and most of those were simple contractual rights, so in theory the reserve should have been non-contentious. It is so much harder to set up marine protected areas where people (some of them rather nice) are carrying out what they see as their traditional right to for instance scallop dredge, and all the organs of state are slanted to allow them to continue doing so. Yet the fishery is amazingly harmful and needs to be restricted. Conservation is rarely if ever easy, that is why it so interesting.

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