The Chagos MPA

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Not to be used for navigation. Chagos EEZ (equivalent to MPA boundary) by VLIZ Maritime Boundaries Geodatabase, version 5 Available online at

The Chagos Archipelago — Marine Conservation and Human Rights

The Chagos Marine Protected Area (MPA) was the largest in the world when it was created in April 2010, but human rights issues and legal cases mean that its future is still uncertain.

Where are the Chagos Islands?

An archipelago of 55 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean, about 1,500km from the southern tip of India, made up of a combination of atolls, islands and many submerged banks and seamounts covering 639,611 sq. km. The Great Chagos Bank is the second largest atoll structure in the world (after the Saya de Malha Bank in the Seychelles).

Who do they belong to?

The islands were ceded to Britain as dependencies of Mauritius by France in the Treaty of Paris in 1814. The Archipelago is known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT; it was detached in 1965 from Mauritius just before Mauritian independence in 1968. BIOT is run by career diplomats within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Under an agreement made between the UK and the USA in 1966, the largest island, Diego Garcia, was made available to the Americans as a military base. The base is home to more than 4,000 troops, two bomber runways and 30 warships. It is the largest military base outside of the United States.

Does anyone live there?

These uninhabited islands were discovered and named by Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century. In the 1780’s African slaves were taken there by the French who had colonised Mauritius in 1725. Coconut plantations were established on many of the islands for the export of copra. After 1837 the slaves were emancipated and remained as workers on the plantations, establishing villages on several of the islands and a culture that identified them as ‘Ilois’.

Following the 1966 agreement made between the UK and the USA, about 1500 of the resident islanders were deported from Diego Garcia and the outer islands between 1971 and 1973 to make way for a joint military base on Diego Garcia. This remains the only inhabited island, although visiting yachts are present in the outer islands for much of the year.

What happened next?

A compensation payment of £3 million was paid to Mauritius and £650,000 was made available to the Chagossians. Since deportation, they have lived in poor conditions in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Some came to the UK and they have established communities in Crawley and Manchester.

In 1999, Olivier Bancoult, Leader of the Chagos Refugees Group sought a judicial review of the requirement to seek a permit for anyone to visit BIOT (the 1971 ordinance that had prevented their return). The High Court found it unlawful, and the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, accepted the judgment and amended the BIOT constitution to allow Chagossians to return to the Outer Islands. However, in June 2004 Jack Straw overturned the High Court judgment by ‘Order in Council’ (effectively bypassing Parliament) and made entry to the territory without a permit once more illegal. Under a further judicial review, these Orders were quashed by the High Court in 2006 a judgment upheld by the Court of Appeal. However, the case was taken further to the House of Lords where, by a 3:2 majority the Law Lords ruled that the Orders were valid and that it was ‘not unreasonable for the Government to deny the right of abode in the interests of defence, cost and feasibility of resettlement’. In 2005 the Chagossians took their case for violation of their human rights to the European Court of Human Rights, but in December 2012 the case was judged to be inadmissable.

Why are the Chagos Islands so special for marine biodiversity?

There are very few parts of the world which have been so lightly affected by the impact of humans and where marine life remains so abundant and diverse. The lack of damaging fishing techniques, pollution and run-off meant that the corals recovered quickly from recent bleaching events. The Archipelago is seen as an important source of fish and coral larvae that helps to seed and support other areas in the Indian Ocean. However, the presence of a major military base on Diego Garcia for 40 years has had a significant impact on the marine environment. On this island, much of the protective coral has been dynamited and there have been persistent fuel, organic pollutant, chemical and radioactive leaks.

When did it become an MPA?

In 2009, the Chagos Conservation Trust, a charity that promotes the protection of the Chagos Islands, together with a consortium of UK NGOs and the Pew Foundation, campaigned for the Archipelago to be declared a no-take zone and MPA. Following a brief consultation period, the MPA was unilaterally declared by the Foreign Secretary on 1st April 2010, just before the general election. The announcement sparked emergency debates in both Houses of Parliament and a furious reaction from Mauritius to whom the UK has always promised to return the islands when no longer needed for defence purposes. The ulterior motive seems to have been to provide a green legacy for the Labour Government, reinforce British sovereignty and set up a further barrier to Chagossian return. This last point was illustrated in a 2009 US cable revealed in Wikileaks, in which the BIOT Commissioner stated that the MPA might ‘be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling’.

Is the MPA working well?

The MPA is not yet functioning as a well-protected, well managed MPA. The site is 613,000 sq. km in size, but is only patrolled by one vessel (the Pacific Marlin) which has a top speed of 12 knots. With licensed fishing banned from the 31st October 2010 there is no other surveillance in the Archipelago. Since licensed fishing no longer provides any income, the running costs of this vessel were secured from the Bertorelli Foundation by Blue Marine; a UK based charity focusing on achieving a 10% global target for MPAs. The Poaching from surrounding countries and legal recreational fishing from the US military base on Diego Garcia continues. The MPA does not yet have an accepted and legitimate plan for management, monitoring and enforcement.

Chagossian groups would have supported the MPA if provision had been made for the continuation of traditional fishing. There is scope for small areas of the reserve to allow traditional or low impact types of fishing, and for returning Chagos Islanders to be more fully involved in the enforcement and management of the MPA.

A no-take zone is in force in the whole of BIOT (except for Diego Garcia which was not included in the MPA). However, it currently remains little more than a ‘paper park’, lacking international legitimacy and effective enforcement and management.

What is happening now?

As well as the European court case surrounding the right to return, there are two further cases focusing on the MPA. The Chagos Refugee Group has won a judicial review of the public consultation process that led to the declaration of the MPA. This will be heard in the High Court in March 2013. Mauritius has also taken a case to the international tribunal of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) claiming that the UK has no right to declare the MPA since it is not a ‘Coastal State’ and that the manner in which it was established was contrary to the UK’s obligations under UNCLOS.

Are human rights and marine conservation mutually exclusive?

Successful conservation needs to be achieved in close partnership with indigenous populations and local stakeholders. Although in the case of the Chagos Islanders the indigenous populations are not present because they are living in exile, this should not mean that their future needs and role should not be considered. The MPA would undoubtedly be strengthened with a dedicated local community responsible for enforcement and scientific monitoring. There are plenty of examples around the world of effectively managed MPAs working in the context of human habitation.