The UK government has created the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos Islands.
The reserve would cover a 545,000-sq-km area around the Indian Ocean archipelago, regarded as one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems.
This will include an area where commercial fishing will be banned.
But islanders, who were evicted to make way for the US air base on the island of Diego Garcia, say a reserve would effectively ban them from returning.
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said establishing the reserve would “double the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection”.
He commented: “Its creation is a major step forward for protecting the oceans, not just around BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory] itself, but also throughout the world.
“This measure is a further demonstration of how the UK takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously.”
Conservationists say the combination of tropical islands, unspoiled coral reefs and adjacent oceanic abyss makes the area a biodiversity hotspot of global importance.
The archipelago, which has been compared to to the Galapagos Islands and to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, hosts the world’s biggest living coral structure – the Great Chagos Bank. This is home to more than 220 coral species – almost half the recorded species of the entire Indian Ocean, and more than 1,000 species of reef fish.
William Marsden, chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust, commented: “Today’s decision by the British government is inspirational. It will protect a treasure trove of tropical, marine wildlife for posterity and create a safe haven for breeding fish stocks for the benefit of people in the region.”
Mauritius has asserted a claim to sovereignty over the islands; and the UK has agreed to cede the territory when it is no longer required for defence purposes.
But in a letter to the Sunday Times newspaper earlier this year, Mauritius’ High Commissioner Abhimanu Kundasamy said: “There can be no legitimacy to the [marine protected area] project without the issue of sovereignty and resettlement being addressed to the satisfaction of the government of Mauritius.”
The former residents of the islands, who were evicted from the British overseas territory between 1967 and 1971 to make way for the US Air Force base on the largest island, Diego Garcia, have fought a long-running battle in the UK courts for the right to return.
Of the islands, only Diego Garcia, which has played a key role in the US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is currently inhabited.
Some Chagossians claim the marine protected area (MPA) would “severely jeopardise” any resettlement, because it would prevent them from fishing – their main livelihood.
The islanders’ legal saga is not over; Chagossians are now pursuing their cause through European courts.
In a statement on its website, The UK Chagos Support Association said the Foreign Secretary’s announcement left several key questions unanswered and called on Mr Miliband to involve Chagossians in the marine protection project.
The association said the announcement did not make clear whether zones could be established within the MPA in which “limited, sustainable fishing could take place”.
The statement also criticised the timing of the decision: “It is… bitterly disappointing that the government has felt it appropriate to make its announcement now, whilst parliament is [in] recess.”
In his statement, Mr Miliband pointed out that the decision had been taken following a consultation (in which 90% of those who responded supported greater marine protection). He also said the Foreign Office intended “to continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders”.