Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Chagos Dilemma


We all like to discuss, debate, and move towards sustainable seas - its a given and in many cases we have a clear vision of what we are aiming for. However...sometimes the language of sustainability can be confusing, or when it comes down to specifics on the ground, the idea of a 'ecological - economic - social' balance or 'trade-off' can lead us to the messy reality of how do we actually implement sustainable seas?

One clear example is the issue facing the Chagos Islands or what it became: the British Indian Ocean Territory. The history of this difficult and socially myopic affair is illustrated in this BBC report.

This past cold war affair has led to a messy reality for the Chagos Islanders living in poverty in nearby Mauritius. Despite being allowed to return in 2000, this was overturned by the British Government in 2004. Now the debate has turned again to marine conservation.

The region is quite simply a marine paradise. It is a healthy, dynamic, stunning ecosystem - a group of isolated coral islands teeming with wildlife which is considered to be among the least polluted marine locations on Earth. It is clearly a candidate for environmental protection - and is supported by many groups.

While certainly a place that should be considered for protection - and the economic benefits protection can achieve - including sustainable fisheries - any conservation project cannot move forward without the support of the local community, or in this case, be isolated from the social dimension. The equity of restoring a people's homeland AND ensuring that it is protected in the way that they see fit and that works for them, is at the heart of sustainability thinking. In this case social justice and ecological sustainability need to work hand in hand and the reality of what this means needs to be acknowledged.

A final note: one must question why there is a debate on establishing an MPA in the Indian Ocean? Should not the focus be on establishing MPAs around the (inadequately protected) UK coasts and seas first?

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