In June this year the High Court ruled that the UK government’s decision to create a marine park around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean had been lawful. This marked the end of a three year long struggle for the indigenous Chagossian islanders, who had argued that the 2010 designation of the archipelago as a protected marine reserve robbed them of their fishing-centred livelihoods and effectively prevented them from ever returning to their ancestral lands. At 545,000 square miles, the Chagos marine park is the largest in the world, claiming to protect an area as rich in biodiversity as the Galapagos Islands. In the absence of any further barriers to its designation, the new reserve will now be expected to live up to its promise of slowing the rate of regional biodiversity loss in the Indian Ocean and replenishing its fish stocks.
The media coverage of this legal struggle has shed light on the continuing influence of the archipelago’s colonial history on its present fate and that of its islanders. In 1965 the British expelled the Chagossians in order to allow the Americans to build an airbase on the main island, Diego Garcia, and also deterritorializing the islands from the Mauritian state. This act prompted an extensive legal battle for the Chagossians to try to secure their right to return, with challenges in the British and international courts both from the islanders themselves and the government of Mauritius. The recent decision to create the marine park has been interpreted as a continuation of the British colonial claim to the islands (which are still designated as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory), with the clear intent of preventing the return of the Chagossians to the archipelago and to their previous way of life.
There are strong parallels between the story of the Chagos islands and the account offered by Emma Norman in a recent article in Area on the governance of the activities of indigenous fishing communities in Boundary Bay, North America. Norman describes a process of what she calls ‘ecocolonisation’, whereby indigenous communities suffer the consequences of the seizure and degradation of their lands by an outside force. She sees this ecocolonisation as occurring in three main ways, all of which also resonate with the story of the Chagossians. Her first mode of ecocolonisation is through the containing of land and sea into different political regimes. In Norman’s account this is exemplified by how differently the activities of indigenous communities on the Canadian side of Boundary Bay have been governed, compared to those living the south of the bay which is governed by United States. Similarly, the territorialization of the Chagos Islands as a British Indian Ocean Territory and relatedly as a US military base has had direct and devastating effects on the landscape and people’s of the Islands, by designating who had rights to make decisions about the appropriate uses of land and sea. These territorial boundaries has been actively contested through the legal battles of the Chagossians and the government of Mauritius. The second form of ecocolonisation which Norman describes is the effects of pollution inputs which come from outside of the territory. Again, such debates are clearly alive around the creation of the Chagos marine park, as the degradation of this environment has been described as a problem of broader pollution and overfishing throughout the Indian Ocean.
The most central element of Emma Norman’s account of Boundary Bay, is the third mode of ecocolonisation that she describes; a process she feels has been left out of many accounts of the governance of indigenous communities, and something which helps us to understand the more subtle negotiations and practices which are at play, beyond the narrative of colonial greed. This process is what Norman calls the politics of calculation. A focus on the politics of calculation forces us not only to think about who counts in the sense of whose perspectives are sought and whose welfare is valued, but also to think literally about who is doing the counting in these processes. Norman argues that the technologies and methods with which governments and administrative bodies measure pollution, assess biodiversity and designate certain territories and species as threatened, all carry with them certain kinds of rationalities which themselves have political effects. In this case the technologies and rationalities used by the British government and by conservation bodies such as the IUCN, designating the Chagos islands as in need of environmental protection, are very different rationalities from those which govern the (relatively low impact) activities of the Chagossians themselves. Norman would argue that the political effects of these instruments are central to understanding the story of the Chagossians and how the British high court was able to justify its decision to uphold the creation of this marine park. This politics of calculation is what sets the Chagos Archipelago apart from the other inhabited islands in the Indian Ocean as an area of rich biodiversity which must be protected. It is also what foists the responsibility for replenishing the Indian Ocean’s fish stocks onto the beleaguered Chagossians and decentres the gaze from the polluting activities of sea-faring industries and the American military.
Chagos Islands: open secrets The Guardian
Emma S Norman, 2013, Who’s counting? Spatial politics, ecocolonisation and the politics of calculation in Boundary Bay, Area 45 179-187