The chances are you’ve never heard of the Chagos Islands, let alone ever been for a visit, but over the next few days we all have an opportunity to help protect the amazing life in the seas around them.
The Chagos archipelago is a group of 55 small islands in the Indian Ocean, that makes up Britain’s Indian Ocean Territory. The UK government is currently consulting on whether to establish a Marine Reserve in the waters around the Chagos – which, if created, would be the largest Marine Reserve in the world, covering around 210,000 square miles. Crucially that area includes half of the Indian Ocean’s pristine coral reefs, the world’s largest coral atoll, as well as charismatic critters like turtles, sharks, coconut crabs and seabirds. Not to mention well over 200 species of coral, and a thousand species of fish!
However, as with so many parts of the world, the Chagos is an area with sad skeletons of a colonial past. The issue, and the impassioned involvement of long-standing Greenpeace activists over the years, have been well documented here by Rex Weyler - much better than I could hope to explain.
The bottom line is - Greenpeace acknowledges and supports the Chagossians in their struggle, and hopes that they are successful. But at the moment, the Chagos Islands are being administered by the UK government, and whatever way you look at it, taking steps to protect the marine life there is a good idea. At the simplest level the tuna fishing that is happening in their waters can be seen as the theft of Chagossian fish, and creating a no-take Marine Reserve is a way of reclaiming and protecting those fish for the islanders. Of course the tuna fishing interests are busy lobbying against this outcome.
If and when the Chagossians are repatriated, then the protection of the seas around the archipelago will need to be readdressed, and yes, that may well involve allowing fishing by the islanders. Protecting the waters now is putting them off limits to further exploitation, and putting them in trust for the Chagossian people. Greenpeace looks forward to the happy day when we can discuss with the returning Chagossians how to develop selective, small-scale sustainable fishing operations in their waters. But for the moment, we think setting the area off-limits and creating the world's largest Marine Reserve is a fantastic idea.
Just to put that into context, at 210,000 square miles the Chagos Marine Reserve would be around 26 times the size of Wales. It would also signal that the UK was starting to get serious about the creation of no-take Marine Reserves, given that our only previous effort to date is a miniscule reserve off the island of Lundy, not much larger in size than the proverbial postage stamp.
The government is now requesting your views on whether to protect this area as a Marine Reserve. But the window for comments is only open for a very limited time - in fact it closes next week on 12th February.
So, please take a minute to help. Email Foreign Secretary David Miliband and call on him to create a no-take Marine Reserve to protect the colourful coral reef life around the Chagos. And please ask your friends to add their voices as well - this definitely is one of these times where a few short words from a lot of us really can make a big difference.