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Chagos Archipelago

Volume 719: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they propose to increase awareness of the environmental and scientific importance of the Chagos archipelago.

My Lords, high levels of conservation have already been achieved with a legislative framework protecting sites and species of particular importance. The territory’s quarter of a million square miles is Britain’s greatest area of marine biodiversity. The territory’s Administration will work with interested organisations and regional governments to increase awareness of the environmental and scientific importance of the territory.

My Lords, that sounds very encouraging, but can the noble Lord confirm that sufficient funding is in place to ensure that illegal fishing in that vast marine archipelago will not take place in forthcoming years?

My Lords, the declaration of the marine protected area did not cost anything, but by implementing a no-take fishing zone, the British Indian Ocean Territory's Administration loses between £800,000 and £1 million of revenue which they would have got from the sale of fishing licences. That revenue used to go towards the cost of maintaining a British Indian Ocean Territory patrol vessel for surveillance duties, and so on. The annual cost of running that vessel is about £1.7 million, including fuel costs, so the costs not offset by the fishing licence loss were met by subsidy from the overseas territories programme fund. The short answer to the noble Lord is that we need to find an additional £800,000 to £1 million, and the overseas territories division is in discussion with a number of foundations and charities which have offered to meet that requirement for a five-year period.

My Lords, I acknowledge the merits of marine conservation, but does the Minister agree that the MPA has caused considerable tensions, not least with our close allies, the Government of Mauritius? Will he respond positively to the expressed desire of the Mauritius Government for the dialogue initiated by their Prime Minister and Gordon Brown to be continued as soon as possible by the current Government? Would he be prepared to meet representatives of the Chagossian community in the UK?

My Lords, under the previous Government, of which the noble Baroness was a distinguished member, there were some difficulties about the consultation continuing. It began, but then problems arose on the Mauritian side. We remain happy to talk to the Mauritian Government at any time about the marine protected area, but if it takes us into the broader issue, on which the noble Baroness touched in the second part of her question, of the Chagossians’ right of return, all I can tell her at this stage is that the new Government are looking at the whole pattern of issues raised by the British Indian Ocean Territory's situation. I will certainly communicate with her and your Lordships as soon as possible on that issue, but I cannot say more today.

My Lords, bearing in mind that a total ban on fishing under the MPA would end the careers of Mauritian and Chagossian fishermen, and the amount of money that the Minister mentioned, which would contribute to the use of the BIOT fisheries range protection vessel, will the Government refrain from taking any decision on the MPA until Parliament has had the opportunity to debate the situation after the European Court’s decision on Chagossian rights of return, expected before the Summer Recess? Secondly, can we invite the US to undertake a joint review of the pollution created by the US nuclear base on Diego Garcia, including the deployment of the nuclear submarine tender USS “Emory S Land”, which is alleged to have contaminated the sea around its former base in Sardinia?

Parliament is free to debate the MPA, which is a very important proposal, development and plan, at any time it wishes. The intention to go ahead with the MPA is in place. However, on the broader issues of the hearing in the European Court of Human Rights and the nature of operations in the Diego Garcia base, the Government are, as I said, looking at all aspects raised by the British Indian Ocean Territory’s problems, and I will communicate with the House when views have been reached. I cannot go further than that today.

My Lords, I accept the concept of a marine protected zone, but does the Minister agree that it would be wholly wrong to implement this zone without doing justice to the Chagossian islanders who were gratuitously expelled from Diego Garcia and the surrounding area after 1965, whose rights of abode and access need to be restored first?

The noble Lord is raising two separate issues. The proposal for a marine protected area is widely supported by many people and there are very few objections to the general concept from the Mauritians or anyone else. The Chagossians’ right of abode is a broader issue. I would like to say that certain views have been reached which may or may not be different from those of the previous Government, but today I cannot because the matter is under review. I will communicate with the noble Lord and other noble Lords when we have a view on this situation, with which many Members opposite are very familiar.

Is there any threat of rising sea levels endangering the possibility of people living on these islands, as there is in some Pacific islands where it may be disastrously affected?

I know of no specific threat in relation to resettlement. All sorts of other problems were studied in a feasibility study some years ago and the whole prospect of resettlement was found to be precarious. However, the particular issue of rising sea level is not one on which we have any detailed evidence.

The Minister mentioned the general concept of an MPA. Does he acknowledge that in the general run of MPAs, the people who normally live there actually live there, by which I mean the Galapagos and the most recent MPA, made by President Bush, around western Hawaii? Would it not be quite normal for the Chagossians to be living in the MPA?

As I have explained, the Chagossians are not living there because they have not resettled. That is a separate issue which needs to be looked at and we are studying. The issue of the MPA, which is a vast area, immediately affects only the licensed fishermen whose problems have been very carefully addressed. That is the position, and these are two separate issues. I am sorry that I cannot help the noble Baroness in bringing them together today.