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The Environmental Protection of Military Bases?

Just weeks before Earth Day, and for the second time in little more than a year, environmental groups have teamed with governments to create massive new marine protection areas across wide swaths of the world’s oceans. Both times, however, there’s been something (pardon the pun) fishy about these benevolent-sounding efforts at environmental protection.

Most recently, on April 1, the British government announced the creation of the world’s largest marine protection area in the Indian Ocean’s Chagos Archipelago, which would include a ban on commercial fishing in an area larger than California and twice the size of Britain. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called it “a major step forward for protecting the oceans.

A representative for the Pew Charitable Trusts—which helped spearhead the effort along with groups including the Marine Conservation Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Greenpeace—compared the ecological diversity of the Chagos islands to the Galapagos and the Great Barrier Reef. The Pew representative described the establishment of the protected area as “a historic victory for global ocean conservation.” Indeed, this was the second such victory for Pew, which also supported the creation, in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, of three large marine protection areas in the Pacific Ocean, around some of the Hawai’ian islands and the islands of Guam, Tinian, and Saipan.

The timing of the announcements for both the Indian Ocean and Pacific marine protection areas—on the eve of upcoming British parliamentary elections and in the days before Bush left office when he was trying to salvage a legacy—suggests that there’s more here than the celebratory announcements would suggest.

A Base Issue

Both marine protection areas provide safe homes for sea turtles, sharks, breeding sea birds, and coral reefs. But they are also home to major U.S. military bases. Chagos’s largest island, Diego Garcia, hosts a secretive billion-dollar Air Force and Navy base that has been part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The Pacific protection areas are home to U.S. bases on Guam, Tinian, Saipan, Rota, Farallon de Medinilla, Wake Island, and Johnston Island.

In both cases, the otherwise “pristine” protected environments carve out significant exceptions for the military. In Chagos, the British government has said, “We nor the US would want the creation of a marine protected area to have any impact on the operational capability of the base on Diego Garcia. For this reason…it may be necessary to consider the exclusion of Diego Garcia and its three-mile territorial waters.” In the Pacific, the Bush administration stressed that “nothing” in the protected areas “impairs or otherwise affects the activities of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

The incongruity of military bases in the middle of environmental protection areas is particularly acute since many military installations cause serious damage to local environments. As Miriam Pemberton and I warned in the wake of Bush’s announcement, “Such damage includes the blasting of pristine coral reefs, clear-cutting of virgin forests, deploying underwater sonar dangerous to marine life, leaching carcinogenic pollutants into the soil and seas from lax toxic waste storage and military accidents, and using land and sea for target practice, decimating ecosystems with exploded and unexploded munitions. Guam alone is home to 19 Superfund sites.”

Similarly, the base on Diego Garcia was built by blasting and dredging the island’s coral-lined lagoon, using bulldozers and chains to uproot coconut trees from the ground and paving a significant proportion of the island in asphalt. Since its construction, the island has seen more than one million gallons of jet fuel leaks, water fouled with diesel fuel sludge, the warehousing of depleted uranium-tipped bunker buster bombs, and the likely storage of nuclear weapons.

For all the benefits that marine protection areas might bring, governments are using environmentalism as a cover to protect the long-term life of environmentally harmful bases. The designation also helps governments hold onto strategic territories. Indeed, all of the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands involved are effectively colonies, including the Chagos Archipelago, which Britain refers to as the British Indian Ocean Territory and which was illegally detached from Mauritius during decolonization in the 1960s.

Ratifying Expulsion

The environmental cover-up goes deeper. In addition to the Mauritian sovereignty claim on Chagos, the islands are also claimed by their former indigenous inhabitants, the Chagossians, whom the U.S. and British governments forcibly removed from their homeland during the base’s creation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since their expulsion, the Chagossians have been struggling for the right to return and proper compensation. Three times since 2000, the British High Court has ruled the removal unlawful, only to have Britain’s highest court overturn the lower-court rulings in 2008. The Chagossians have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and expect hearings to begin this summer.

Again, the timing of the announcement of the Chagos marine protection area is far from coincidental. It could cement forever the Chagossians’ exile no matter the ruling of the European court. “The conservation groups have fallen into a trap,” explained Chagossian Roch Evenor, secretary of the UK Chagos Support Association. “They are being used by the government to prevent us returning.”

Others agree. In a letter to Greenpeace UK, Mauritian activist Ram Seegobin wrote, “Clearly, the British government is preparing a fall-back plan; if they lose the case in Europe, then there will be another ‘reason’ for denying the banished people their right of return.”

British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, director of the human rights organization Reprieve, was even more direct: “The truth is that no Chagossian has anything like equal rights with even the warty sea slug.”

While the Pew Charitable Trusts, a foundation created by the children of one of the founders of Sun Oil Company, has been working behind the scenes for three years with British officials on the marine protection areas, other environmentalists have opposed the plan. “Conservation is a laudable goal,” Catherine Philp argued recently in The Times of London, “but it is a hollow and untruthful one when decided on behalf of the true guardians of that land who were robbed of it; not for the protection of the environment, but for a cheap media win and the easy benefit of the military-industrial machine.”

It did not have to be this way. The Chagossians, as one of their leaders, Olivier Bancoult, has said, once “lived in harmony with our natural environment until we were forcibly removed to make way for a nuclear military base.” The U.K. and U.S. governments could correct this injustice and protect the environment at the same time by finally allowing the Chagossians to return and serve as the proper guardians of their environment. It is not too late to correct this mistake. It is not too late to prevent the good name of environmentalism from being used to compound injustices that have been covered up for too long.

DAVID VINE is assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009), and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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