The British Foreign Office is to ‘neutrally’ examine options and risks involved in re-establishing the Chagossian community on the Indian Ocean archipelago

The British government is sending experts to the Chagos islands to see if it is feasible to resettle the tropical archipelago from which it evicted hundreds of families 40 years ago to make way for a U.S. base.

Up to 5,000 U.S. servicemen live on the largest island, Diego Garcia, and have all their food, drink and essentials flown in. The remaining 50 islands and reefs, which stretch over hundreds of square miles, are now uninhabited and it is the dream of many Chagossian families living mainly in Britain and Mauritius to return.

The independent consultants, who will not include Chagossians, have been instructed by the Foreign Office (FCO) to “neutrally” examine the options in establishing several sorts of community on the outer islands and Diego Garcia. Suggestions include “a modern lifestyle, an eco-village, a pilot resettlement with some employment on the military base and a scientific research station.”

In 1953, the islands supported more than 1,000 people and the Foreign Office paper suggests a decision on whether any return to the British overseas territory will hang on the costs to the Treasury of maintaining a community and whether they can be self-sufficient. The costs of setting up police and health facilities, running water, waste management, communications and transport will be considered.

The coral islands, which have some of the cleanest waters in the world and half the total area of high quality coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, are rich in fish, which would normally form the economic base of any resident community.

Since Britain established the archipelago as the world’s largest marine reserve in 2010, it is illegal to fish there — except for the U.S. military who have been allowed to catch about 50 tonnes of fish for sport. The setting up of the reserve by the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband was widely interpreted as an attempt to prevent resettlement.

The terms of reference for the consultants suggest Britain may be prepared to compromise on the total ban on fishing. The team has been asked to consider eco-tourism, fishing, game fishing and “industrial development.” If the Chagossians return, they have said they plan to re-establish copra production and fishing, and to develop the islands for tourism.

Impact of climate change

A 2003 feasibility study led to the government concluding resettlement would be “costly and precarious” and that sea-level rise was averaging 5.4mm a year — twice the global average — and accelerating. This was denied by other scientists.

The terms of reference ask the consultants to look at how climate change could affect life on the islands. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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