Wednesday, April 14. 2010
Earlier this month, just five days before calling an election, the British government designated the world’s largest marine protected area — the Chagos Islands MPA. Located in the British Indian Ocean Territory, the 60-island archipelago has an area estimated at 544,000 km2. This is more than twice the size of the UK’s land area and over 2/3 the size of all United Kingdom waters extending to its full 200 nautical mile limit.
Most conservationists celebrated the announcement of this gesture from the (maybe soon to be) outgoing British government. Resembling in largesse and circumstance George W. Bush’s outgoing gift to the world of three large highly protected MPAs of similar size in the North Pacific (gifted by presidential order in his last days as President), the celebration over the declaration of such a large area was muted in other quarters.
The ocean desperately needs new marine reserves and protected areas. Countries, including the UK, are far behind on their international targets promised by 2012. On the positive side, this MPA would protect a large portion of precious Indian Ocean coral reefs in highly protected IUCN Category I reserves (although not specified where or how much). On the negative side, the Chagos Islanders — forcibly removed from the largest island of Diego Garcia to make way for the US military base some decades ago — were not properly consulted. The MPA was also created without consultation to the government of Mauritius which claims the islands and to which the UK government says it will return the islands when they are no longer needed by the US for defense. (Stay tuned.)
At least some people, including the Pew Environmental Group and a few of the Chagos Islanders think that the move is positive and will not negatively affect the situation. The list of other supporters is impressive. Let’s hope that this will turn out to be a brilliant conservation move. Yet, it still doesn’t take away the poor form of the British government and its failure to have a true consultation, to be inclusive of all parties involved. Yes, everything was ‘legal’ but is this the way to make the best possible MPA? Every book on creating MPAs says that the process needs to work from the ground up to include all stakeholders in order to be successful. No wonder the British government has received some criticism saying that this is electioneering.
With or without the Labour government, conservation groups, tourism bodies and local councils will soon be entering negotiations about marine reserves and MPAs around the UK. We hope that the UK government will be as generous with protecting its own waters as it has been with those on the other side of the world with controversial, contradicting claims.
We surely need a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park or Chagos Islands MPA in the waters of Scotland. It is clearly time to launch some big outstanding conservation measures a little closer to home.