3.14.2010

Proposed Indian Ocean Chagos marine reserve sparks controversy


The United Kingdom has just finished one stage of a longer process that could create what would be the world's largest marine protected area -- in the middle of the Indian ocean. This area, known as the Chagos Archipelago, would cover a group of 55 islands and 210,000 miles of surrounding waters, an area larger than France.

Last Friday, the three-month public consultation process ended, putting the reserve one step closer to happening.

The Chagos Islands and the waters around them hold some of the ecologically healthiest coral reef systems on Earth, says the Chagos Network, a group of conservation organizations. In the face of extensive coral die-offs due to warming ocean temperatures, it could become an important benchmark for coral worldwide. It is home to 220 species of coral, 1,000 species of fish and a breeding ground for sharks, dolphins, and green and hawkbill sea turtles. It's also home to the largest arthropod in the world, the coconut crab.

But while no one lives there permanently now, people once did -- and that could be problematic for the environmental groups pushing to create the area.

The Chagos Islands were originally uninhabited when discovered by Vasco da Gama in the 1500. In the 1700 France claimed them and set up some coconut plantations. The British won them when Napoleon fell in 1814. The French left, but some workers remained.

Then in the 1970s the United Kingdom moved out all the people living on the largest of the islands, Diego Garcia, so the United States could build a military base there. Since then the 2,000 or so residents have been fighting legal battles to go back, according to the BBC.

The reason the area is so pristine, it turns out, is because no one's been allowed to live or fish there in the last 40 years.

So the big question for the Chagossians, whose current legal battle is in the European court, is whether creating a marine sanctuary there would make it harder for them to eventually go home. The BBC says the United Kingdom doesn't particularly want them to do so because it don't think they could survive without financial assistance.

And someday, when the U.S. gives up the military base, the island reverts to the island Republic of Mauritius. And it's unclear whether that tiny nation wants to take on the work and expense of protecting the area.

Stay tuned. A decision is expected in the spring.

Source: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2010/03/proposed-chagos-reserve-in-the-indian-ocean-controversial-in-united-kingdom/1



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