Across the globe, the garrison state has “gone green” as national militaries have become partly involved in stewardship of the natural environment. On the face of it, this is a puzzling development. After all, protecting plants and animals from the depredations of humankind is not a job that most people expect from women and men in uniform. Yet the co-existence of militarized sites with environmental protection zones is now commonplace, with military organizations increasingly taking a role in conserving the natural world—at least nominally. How and why has this shift come about? And for whose benefit and expense?
Perhaps nowhere is the unlikely alliance between militarism and environmentalism more pronounced than in the Chagos Archipelago, a collection of around 60 tiny islets in the central Indian Ocean. Formerly governed by the British Empire as part of the Colony of Mauritius, the Chagos Islands were made into a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory, in 1965. At the time, the islands were home to around 1,500 indigenous islanders. Within just eight years, however, the colonial authorities in London had emptied the entire territory of its native inhabitants in order to clear the way for a US military base on the largest island of Diego Garcia. “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours,” officials confided.
Ever since the expulsion of the native Chagossians, the Chagos Archipelago has been a contested site. To the Chagossians, of course, the islands are a lost homeland; the islanders have been nothing but indefatigable in their political and legal efforts to win a restoration of their right to return. To Britain and the US governments, meanwhile, the Chagos Islands are a vital military asset—the site of one of the most important naval bases in the world, prized by the Pentagon for its unparalleled seclusion as much as its natural harbor and strategic location.
Over the last decade, however, a new audience has taken a keen interest in the Chagos Islands: environmental scientists and conservationists. To these groups, Chagos is valued as a “near pristine” natural environment and a “safe haven” for endangered wildlife. Because Diego Garcia is the only island in the Chagos Archipelago to have been permanently inhabited for the past 50 years, the surrounding marine environment of Chagos has had a chance to flourish free from “anthropocentric impacts.” The coral reefs, fish, turtles, rare species of birds and more have been able to thrive in the shadow of the military base.
In 2008, a group of scientists involved with studying the Chagos marine environment joined forces with an array of conservation groups to push for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Chagos. Calling themselves the Chagos Environment Network (CEN), these groups sought to persuade the British government to designate a “no-take” MPA in the territory. With few exceptions, the leading Chagossian groups opposed this particular form of MPA, viewing it as an additional hurdle to their eventual resettlement of the islands. Far better, they and their supporters argued, to frame the MPA in a way that would allow their sustainable resettlement of the islands. From this view, environmental protection and human rights could go hand-in-hand.
Instead, the UK government sided with the conservationists and announced the creation of a massive MPA to cover the entire British Indian Ocean Territory, except for a small area surrounding the island of (and base on) Diego Garcia. The announcement was made over and above the protestations of Mauritius—an act later found to have been in breach of international law—and despite opposition from the biggest Chagossian organizations, but was warmly welcomed by the constituent parts of the CEN: Pew Environment, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Zoological Society of London, the Linnean Society, and others.
The co-existence of militarized sites with environmental protection zones is now commonplace, with military organizations increasingly taking a role in conserving the natural world.
To be sure, not all conservationist groups supported the MPA proposal as put forward by the CEN. One sticking point was the conspicuous exemption granted to the base on Diego Garcia. Yet the largest and most powerful environmental groups backing the Chagos MPA proposal made no criticism of the military base. Certainly Pew Environment, which played a major role in financing the campaign for a “no-take” MPA, did not censure the base for its polluting activities. Nor even did Greenpeace, an organization which had previously lent its full support to the islanders’ plight.
In effect, a bargain has been struck between environmentalist groups like Pew Environment and the UK and US governments. London and Washington have acquiesced in the creation of a conservation zone around their prized military asset while environmentalists have agreed to tolerate—and, indeed, to work closely alongside—the base on Diego Garcia in the name of conserving and studying the rest of the Chagos marine environment.
For London and Washington, the benefit is clear. Instead of being the site of an historic ethnic cleansing, the Chagos Islands are now best known for boasting a “pristine” natural environment. The biggest losers from this arrangement are the Chagossians. The islanders’ cause would have benefited enormously if some of the world’s most powerful conservation groups had chosen to ally with them against colonialism and militarism instead of cozying up to White Hall and the Pentagon. Mauritius, too, has lost out: with British rule in Chagos buttressed by the MPA, the decolonization of Africa’s easternmost maritime extremity looks as distant a prospect as ever.
The irony, of course, is that military organizations must surely rank among the least reliable custodians of the natural environment. For now, the US military’s interests in Chagos might well coincide with those of Pew Environment, Greenpeace UK, and their fellow travelers. After all, the MPA places no restrictions on the military’s freedom of maneuver (not even on the rights of US service personnel to fish in the waters of Chagos), while offering valuable “greenwash” to disguise the military’s more unpalatable activities—including instances of severe environmental degradation.
But what happens when the Pentagon decides to expand its base on Diego Garcia? Or what if the other Chagos Islands are earmarked for the construction of new military installations? Of course, the MPA and wider concerns over the Chagos marine environment would be sidelined in favor of increased militarization. If that happens, environmental scientists and conservationists working on Chagos might quickly come to regret their politics of pragmatism.
Featured image credit: lagoon boat sunset the water shed by Kanenori. Public domain via Pixabay.