Conservation groups bid to let Chagos Islanders return home

Some 40 years after nearly 2,000 people were forcibly removed from the Chagos Islands by the British government, a key meeting will take place today to try to persuade some of Britain's biggest conservation groups that a group of the exiled islanders should be allowed to return to their tropical home.

The conference in London will draw up a blueprint which organisers hope will persuade the Foreign Office, which last year declared the Indian Ocean archipelago as the world's largest marine nature reserve, to accept a role for evicted Chagossians and their descendants to act as wardens on the pristine islands from an eco-friendly settlement.

But in order to put forward the proposals, supporters of the Chagossian diaspora, who have been spread in small groups to locations from Mauritius to Crawley in West Sussex, have to overcome opposition from some environmentalists who argue that any permanent human habitation of the islands could be harmful to the marine park.

The islanders, who have won the backing of broadcaster Ben Fogle and novelist Philippa Gregory, have fought a long campaign against the British government to win the right to return to the archipelago, which were cleared of their population in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a key American air base on the main island, Diego Garcia.

An American diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks last year quoted a Foreign Office official as saying the marine park would mean there would no "Man Fridays" on the islands - known as the British Indian Ocean Territories or BIOT - and its establishment would "put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents".

Mr Fogle said: "The Government has made clear that it wants the marine reserve to be the final nail in the coffin for the Chagossians to return. We believe that cannot and should not be the case. There are very good grounds indeed to at least begin to right the wrong done to the islanders by letting them become the wardens of their own sanctuary."

Roch Evenor, who left the islands at the age of four and is head of the UK Chagos Support Association, said: "By allowing the original inhabitants back to the islands, that can aid and assist conservation. There is illegal fishing which the indigenous population would help to stop."

The Chagos Environment Network, a coalition of large conservation groups including the RSPB and the Zoological Society of London, has said it accepted that the marine reserve could change to accommodate islanders if they won the right to return. But another group, the Chagos Conservation Trust, has described the aim of returning the Chagossians as "unattainable".

The Foreign Office said it was awaiting the conclusions of the conference "with interest" but it believed there remain "clear and compelling" reasons to oppose the resettlement of the islands.