Deep Green: The dispossessed of Diego Garcia

Posted by jamie — 22 August 2008 at 12:37pm - Comments

Deep Green - Rex Weyler

Here's the latest in the Deep Green column from Rex Weyler -author, journalist, ecologist and long-time Greenpeace trouble-maker. The opinions here are his own, and you can sign up to get the column by email every month.

The dispossessed

In 1969, Marie Aimee took her two children for medical treatment, a six-day voyage across the Indian Ocean from their home on Diego Garcia island to Port Louis, Mauritius. Her husband, Dervillie Permal, stayed behind to work at a coconut oil factory and tend the family garden and animals.

After visiting the doctor and picking up supplies in Port Louis, Marie and her children arrived at the quay for the trip home. However, a British Government agent refused to allow them onto the boat, stranding Marie and her children in Mauritius. Throughout the following weeks, other marooned islanders appeared, congregating in a local slum, living in boxes or tin shacks. Two years later, Marie's husband arrived in Port Louis with one small bag and a chilling story.

Environmentalists are sometimes accused of caring more about animals than people, an idea refuted by countless actions protecting human victims of industrial and military disasters. The 1970s Greenpeace campaign to stop nuclear testing in the South Pacific, for example, included support for the displaced and irradiated innocents of Rongelap Island. More recently, in March 2008, two former Greenpeace skippers - Jon Castle and Peter Bouquet, both from the original Rainbow Warrior crew - sailed into the lagoon of Diego Garcia, to protest the treatment of dispossessed islanders, including Marie Aimee and her descendants.

Real estate, ocean view

Diego Garcia island sits in the Chagos Archipelago, east of the Seychelles, 1000 nautical miles south of India. In the eighteenth century, French Navy ships marooned lepers on the island and later established coconut plantations worked by slaves.

map showing location of Diego Garcia

The British seized the islands in 1815, eventually converted the slaves to indentured labourers, and imported peasant workers from India and Mauritius. Marie and her husband are descendants of these workers. They are the Chagossians.

By the twentieth century, around 2000 Chagossians lived modest but pleasant lives on Diego Garcia, under the dominion of British colonists and military officers. The islanders worked on the coconut plantations, maintained family gardens, raised chickens, and ate lobster and fish from the bountiful lagoon. Their children grew healthy on the rich diet, attended schools, and played in the marine paradise.

In 1961, American military officers arrived, looking for a suitable US bomber base in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia, with its protected coral lagoon and clear, long-range radio reception appeared perfect. One problem, however, persisted. The Americans desired privacy, and did not want indigenous inhabitants near their base.

In 1966, Britain granted the US  a 50 year lease  on the island,  for US$ 1 per year, plus a one-off payment of  US$ 14-million

Britain paid its own colony of Mauritius £3 million for unrestricted rights to the Chagos Archipelago and formed the "British Indian Ocean Territory" (BIOT) among the islands. Their first legal act, "BIOT Ordinance No. 1: Compulsory Acquisition of Land," presumed the authority to confiscate land deemed necessary for British or American security.

In 1966, Britain granted the US a 50-year lease on the island, for US$1 per year, plus a one-off payment of US$14 million (£5 million at the time, a neat profit on their real estate investment). The US delivered the payment in trade, in the form of Polaris nuclear submarine missiles. 

Pet cemetery

Documents later released under court order by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) described islanders as "Tarzans and Men Fridays" with "little aptitude for anything except growing coconuts." The FCO promised Americans that deportations could be "timed to attract the least attention," leaving "no indigenous population except seagulls." 

When Richard Nixon became US president in 1969 he handed the Diego Garcia portfolio to his protégé, 32-year-old law school dropout Donald Rumsfeld. British officers, on behalf of their American clients, closed coconut plantations, putting people out of work. They lured families to Mauritius with free holidays, barred them from returning, and made no provisions for stranded islanders such as Marie Aimee and her children.

In 1971, armed soldiers seized the island. They ordered Marie's husband, Dervillie Permal, to leave immediately allowing him to take only the possessions he carried on his way home from work. British troops burned homes, killed livestock, and corralled some 800 dogs, including family pets, into an abandoned coconut oil plantation building. They converted the building into a gas chamber by attaching vehicle exhaust pipes and executed the dogs in full view of weeping families.

The soldiers herded distraught islanders, traumatized men and women, onto ships. Marie Therese Mein, now 68, suffered a miscarriage on the six-day slave-ship style voyage, and Christian Simon, 28, overcome by despair, threw himself into the sea.

In Port Louis, Permal met his wife Marie in the city slum, where they begged for food and menial jobs. Many Chagossians fell victim to alcoholism, drugs, and prostitution. Their children were mocked and humiliated at local schools. Meanwhile, on Diego Garcia, British officers handed the depopulated island paradise to Mr. Rumsfeld and the American generals.

1450 U.S. Soldiers, 2000 civilian contractors and 50 British soldiers entertain themselves

Footprint Freedom

Diego Garcia island is now the largest US military base outside the United States, with arsenals, bunkers, and hangers for B2 stealth bombers. The once-rich lagoon is now an oily harbour for some 30 warships. B52 Bombing raids depart from Diego Garcia for Iraq and Afghanistan, bombing more peasant people to secure America's access to oil fields and pipeline routes.

The 1450 US soldiers, 2000 civilian contractors, and 50 British soldiers entertain themselves with a windsurfer club, yacht club, fishing tours, and an annual "Miss Diego Garcia" beauty contest. US military personnel refer to their 6,000 global bases as America's "footprint," and Diego Garcia has been branded "Footprint Freedom."

At the heart of Footprint Freedom sits a detention and interrogation centre that the local soldiers refer to as "Camp Justice," exposed by Scottish MP Alex Salmon and confirmed by US general Barry McCaffrey and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Donald Rumsfield - architect of the final solution to the island's indigenous problem and Iraq War planner - admits that the US holds "ghost detainees" at these "extraordinary rendition" camps.

In 2002, during the planning of the Iraq War, the US brought prisoner Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi to Diego Garcia on the USS Bataan. According to the London human rights group, Reprieve, Al-Libi was tortured into "admitting" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and worked with al-Qaida, the two erroneous pretenses that Rumsfeld and George Bush used to launch the oil wars. According to a Council of Europe investigation, Diego Garcia's "Camp Justice" is a primary interrogation centre for "high-value detainees."

The Rule of Law

The story of Diego Garcia Island is the story of industrialized, militarized western world gone mad, the rich and powerful subjugating the landscape and the most defenseless people on Earth. The dispossessed Chagossian people, however, struggle back.

In 2003, they filed a lawsuit in the United States against Rumsfeld and others instrumental in seizing Diego Garcia, including US Vice President Dick Cheney, US ambassador Anne Armstrong, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Halliburton, the corporation they run that held the construction contract for the base. These defendants faced charges of kidnapping, genocide, torture, and degrading treatment of innocent people. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and the US media virtually ignored the story.

In Britain, however, the Chagossian people have won three High Court decisions against the British Government, confirming that the expulsions were unlawful and that the right to a homeland represents a "fundamental liberty" under British and International law. The Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have appealed these rulings, but the case now stands before the British House of Lords, with a decision expected in October.

In July of this year a committee of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland ruled that Britain "should ensure that the Chagos islanders can exercise their right to return to their territory [and] should investigate allegations related to transit through its territory of rendition flights."

in March 2008, two  former Greenpeace  skippers - Jon Castle  and Peter Bouquet,  both from the original  Rainbow Warrior crew -  sailed into the lagoon  of Diego Garcia, to  protest the treatment of  dispossessed islanders

British authorities arrested Jon Castle and Peter Bouquet in the Diego Garcia lagoon and seized their boat, Musichana. Another former Greenpeace activist from the 1970s peace vessel Fri and the Rainbow Warrior, Martini Gotje, provides updates at The People's Navy.  The UK Chagos Support Association  posts legal updates. On 21 August an open International Conference, "The Fate of the Chagossians," commenced at VU University Amsterdam, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

The case of the Chagossians exposes the pretense of industrial civilization. Leaders of rich nations proclaim freedom and democracy, yet most peasant people and all environments in the world remain under relentless assault. Indigenous people in India, Africa, China, Tibet, Canada, the US, Brazil, Argentina, and throughout the western hemisphere, have been dispossessed from sustainable lives in forests, prairies, or islands and driven into urban slums in the name of economic progress. There exists an eternal link between the industrial and military destruction of the environment and the assault on the poorest people of the world.

You may respond to "Deep Green" columns at my Ecolog, where I post portions of this column and dialogue with readers.

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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