Chagos is our chance to preserve a natural wonder

In 1995 the British government published a new biodiversity strategy that was, in many ways, a world-leading document. It set out how the UK would implement the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed three years previously at the Rio de Janeiro Earth summit - not just here in the UK, but also in the few remaining dependent territories, such as Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands. One thing I quickly noticed was how the greatest area of British overseas territory was missing – the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The vast area covered by this little-known dependency is centred on the Chagos archipelago (pdf) – a group of 55 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, about 300 miles south of the Maldives. After a few enquiries I found the likely reason why there were no official commitments to conserve the incredible wildlife habitats there, including some of the world's most outstanding coral reefs.

In 1971 the British government signed a treaty with the US allowing the construction of an air base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. This was no ordinary air base. This was one of a handful of highly strategic airfields from which fleets of B52 bombers could deliver nuclear payloads to any location on Earth. The resident population of plantation workers, which at that time numbered around 1,000 people, were moved to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Last November, a consultation (pdf) was launched by the UK government, looking at three options that could lead to the islands and surrounding seas become. One is to designate a full no-take marine reserve for the entire territory out to the 200-nautical mile limit, covering an area of about 210,000 square miles – more than twice the size of Great Britain. Another is the creation of a marine reserve to the same geographical limits, but allowing some fisheries to continue at some times of year and-or in some zones. The third option is to establish no-take reserves to protect only the vulnerable reef systems.

If done in the right way, the Chagos protected area could be as important as the reserves which protect the Galapagos islands and Great Barrier Reef. It could maintain the pure and unpolluted waters of the Chagos, providing a safe refuge for its other rich marine life, including turtles and sharks. The Chagos protected area could also help fish stocks recover from the decades of destructive and unsustainable practices that have caused fish populations to collapse. Wild birds would benefit as well. Over 150,000 pairs of 17 species of seabirds breed on the atolls, and protection of the islands would certainly improve their prospects.

The creation of the Chagos protected area would also contribute to the international target of halting the decline of biodiversity by 2010, establishing marine protection networks by 2012, and restoring depleted fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2015.

However, there are voices against such protected status. These include Marine Resources Assessment Group (MRAG) Ltd, a company with clear vested interests - it holds a government contract to manage fishing in the area - and founded and part owned by the UK government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington. The company claims that this proposed marine protected area won't work to protect fish stocks, when the clear scientific consensus is that it would.

Irrespective of arguments about fish, the protection of the natural features of this outstanding area must be achieved with justice for the Chagossian people. The nine conservation groups who have proposed that the British government should act to protect the islands have suggested that any conservation designation should be made "without prejudice" to future decisions about the people returning. This would mean that if that Chagossians do finally come back, that the arrangements being considered now might be reopened.

One thing to bear in mind, however, is that any resettled Chagossians would have very little time to live there. In as little as a couple of decades the islands will become vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Conservation groups calling for the UK to act in protecting the islands have set up a petition so that everyone can signal their support for a new protected area. I have just signed up, and I urge readers to do the same.

Originally published by The Guardian.