Marine reserve a plan to keep out ‘Man Fridays’ and ‘sea gypsies’, reveals leaked US cable

The UK’s creation of the world’s largest marine park in the Indian Ocean has been exposed as less of an ecological project than a means to “put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents” and retain the area for military use.

The Chagos were forcibly evicted from the archipelago after the British bought it from Mauritius for £3 million (US$476,000) in 1965, with then-Mauritian Prime Minister, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, receiving a knighthood the same year.

The island is presently occupied by the US base at Diego Garcia due to an agreement made in 1966 whereby the UK received favours, including a US$14 million discount on submarine-launched Polaris missiles, in exchange for use of the island until 2016.

The Chagos won a high court victory in the UK in 2000 enabling them to return to archipelago, but the decision was extraordinarily overruled by the Queen’s royal prerogative. In 2008, the House of Lords overturned the high court verdict, forcing the Chagos to appeal in the European court of human rights.

In April 2010, the UK declared the Chagos Archipelago a marine reserve – an area larger than France – theoretically making it the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Funds to manage the MPA for the next five years have been provided by Swiss-Italian billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.

However, a leaked US Embassy cable dated May 5, 2009 and marked ‘NOFORN’, or ‘No foreigners’, the highest level of security among the 250,000 leaked cables, suggests the marine park was a calculated attempt by the UK Foreign Office to scuttle the resettlement claims of 3000 Chagos islanders in the European Court of human rights.

In the leaked US cable, Colin Roberts, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Director of Overseas Territories, is quoted as saying that the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) has “served its role very well”.

“‘We do not regret the removal of the population,’ since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose, he said. Removal of the population is the reason that the BIOT’s uninhabited islands and the surrounding waters are in ‘pristine’ condition,” the cable read.

“Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT.”

In the cable, Roberts emphasised that the establishment of the marine park would ensure it was reserved for military use and “would have no impact on how Diego Garcia is administered as a base.”

“‘We need to make sure the US government is comfortable with the idea. We would need to present this proposal very clearly to the American administration… All we do should enhance base security or leave it unchanged,”’ the leaked cable reports Roberts as saying.

“[Roberts] noted that the establishment of a marine reserve would require permitting scientists to visit BIOT, but that creating a park would help restrict access for non-scientific purposes. For example, he continued, the rules governing the park could strictly limit access to BIOT by yachts, which Roberts referred to as ‘sea gypsies’.”
As a result of the British government’s “current thinking” on the reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the uninhabited islands of the archipelago, Roberts stated in the cable.

‘Man Friday’ is the disparaging nickname given to a cannibalistic ‘black savage’ by castaway Robinson Crusoe, in the 1719 Daniel Defoe novel of the same name.
In response to concerns from US Political Counsellor Richard Mills that advocates of Chagossian resettlement might continue “to vigorously press their case”, Roberts replied that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”

Prior to their eviction, the Chagos were known to Maldivians in the southern atoll of Addu as they occasionally rescued a stranded fishermen who had strayed too far south. The islands themselves were never settled by Maldivians, although they retained the Dhivehi name of Feyhandheebu.

Second Secretary at the British High Commission in Colombo, Dominic Williams, told Minivan News in September that the UK believed a Marine Protected Area (MPA) “is the right way ahead for furthering the environmental protection of the Territory.”

The decision to establish the MPA was, he added, “without prejudice to the current pending proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights. As such, there is no need to wait for a decision from the European Court of Human Rights before implementing the MPA.”

“The establishment of this MPA has doubled the global coverage of the world’s oceans benefiting from protection and gives the UK the opportunity to preserve an area of outstanding natural beauty containing islands and reef systems rich in biodiversity.”

Both the US and UK have said they will not be discussing or verifying specific information contained in the leaked cables.

The Gibraltar Chronicle has meanwhile reported that Mauritius has summoned the UK’s top diplomat in the country to explain the marine park “smoke screen”.


UK transplant surgeon dies while snorkeling at Meedhupparu

A top UK transplant surgeon has died while snorkeling on holiday in the Maldives.

Reports in the UK press claimed the 61 year-old consultant transplant and vascular surgeon, Ali Bakran, was on holiday with his wife Diane and daughter Miriam when he was pulled from the water and pronounced dead.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said the incident occurred at the Adaaran Meedhupparu Resort in Raa Atoll.

“The cause [of death] was most likely drowning but it is very difficult to confirm without a postmortem, and that is not something we can do here [in the Maldives],” Shiyam said.

Meedhupparu Resort’s management would not confirm that the incident had occurred, and said the resort would not release any information to the press until the matter had been investigated.

Bakran’s son Adam told the Liverpool Daily that the cause of his father’s death on August 27 was still unknown, and that the family was waiting for the results of a post-mortem to be conducted in the UK.

“We have no idea if he died before he drowned. My mum saw him snorkeling and then half an hour to 45 minutes later he was pulled from the water,” he said.

Bakran worked at the Royal Liverpool Hospital for over 20 years, and set up the charity Aequitas to help make careers in medicine more accessible to underprivileged students.

Fellow charity trustee Professor John Aston, also the UK’s North West Regional Director of Public Health, told the newspaper that Bakran “was a man who had quite humble origins overseas and was very committed to improving access to medical school among people from poor backgrounds. He wanted other kids to have the same chances as he had, and his commitment to social justice and equality and opportunity is something to be recognised.”

Registrar at the Royal Liverpool Hospital Ajay Sharma said the staff were very upset.

“At times, people in the hospital would be taken aback or a bit stunned because he would do whatever was necessary for his patients – he would bulldoze his way for patients,” Sharma said.

“When he was travelling, Mr Bakran would call me from America or Australia to check on his patients.

Balkran is the latest tourist to die in a series of snorkeling-related incidents this year.

In mid-August a Chinese couple holidaying in the Maldives disappeared from their resort after they went for a swim.

The 38 year old woman and 40 year old man were holidaying with their 13 year-old daughter on the Hilton Irufushi Beach and Spa Resort in Noonu Atoll.

On March 14, police received a report that a Chinese national, Rui Dai, died while snorkelling at Holiday Inn Kandooma Resort, South Malé Atoll.

Earlier that same month another Chinese man died while snorkeling at Chaaya Lagoon Hakurahura Island Resort, less than a day after a German tourist died in a snorkeling accident at Embudu Village Island Resort.

Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’ from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) has previously stated that resorts need to ensure that inexperienced or elderly snorkelers are aware of the dangers, such as the country’s strong currents.

MATI is currently working with the Ministry of Tourism to make tourists more aware of the risks to snorkelers.

“Chinese guests in particular need to be made more aware because the Maldives is a totally different environment than what they are used to,” Sim said.

“The UK tour operators already pass on this kind of information, but China is a new market and the operators need to be made aware also,” he added. “Few resorts have reception staff or guides who speak Mandarin.”


UK appoints new British High Commissioner to the Maldives

The UK has appointed John Rankin as British High Commissioner to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Non-Resident British High Commissioner to the Republic of Maldives, succeeding Dr Peter Hayes in February 2011.

A statement from the High Commission said that Dr Hayes would be transferring to another diplomatic service appointment. 

Rankin has also served as Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Dublin, working on the Northern Ireland peace process, and was Her Majesty’s Consul General in Boston between 2003 and 2007, the High Commission stated.

He joined the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1988 as an Assistant Legal Adviser and served as legal adviser to the UK Mission to the UN and to the UK Mission to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He has been Director, Americas in the FCO since 2008, responsible for a network of over 30 British Embassies, High Commissions and other posts in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

John has a degree in Scots Law from the University of Glasgow and a Masters Degree in International Law from McGill University, Montreal. Prior to joining the FCO he qualified and practiced as a solicitor in Scotland and was a lecturer in public law at the University of Aberdeen.

Rankin said he was “I delighted and honoured to be appointed as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. The United Kingdom and Sri Lanka have close and long-standing links, and I look forward to furthering the partnership between our countries.”

He added that he “similarly looks forward to developing even stronger relations with the Maldives as we pursue together our common interests.”


Short tempers over long lining

One of the most influential and pioneering shark and marine conservation organisations, Bite Back, has said a UK boycott of long line tuna from the Maldives is a real possibility unless the Maldivian government disallows long line fishing in Maldivian waters.

Bite Back, which works to promote sustainable fishing and halt the trade and consumption of vulnerable fish species to protect ocean habitats, has expressed alarm at the proposed long line fishing in Maldives.

Graham Buckingham, campaign director of Bite Back, says that seafood is a hot ecological topic, with consumers demanding that fish are caught sustainably and with the minimum of by-catch.

“As such, a UK boycott on long line-caught tuna from the Maldives is a real possibility that, of course, could be avoided by the government outlawing longline fishing in Maldivian waters in the first place,” he said.

Marks & Spencer, a global retail giant, and one of the major buyers of Maldivian tuna, announced last year it would no longer buy tuna that is not caught by pole and line.

Talking to the press last year, an M&S spokeswoman said: “As all of our food is own-brand, it means there will be absolutely no products in our stores that use tuna which isn’t pole or line caught.”

Minivan News has learnt that M&S buyers visited the Maldives recently and held talks with local environmentalists to ensure that all tuna in the Maldives were caught using pole and line.

The dilemma

The steady decline in fish catch has lead the Maldivian government in proposing long line as an alternative method of fishing alongside the more traditional and environmentally friendly pole and line.

President Mohamed Nasheed in his opening address to the Majlis appealed to fishermen to find new methods of fishing saying “Those massive fishing vessels that we built yesterday, that are now anchored in the lagoons as they are not suitable for pole and line fishing, are causing us immense loss.”

Nasheed went on to say that it’s not feasible to burn fuel and engage in pole and line fishing in big vessels, and experts had advised him it would be more profitable to use those vessels for group long-line fishing.

The Ministry of Fisheries is now poised to provide financial and technical support to fishermen to adopt this new method. The president urged the fishermen “to take to the seas again.”

The president also announced that licenses for foreign boats that had been catching fish using long line and net in the Maldives would be cancelled in April and Maldivian boats would take their place.

Ibrahim Manik, chairman of the fishermen’s union says “around 80 per cent of fishermen are against this new method, but the dire situation means there will be those who will adopt this.”

He says at least Maldivian fishermen will be more careful about the ecological impact.

“Even now our fishermen will release any sharks they catch by mistake, so if our people do long lining they will be more careful.”

Interestingly enough in 2008 the same union sent a letter urging the then fisheries minister to stop boats using long line methods in Maldives waters on ecological grounds.

“Even now we are saying don’t give permission for long lining, but on the other hand the fact that fishermen can’t make ends meet anymore means that there will be those who will do this for the money.

He admits that longline has negative effects on dolphin and sharks and says readily that ‘the reputation we had built over the years will be destroyed.”

Organisations like Green Peace which had urged last year for people to buy Maldivian fish would no longer be doing that, says Ibrahim.

“Money is the big factor here. A fishing boat used to earn around 10,000 Rf to 20,000 Rf per trip before, and now we have exporters also who are encouraging this.”

But even private exporters like Big Fish are worried. The company’s director Ali Riza says “long line is completely contradictory to how we fish now; Maldives Seafood Processor and Exporters Association (MSPEA) are even now debating the pros and cons of it.”

According to Ali, UK supermarkets are supposed to have certified sustainable products on their shelf in the year 2010, and this complicates everything.

“Europe is our biggest market right now and we are even now planning to participate and promote our product as one caught by sustainable fisheries in the biggest fish export fair in Belgium this year.

However he says the fact that ‘a lot of companies are now on the verge of bankruptcy’, which is also cause for concern.

No concessions

Ali says right now one can only hypothize about how European consumers will react but says he finds all the talk a bit hypocritical also.

“it’s not us that overfished the waters, but now that it’s done, we are being told not to do what western countries had been doing.”

And like Ibrahim who evoked the idea of foreign boats doing long lining, Ali says “we obviously can’t seal off our waters – fish are migratory. If we don’t do it others will overfish around us, so we might as well be the ones doing it.”

He expresses hope that there will be minimal negative impact, as they are not targeting sharks and other species, and says there will not be a “significant amount” of by-catch.

Activists like Graham say long lining causes the unintentional death of 80,000 turtles a year along with countless sharks, dolphins, sailfish and seabirds worldwide, calling it one of the most indiscriminate methods of fishing.

Major exporters like MIFCO who last year exported 115,580 cases of canned tuna, 21,008 tons of frozen tuna and 312 tons of fresh yellow fin seem to think that the shift in fishing methods would not cause a major problem.

“We will also apply for long line license when they start giving it,” says Ali Faiz, Managing director of MIFCO. He says as the customers are different for long line and canned tuna, it would not have much of an impact.

“With long lining we mostly export raw fish.”

He also scoffs at the environmental concerns, saying a lot of the time environmentalists are controlled by big businesses. “All these days’ foreign boats were doing it, and having an advantage over us. Now it will be more difficult for boats to come here and steal from us.”

He is confident that there will always be buyers for Maldivian fish.

Ali says those who support the environment friendly method of fishing in Maldives, do not give any incentive for it to be continued. “We have an entire country that is fishing with pole and line, but do we get any special concessions, any benefits because we do it?”