British Indian Ocean Territory

An aerial view of Diego Garcia, showing military base.

6. Location

Located between the African continent and the Indonesian archipelago is the British Indian Ocean Territory. This area encompasses the Chagos archipelago, a group of seven atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs). In total, the territory has over 1,000 islands; some are so tiny that the actual land area is only 23 square miles.

5. History

The Maldive Islands are located to the north of the Chagos archipelago and people here have known about the Chagos for centuries. They never decided to inhabit the islands, however, as they were too far away. In the 1500’s, a Portuguese explorer named Vasco da Gama came across the archipelago and mapped the area. France took control of the area together with the Mauritius islands in the 18th century. The French began to settle the Chagos islands, establishing coconut plantations and bringing in African slaves and Indian contractors to manage the agriculture. In 1810, the British took control of both the Mauritius and Chagos islands. In the 1814 Treaty of Paris, France relinquished possession to the United Kingdom.

In September of 1965, the British government announced that Mauritius would begin preparing for full independence. Following this announcement, British authorities separated the Chagos islands from the Mauritius island in November of 1965 and established the area as an overseas territory. Mauritius became an independent nation in March of 1968. The UK and Mauritius continue to dispute control of the Chagos islands.

4. People

Originally, these islands were inhabited by around 2,000 indigenous individuals, the Chagossians. After the UK established the area as an overseas territory, the government purchased the coconut plantations and forcibly removed the indigenous inhabitants. By 1971, the British Indian Ocean Territory was empty, and the UK leased the Diego Garcia atoll to the United States for use as an air and naval military base. Today, the population consists of approximately 4,000 US and British military staff and contractors.

3. Landscape and Biodiversity

All of the islands making up the British Indian Ocean Territory have tropical climates. The vegetation is made up of coconut trees, sea lettuce (also known as beach cabbage and Scaevola taccada), and ironwood pine trees. Of the 280 vascular plants identified on Diego Garcia, only 36 are native, and none are endemic. As on most islands, mammal species are limited and generally not native. Any mammal found on the islands are left from the plantation days and may include cats, dogs, horses, or donkeys. The majority of these, however, were exterminated by the British government. The islands provide habitats for several seabird species, and approximately 91 species have been seen here including bridled tern, red-footed booby, and brown noddies. Three lizard species, one toad species, and several crustaceans populate the islands. The surrounding waters provide shelter for a number of endangered species including Hawksbill turtle, Finback whale, Humpback whale, and green turtle.

2. Tourism And Tourist Activities

Tourism in the British Indian Ocean Territory is discouraged through preventative regulation. A permit to access the islands is required in advance of travel, and commercial flights do not land here. Visitors can only access the territory via yacht, which requires specific docking permits that are only distributed under special circumstances.

1. Threats, Disputes, And Conservation

Aside from the dispute between Mauritius and the UK over ownership, other disputes surrounding the islands involve its original inhabitants. The Chagossians have fought for their right to return to Diego Garcia island on several different occasions, winning approximately $18.9 million in damages. In April of 2006, the British government brought some of the indigenous to the islands in order to visit and honor their ancestors’ graves. In 2008, the House of Lords determined that the British government could continue to prohibit future Chagossian settlements. The following year, the UK proposed that the territory be protected as a marine reserve, a move that would permanently exclude the Chagossians from their homeland. The marine reserve status was granted in April of 2010 on the grounds of restoring coral and marine life in the area.


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