Tagged ‘Diego Garcia‘

Blue-washing the Colonization and Militarization of Our Ocean

How U.S. Marine National Monuments protect environmentally harmful U.S. military bases throughout the Pacific and the world.

The Hawaii Independent

June 26, 2014

by Craig Santos Perez


B-1 bombers on Diego Garcia

President Obama recently announced plans to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles. Despite the media framing this move as a victory for ocean conservation, the truth is that these monuments will further colonize, militarize and privatize the Pacific.

Many mistakenly refer to marine “monuments” as “sanctuaries” because they are both “marine protected areas.” However, an official sanctuary is designated by the Secretary of Commerce under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which requires “extensive public process, local community engagement, stakeholder involvement, and citizen participation, both prior to and following designation.”  On the other hand, the President unilaterally designates marine monuments through the Antiquities Act of 1906. No public process is required.

The first and largest Marine National Monument was established in 2006: The Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument (140,000 square miles). Three more marine monuments were established in 2009: The Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (95,000 square miles); The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (87,000 square miles); and The Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (13,000 square miles). The total “protected” area, with Obama’s expansion, would be more than a million square miles of “small islands, atolls, coral reefs, submerged lands, and deep blue waters.”

Why has this antiquited, unilateral process suddenly become so popular? Why are U.S. presidents from both sides of the political divide side-stepping Congressional approval and—more importantly—public participation and scrutiny?

It’s important to understand that establishing a marine national monument, reserve, or refuge places our coastal and open ocean waters under federal control. The marine monuments are administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (under the Department of Commerce) or by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (under the Department of the Interior). This ocean and submerged land grab by the federal government severely limits public access and trust. Additionally, these monuments violate the rights of indigenous peoples by separating us from our sacred spaces. Traditional fishing grounds or ritual spaces may no longer be accessible. If there are exceptions for indigenous rites, we will need to apply for a permit and receive federal approval.

How Do Marine Reserves Militarize the Ocean?

As I wrote about in a previous editorial, the U.S. military removed the original landowners of Litekyan (Ritidian), an area in northern Guam, under eminent domain in 1963, and the Navy used the area as a communications station during the Cold War. Thirty years later, 1,000 acres of the land was deemed “excess.” Instead of that land being returned to the families, it was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and designated a “National Wildlife Refuge.” Today, four thousand acres of Litekyan is now being considered for a live firing range complex.

You see, designating land and water as a monument, refuge, reserve, or even sanctuary keeps the land under federal control as opposed to public (and indigenous) trust. So if the military ever wants to use the land in the future, it can simply be converted (or re-converted in the case of Litekyan) from the Department of the Interior or Commerce to the Department of Defense. This is the “logic of military conservation.”

Many marine monuments house strategic military bases. For example, the marine monuments of the Pacific are home to U.S. bases on Guam, Tinian, Saipan, Rota, Farallon de Medinilla, Wake Island and Johnston Island, to name a few. The reason why military bases can be within marine monuments is because “nothing in the proclamations impairs or otherwise affects the activities of the Department of Defense. Among other things, the DoD is ensured full freedom of navigation in accordance with the law of the sea, and the U.S. Navy can continue effective training to maintain its antisubmarine warfare and other capabilities.” In other words, the military is exempt from most environmental regulations and prohibitions.

Ironically, the public may no longer be allowed to fish in these “protected” areas because it might affect the fragile ocean ecosystem, yet the military can conduct weapons training and testing. Remember, marine monuments are not designed to protect the ocean from the U.S. military, one of the worst polluters in the world. In fact the opposite is true: they are designed to allow easier military access. As activists in Hawai’i know, these national monuments could become “watery graves” for endangered species when military training occurs.

Besides providing more federally controlled space for the U.S. military to train, marine monuments give military bases another layer of secrecy from the public. This buffer strategy is spreading to other nations. During the meeting of the U.S. State Department sponsored Our Ocean conference last week in Washington DC, other countries announced similar plans to federalize massive ocean areas, including Palau, Kiribati, the Cook Islands and the Bahamas. These new marine reserves will become military sanctuaries, buffer zones and watery bases for the U.S. military as it forcefully positions itself in the Asia-Pacific region (and uses “illegal fishing” as justification to militarize these marine reserves).

We need to be critical of these efforts. Read about what happened to the Cayos Cochinos, an island group in the Carribean off Honduras, during the twenty years after they were declared a “protected area.” The Afro-Indigenous Garifuna peoples have been displaced from their lands and fishing grounds. Tourism developers and other private industries have invested in and exploited the islands. And, you guessed it, the U.S. military is using the area for basing and training, providing millions of dollars of aid to the Honduras government. This is what will happen to countries that ally with the U.S. in this colonial conservation scheme.

In 2009, Britian designated a marine protected area around the Chagos islands. However, the waters around the island of Diego Garcia, which is the site of one of the most secretive overseas U.S. military bases, was exempted. How bizarre: a secretive U.S. military base in the Indian Ocean surrounded by a 200-mile marine preserve controlled by the British government. Peter Sand, in “The Chagos Archipelago: Footprint of Empire, or World Heritage?”, pointedly asks whether these new marine reserves are “an anachronistic example of ‘environmental imperialism’, or evidence of an equally outdated variant of ‘fortress conservation’ that disregards human rights under the noble guise of nature protection.” Either way, the Chagossians who were removed from their islands may never be able to return.

How do Private Corporations Benefit from Marine Monuments?

As I mentioned before, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is under the Department of Commerce (DOC). Does that seem strange to you? It certainly seems strange to Obama, when he joked during his 2011 State of the Union address: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater.” Obama wants to move NOAA to the Department of the Interior.

Joking aside, it actually makes perfect (or perverse) sense that NOAA remains in DOC, which promotes trade and economic development. A few years ago, then Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton dubbed the 21st century: “America’s Pacific Century.” This strategic turn aims to expand trade, investment, and militarization throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The cornerstone of America’s Pacific Century is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.” As Clinton stated, the continued economic growth of the region depends on the “security and stability that has long been guaranteed by the U.S. military.” It is not surprising that TPP negotiations, as well as militarization proposals in the Pacific, intensified around the same time that President Bush designated the first marine monument in 2006.

So what are these economic opportunities, and what does the TPP have to do with the surge of marine national monuments and reserves designated by the U.S. federal government and its allies?

First, the more military sanctuaries the U.S. has around the world, the more federal tax money will be spent to secure these areas for investment, which means more profit for the military industrial complex and private defense firms.

Second, does something smell fishy? The justification for many of these marine reserves is to prevent illegal fishing and fish fraud, especially from China. With a massive fleet of 2,000 distant-water, state-subsidized fishing vessels, China catches nearly five tons of fish a year, worth more than $10 billion—some legally and some illegally. In contrast, nearly 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. By establishing marine monuments, and encouraging its allies in the Pacific to do the same, the U.S. could effectively shut out China from Pacific tuna waters. In turn, private U.S. tuna corporations could negotiate contracts with Pacific allied nations to develop Pacific fisheries or to obtain exclusive fishing rights within the marine reserves (as well as access to cheap labor and canneries). This comes at a time when foreign-owned and American-owned canned-tuna companies are battling for control over our kids’ school lunches. Billions of dollars of tuna are on the plate.

Third, wherever you find a national monument, you will find a tourism industry. The Cayos Cochinos is a prime example. The government that controls the marine monument can permit private companies to operate tourism centers, hotels, eco-adventures—all in the name of development and jobs. The concessions throughout the U.S. National Park Service are owned and operated by private companies, which gross over $1 billion annually. There are more than 500 companies, from food to lodging to adventure sports to retail, that have contracts with the National Parks. Of course, the entire National Park system was one way of displacing Native American presence on these lands.

Fourth, the Pacific has long been a “laboratory” for Western science and technology. Since another justification for marine reserves is scientific research, then we will see many more unprecedented grants for oceanography research. This research can be transformed into profit by private industries, such as deep-sea mining, geo-thermal energy, open-ocean (genetically modified) aquaculture, and pharmaceutical drugs derived from ocean microbial bacteria.

New Zealand established a Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 2008 to protect engangered dolphins, yet it is now considering opening the area up for oil drilling. This is not a contradiction; this is exactly what these conservation schemes are designed for.

Lastly, do you want to see Avatar 2 with me when it comes out? In 2012, James Cameron dived in a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on earth, which is protected by the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. He lit up the trench with an eight-foot tower of LED lighting to film 3D footage. In another celebrity sighting, Leonardo DiCaprio made a cameo at the State Department’s Our Ocean conference, donating $7 milllion towards marine reserves. Apparently, he’s a diving enthusiast.

What is Blue-Washing?

In the 21st century, national marine momunents, marine parks, marine preserves, marine refuges, marine sanctuaries and their other iterations are instruments that empower the federal government to take land and water away from indigenous and public access, scrutiny, and trust. The “marine monuments” are especially dangerous because they do not require—nor are they accountable to—legislative or public comment, engagement, or approval.

As David Vine, in “Environmental Protection of Bases,” notes: “For all the benefits that marine protection areas might bring, governments are using environmentalism as a cover to protect the long-term life of environmentally harmful bases. The designation also helps governments hold onto strategic territories.” Furthermore, these designations give the governments of the U.S. and its neoliberal allies the power to create contracts with private corporations to exploit the resources of our ocean for profit and not for the public good. Let’s call this a form of “Blue-washing.”

The word “monument” comes from the Latin, monumentum, meaning “grave” or “memorial.” If our oceans continue to become national marine monuments, our blue ocean will indeed become a watery grave, a memorial to the beauty, richness, and biodiversity that once was.


Further reading:

Mauritian socialists’ open letter to Greenpeace — `Don’t help cover up colonialism’s crimes on Diego Garcia’

Mauritian socialists’ open letter to Greenpeace — `Don’t help cover up colonialism’s crimes on Diego Garcia’

Diego Garcia from a satellite. The US base in visible in the top left of the atoll. Photo from NASA.

By Ram Seegobin, Lalit de Klas

February 8, 2010

Dear leaders of Greenpeace [UK],

We understand that your organisation has taken a position in favour of the British government’s outrageous plan to create a “marine park” on territory which is not its own, thus tricking ill-informed people into supporting the British state on rather vague grounds of “the environment”, while they are in fact banishing the people who lived there and flaunting the Charter of the United Nations.

We write in order to request you to re-think your position on what would in fact be the British government’s perfidious imposition of a planned Marine Protected Area on part of Mauritius in order to mask the fact that it colonises the land illegally. Britain colonises the Chagos under the name of “British Indian Ocean Territory” (BIOT). This colony is, as far as we know, recognised by no government in the world, except the USA, which has a huge military base on it [at Diego Garcia]. The Seychelles government took the British to task, and took those of its islands in BIOT back, so blatant was the theft. The Mauritian government has so far unfortunately been much more servile to its ex-coloniser.

The British government’s plan for a Marine Protected Area is a very weak, grotesquely transparent ruse designed to perpetuate the banning of the people of Mauritius and Chagos from part of their own country. And the UK has the cheek to do this, while at one and the same time, perpetuating a polluting nuclear base on Diego Garcia, part of this same stolen territory. The timing of their plan is also very humiliating for all those who have fallen into the trap: there is a European Human Rights Court which may soon hand down a judgement in favour of the right to return for Chagossians. Clearly, the British government is preparing a fall-back plan; if they lose the case, then there will be another “reason” for denying the banished people their right of return; another reason for keeping Mauritius from staking its claim under international law.

Surely the point is for environmentalists to get this nuclear base on Diego Garcia, at the very heart of the Chagos, closed down? Not to ignore its existence. Surely the point is for all concerned people to help complete the decolonisation of Mauritius and the Chagos? Not to help in a British cover-up its crimes? After decolonisation, the people whose land and sea it is can decide on how to protect and nurture it best, how to affect a clean-up of the base once it was closed down, and how to re-generate it into the beautiful atoll it once was. And we would hope for ideas and support from Greenpeace, amongst other environmentalists, as to how best to do this.

Illegal acts

The British state and the USA not only collaborated in the forcible removal of all the people of the entire Chagos, tricking them first, denying them passage back after medical visits to Mauritius main island, gassing their dogs as a warning, then finally starving them off the islands; the British state and the USA not only illegally plotted so as to dismember a country and hide this from the United Nations Decolonisation Committee, as has been amply made public in the judgements in the court case brought by the Chagossians, but have also set up a huge immensely polluting military base, one of the biggest in the world, a nuclearised base, right there in the same place that the UK now pretends to want to turn into a Marine Protected Area. The USA has even carried out illegal renditions for torture on and around Diego Garcia; after denying this for years,  Jack Straw finally admitted it in the British parliament. So, Greenpeace should perhaps bear in mind that these illegal acts do, in time, get exposed and condemned by people.

Greenpeace should dissociate itself from this entire international plot. It is an old plot whose first shady days have gradually been exposed to the public by years and years of active struggle on the part of Mauritian political parties, associations, trade unions and the people displaced from Chagos, with their women at the helm of the demonstrations. Our women members were among those arrested by the police in 1981 at peaceful demonstration in Port Louis. And though the illegal colonisation and the nuclear base have both continued, the conspiracy to remove all the people, and for the UK to steal the islands, and for the US to become receiver of stolen goods, have been exposed in public in the British courts and in international meetings against US military bases. So, being part of the tail end of this long-term conspiracy will bring shame on organisations like Greenpeace. That individuals fall into this trap is understandable. But for organisations, we are afraid it will be very damaging to your reputation.

Previous support for Diego Garcia campaign

In the past, Greenpeace has known about Diego Garcia. We would very much like to remind you that in October, 1998, Lalit de Klas [Mauritius’ revolutionary socialist party] sent one of our members to have a formal meeting with your organisation at your headquarters in Amsterdam. The Rann nu Diego Committee, a common front of some 10 organisations in Mauritius, including one of the two main Chagossian groups, the Chagos Refugees Group, endorsed Lalit’s request for a Greenpeace action on Diego Garcia to oppose the nuclear base there. One of our members, Ms. Lindsey Collen, thus had a formal meeting at your headquarters with Ms. Stephanie Mills, who she found to be a very capable, dedicated Australian campaign worker for your organisation.

Following this meeting, and following the dossier that we submitted formally at the same time, Greenpeace informed us by email that you had organised for one of your vessels (in a window of opportunity) to take a group of people for an action on Diego Garcia in or around March 1999, in protest against the military base, its nuclearisation, the forcible removals and the continued colonisation of part of Mauritius. We were already discussing how many people, preparing for a campaign to get support from peace and environment organisations worldwide, and thinking up the kind of media plan necessary.

Lalit immediately set in motion a very broad campaign for “background support”, which we got from a series of organisations literally all over the world in order to back up the planned action as soon as it would be able to become public. Response from all over the world was very good. The issue was coming up at the right moment. The only thing that prevented the vessel from actually doing this visit, which would have been truly historic, and which would have been one of Greenpeace’s greatest sources of pride as you looked back on your history, was thwarted, we were informed, when the vessel to be used got “iced in” during a trip to the Antarctica in early 1999, and would, by the time it got out of the ice, be too late, as it was already booked for another action afterwards.

Later, in January, 2004, in the outskirts of the World Social Forum meeting in Mumbai, there was a second attempt, this time to ask Greenpeace if you could lead a planned Flotilla to Chagos and Diego Garcia, given that the Chagossians had won a court case for the right to return (since overturned — in part by decree in the UK, and in part by a Privy Council appeal judgement last year). This time it was a joint request from the Chagos Refugees Group and Lalit. Greenpeace were unable to do this, but your leaders at the time were aware of the issues involved.

Campaign continues

We mention your past links with the Diego Garcia issue because we believe that your position on the Marine Protected Area which the UK is planning is erroneous. The UK is clearly trying to use the “environment issue” as a desperate attempt to continue its continued colonisation of part of Mauritius. Greenpeace should not allow itself to be used this way.

At present our organisation is spearheading a campaign to call on the Mauritian government to do two things:

  • Request the UN General Assembly pass a motion for the International Court of Justice at the Hague to give an opinion as to whose territory the Chagos is (the UK accepted compulsory arbitration except from cases put in by Commonwealth countries, and when the Mauritian government some seven years ago threatened to leave the Commonwealth in order to put a binding case, British PM Tony Blair just sent new instructions to his UN ambassador to change the exception to include ex-Commonwealth members. This shows the kind of lengths the UK state will go to.
  • Request the UN International Atomic Energy Agency to do inspections of Diego Garcia for nuclear materials, given the coming into operation in 2009 of the Pelindaba Treaty for a Nuclear Weapons Free Africa.

We would very much appreciate it if Greenpeace could consider supporting these two demands. Both would certainly help the environment of the Chagos, as they both involve exposing then closing the nuclear military base. Just as the UK government is now being exposed for entering illegally into the Iraq War, and Bush and Blair risk charges as war criminals, so in the future the UK and USA may be publicly exposed as illegal occupiers, as war mongers on Chagos, and as polluters of the Indian Ocean with truly filthy military base.

Because that is what they are.

Yours sincerely,

Ram Seegobin, for LALIT, Mauritius, February 8, 2010.

lalitmail [at]

153 Main Road, GRNW, Port Louis, Republic of Mauritius.

Tel/fax: ; Tel: 230 208 2555.

Faxed (as well as this email) to Greenpeace headquarters in Amsterdam on +31 207182002.