The British Indian Ocean Territory

Flag of British Indian Ocean Territory

Chagossians Protest Action of UK Government; They Want to Return to Chagos Archipelago








Country British Indian Ocean Territory  (Link to map of BIOT)
Continent Chagos Archipelago of 55 islands in the Indian Ocean; south of India and halfway between Africa and Indonesia (Diego Garcia is the largest island; pictured here)
Population ~3000 US and UK military and supporting contractors
Language English
Terrain Mostly flat and low; some atolls submerge at high tide
Animals Most animals are not unique to BIOT with a few exceptions like the Indian flying fox (fruit bat) and the short-beaked saddleback dolphin

The islands are an important for resident and breeding birds as well as an important nesting site for the endangered green turtle.

Facts of Interest Chagos Archipelago was first charted by Vasco da Gama in the early 16th century

First settled in the 18th century by African slaves and Indian contractors

Eventually came under British rule where in 1965 the UK bought the privately owned copra plantations and closed them.  The UK then slowly moved the Diego Garcia population of ~2000 to other atolls

Although classed as a joint UK/US base, it is primarily staffed by US military along with a few Royal Air Force long-range patrol aircraft staff.

About 16% of the world’s coral formations are at Chago Archipelago and the area is important for its pristine marine biodiversity.

Coral formations off Chagos Archipelago

Concerns The demand for and feasibility of resettlement of the islands

Protection of pristine coral beds and marine life around archipelago


More on the history and current issues of BIOT:

This group of atolls – a chain of islands formed from coral — is in a strategic location near the equator, about half-way between Africa and Indonesia, and about 1000 miles southwest of the tip of India. There are 7 major atolls of the Chago Archipelago, a name that preceded BOIT, and over a 1000 smaller islands. Some of the islands submerge at high-tide and others are only 2 meters above sea level at the highest point. They are situated over the submarine mountain range in that region. BIOT is a ‘terrestrial ecoregion’ together with the Maldives and Lackshadweep Islands. You may have heard of Diego Garcia, the largest island, in the news from time to time, where the USA has a naval support base leased from the UK, which is the governing body over BIOT. The US’s 50-year lease with the UK runs until December 2016 with a 20 year renewal option. Diego Garcia was an important home base for some bombers in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Ecologically, this region is important for its marine biodiversity and the surrounding coral reefs are about 16% of the world’s remaining coral formations. The Chago Archipelago was charted by Vasco da Gama in the early 16th century, hence names like Diego Garcia, but sailors from the Maldives were marooned and rescued from there long before then. The islands were ruled by the French as part of their dominance over that general region, which included Mauritius and Reunion Island (Remember the debris from MH370 found there?), located north and east of Madagascar. In the 18th century under French rule, Mauritian laborers and African slaves were brought to tend palm oil plantations, and their descendants are the modern day Chagossians. Then in 1810, the British captured Mauritius and it was ceded to them by the Treaty of Paris.

In 1965 when Mauritius became an independent republic in the Commonwealth of Nations, the UK bought and split off the Chago Archipelago and the population of about 2000 were forced to relocate to make way for the joint US-UK military operations. The Mauritians have continued to claim rights to the islands. In 2001 the former residents and their descendants were granted UK citizenship, and there have been various court rulings about whether they can move back. According to some diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010, the UK declared the area around the atolls as a pristine marine reserve, with no fishing allowed, in order to prevent the Chagossians returning – and not only to protect the coral and marine life. The fate of the marine reserve is still in the courts on appeal because the UK did not consult Mauritius. This lack of consultation may jeopardize the continuation of the USA base there and/or its cost. So, for now, the only residents on the island are mostly transient US military plus a few UK military, and some Philippine and other contractors supporting the naval base. As the global climate changes, the rising seas are also a threat to the archipelago and any life form on them, like the green turtle and many breeding, and migratory birds.