MAC/20: Mines and Communities

London Calling - October 10 2004

Published by MAC on 2004-10-10


London Calling! October 10 2004

London Calling applauds John Pilger - but has a question for him too

Since the untimely death of Paul Foot earlier this year, perhaps only two well known journalists who can reveal, with any clarity and clout, the amoral depths of the British establishment. One is Mark Thomas, a comedian with a sharpness of intellect that makes Michael Moore look like Charlton Heston on a bad gun day. Mark is currently taking a road show around these Isles, exposing the global sins of Coca Cola. That's his style - and good on him.

The other iconoclast is John Pilger whose savaging (we use the word advisedly) of Britain's treatment of the Chagos Islanders bounded from television screens into millions of homes last week. At least, we'd like to think so: broadcast only an hour before midnight, one wonders how many Britons were still conscious enough to be bewitched.

Like many tales of abject betrayal, this one was simply told. In 1965, the British government covertly sold the island of Diego Garcia, part of the South Pacific Chagos group, to the US for one of its most vital military bases. What the British got was US$11 million knocked off the price of a Polaris submarine. What the Americans got was a free run of much of the South Pacific. But what the islanders got was worse than nothing. Around 2,000 Chagossians (or Ilois) had sustainably inhabited Diego Gracia for well over a hundred and fifty years. They were - still are - an Indigenous People; and British citizens to boot. Sending in troops to force them out at gunpoint would have provoked an international outcry. Instead, their homeland was rendered uninhabitable using a compendium of threats and deceits from whose book Machiavelli himself might have drawn lessons.

First, the islanders' dogs - not just pets, but also fisherfolk in their own right - were murdered. (Taking a leaf from another Historical book, US personnel gassed them with exhaust fumes from army vehicles). According to islanders recently interviewed by Pilger, they were told that a similar fate could befall them if they didn't move. Crammed onto cargo ships (another ghastly historical parallel) the islanders were dumped in Mauritius.

Several committed suicide and others, including children, withered away from the grief that comes from hopeless, inexplicable, separation. By 1973 all the islanders had been forcibly "resettled" in makeshift and insanitary boudonvilles. Meanwhile 4,000 US troops, their families and contractors, set about militarising and Americanizing the Chagossian home land. Diego Garcia today hosts a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station and anchorage for thirty warships. The occupying forces call it "Camp Justice": any retort would be inadequate.

Ten years later, Her Majesty's Government offered the surviving Chagossians a derisory 3,000 pounds per head as "compensation" for their loss. This was contingent on their signing, or affixing thumbprints to, an undertaking never to return to Diego Garcia. Most complied, assuming it was the only deal they'd ever be offered, although the document was in English, which most couldn't read or properly understand. To exculpate itself for these dastardly deeds, and forestall legal claims of violation of Chagossian human rights, the British government conjured up the so-called "British Indian Ocean Territory". It was a patently false construct to deny that the islanders had been indigenous to Diego Garcia. Indeed, US documents uncovered by Pilger reveal a firm British-US intention at the time to "sweep" and "sanitise" the islands. Their occupants were converted into "transient contract workers" who had been legitimately despatched "back" to Mauritius.

It's as if all today's Italian and Irish citizens of Boston and New York were scooped up for transport to Europe, accused of never having roots in North America.

A false hope

After thirty five years of struggle and despair, in 2000 the Chagossians finally had their day in Britain's High Court, winning the unequivocal Right of Return home. The judgement left no doubt that the forced removals were illegal.

Have the islanders returned? Not a bit of it. Earlier this year the Blair government inveigled the British monarch into signing away the rights of two thousand of "her" own citizens. An archaic Order in Council made it impossible for the Chagossians to repossess their territory. The timing - June the 10th - wasn't fortuitous: this was the day of major UK local, and European, elections, and the British Fourth Estate had many other fish to fry.

So, while US troops and contractors continue water-skiing the clear waters of the Chagos, slurping bloody marys on the beach, and waiting for the next global emergency (or a restive Pacific territory to rescue from democracy) the Chagossians remain in squalor and spiritual captivity.

You may agree that this is - at the very least - a sordid tale. But why rehearse it on a mining website? You might also ask whether the plight of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia deserves more attention than that of other forcibly relocated Pacific islanders. What about those booted off their atolls to make way for uranium weapons' testing in the fifties and sixties? Or whose isles were inexorably plundered by the British-Australian-New Zealand Phosphate "commissioners" from the early twentieth century until quite recently?

Nor is it true (as Pilger implies) that the fate of the Chagossians was completely neglected during the late sixties. Left wing newspapers - such as the weekly Peace News - did take up their cause at the time. All the more so, since the UK administration perpetrating the sell-out of the Diego Garcians was then busy supporting the US war on Vietnam. At roughly the same time, Harold Wilson and his colleagues were also threatening the lives of millions of Ibos and Ibibios in the nascent state of Biafra, by covertly supplying arms to the Nigerian military regime.

(It may come as some surprise to post-sixties' baby boomers to learn that these betrayals - of the Chagossians, the Vietnamese and the Biafrans - were all made by a Labour government. Or perhaps it doesn't, in the light of recent British policy on Iraq).

Perfidious Precedents

No, the reason for reminding you in these pages of the crimes against the Chagossians is that, less than a decade before they were committed, two other Indigenous south Pacific communities suffered a strikingly similar betrayal. Miners' greed and British resource colonialism were at the heart of it. True, in this case the British weren't directly responsible, though one of their political clones - the government of Queensland - certainly was. That government, too, was of a Labor hue when, in 1957, yet another secret deal got brokered to cheat communities of their land.

The purloined, bauxite-rich territory of Weipa went to the British company, Comalco, controlled by RTZ-CRA (later Rio Tinto). In seizing it, state forces bulldozed and burned the homes of the people of Mapoon, preventing them from returning. The community at Weipa was tossed off its hunting and burial grounds and dumped in a tiny, 308 acre, settlement just nine miles from the white mining township. No compensation was paid the original custodians and all timber, grazing, farming and water rights to the huge mineral reserve were handed to the company.

Thanks to damning Australian reporting, international pressure and the self-activity of Aboriginal leaders, during the eighties Aboriginal families began returning to mined-out land and setting up Outstations. Comalco (today wholly owned by Rio Tinto) started training and employing Indigenous workers, established arts, business and cultural programmes, and now boasts of Weipa as an example of Indigenous-non-Indigenous partnership for other mining companies to follow. Land rights have also been granted as a result of an historic court case. All the more shameful, then, that other Britons have treated the Chagossians with such signal contempt.

The Vedata Mantra

However, we shouldn't let the British mining industry off so lightly. Rio Tinto, in partnership with the notorious US-based Freeport mining company, still refuses to recognise land rights (adat) for peoples sacrificed to their vast Grasberg operations in West Papua. Vedanta - the latest multinational mining company to hit the London Stock Exchange - only last year adopted the Diego Garcia ploy in India, with active complicity by the Orissa state government. Tribal (Adivasi) villagers were inveigled into signing away their residential and usufructory rights, by affixing signatures, or thumbprints to documents many of them couldn't understand.

Thus, there seems little new in the tactics employed by those intent on separating people from their land, whether for mining or military ends. What is remarkable is the extent to which it is seemingly mainly British institutions that have led the way in initiating and compounding both deception and depredation. As revealed by Janine Roberts in her classic study of Australian Aboriginal history, "From Massacres to Mining", British administrators also adapted the modes of seizure and attrition, used in Australia, to South Africa during the early years of the regression to apartheid.

A challenge to JP

What is puzzling (rather than remarkable) is that John Pilger - though one of three public figures who launched People Against Rio Tinto Zinc and Subsidiaries (Partizans) as an international campaign in 1981- has never fought the company head on. Not long ago, in a major TV documentary, he uncovered the US-Indonesian conspiracy to invade West Papua in the 1960s. Yet Pilger scarcely mentioned the role of the US Freeport mining company in the whole shabby affair. Or that Rio Tinto had bailed out Freeport in 1995, crucially enabling the Grasberg mine to expand into one of the most devastating on Mother Earth.

Now that Rio Tinto has sold its equity in Freeport (though not its 40% stake in exploration, and share of production), Pilger might consider this a cold story. We beg to differ. In any case today there's another company against which he could deploy his formidable intellect.

If you want an exposé that has it all, John - forced removals, denial of human rights, secret deals, violation of constitutional law and London investors' and FSA complicity - don't look further than Vedanta. Should you decline the offer, however, we hope Mark Thomas may be waiting in the wings.

That's when he's finished sinking Coca Cola.

[Sources: John Pilger on betrayals of the Chagossian people: "Stealing a Nation" broadcast on ITV, 6/10/2004; Guardian 2/10/2004; history of Weipa: "The Mapoon Books", volumes 1 and 2, International Development Action, Collingwood, 1975; Janine Roberts "From Massacres to Mining", Dove Communications, 1981; see also "Plunder: The story of RTZ", Partizans and CAFCA, London and Christchurch, 1991; For further information on Vedanta, check the Company page on the MAC website under Vedanta or see Vedanta - the panto! A London Calling special - January 10 2004]


[“London Calling” is published by Nostromo Research, London. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of any other individual, organisation or editors of the MAC web site. Reproduction is encouraged with full acknowledgment]

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