Britain announced today its creation of the world’s largest marine reserve, a move that will protect the Indian Ocean’s Chagos Islands and the quarter of a million square miles of waters that surround them. The Chagos Islands, which have belonged to Britain since 1814, provide a safe haven for dwindling populations of sea turtles and more than 175,000 pairs of breeding sea birds, as well as an extraordinary diversity of deep water habitats. The creation of this Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the British Indian Ocean Territory will include bans on commercial fishing, coral collection, and the hunting of turtles.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who announced the creation of the reserve, stated that the “territory offers great scope for research in all fields of oceanography, biodiversity and many aspects of climate change,” and some supporters have claimed that it will become as important for research as the Great Barrier Reef or Galapagos Islands. The Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters cover an area that is twice the size of the U.K., and pollution levels in the water and marine life found there are remarkably low, making the region an appropriate global reference baseline that is ideal for study.

Conservation groups and scientists have welcomed the British government’s move to protect these waters, which contain the world’s largest coral reef structure, and are home to 220 species of corals and more than 1,000 species of reef fish.

While marine scientists and conservationists are celebrating the move to protect the rich diversity of life found in the Chagos, native Chagossians, who were exiled 40 years ago to enable construction of a U.S. military base, are decrying the decision. Chagos refugee groups are accusing Britain of creating this protected area partly in an attempt to prevent Chagossians from ever returning home. About 1,700 U.S. military personnel, 1,500 civilian contractors, and about 50 British personnel currently inhabit Diego Garcia, the primary island in the Chagos archipelago, while the remaining 4,000 native islanders are scattered throughout a diaspora that includes the U.K. and Mauritius.

Miliband anticipated this response from the displaced Chagossians, saying, “the creation of the MPA will not change the UK's commitment to cede the Territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defense purposes.”