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Behind a Blue Veil: Human Rights Considerations of Large Marine Protected Area Management

By Liza Goldberg and Lucy Edy

This blog post was written by students as part of a new spring course and public seminar series, “Topics in International Justice, Rights and the Environment” (ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118) taught at Stanford University in Spring Quarter 2021. This class was designed and offered in response to a growing demand for environmental justice education at Stanford, specifically on the international scale.

Satellite image composite of the main island of Chagos, constructed in Google Earth Engine. Satellite Data Credit: Landsat 8 TOA Surface Reflectance, NASA/USGS

Between 1968 and 1973, the population of Chagos was pushed from their homes by British colonial forces, paving way for a U.S. military installation. Through occupying regions designated as marine protected areas (MPAs), the U.S. military could work towards marine conservation commitments while reaffirming their security presence in the region, though at the cost of the livelihoods of local populations. Ultimately, this pattern of military-supported designation of MPAs as “security strategies” has become increasingly common as imperial powers seek to quickly fulfill their pledges to biodiversity conservation frameworks with large-scale protected regions in their overseas territories.

Dr. Elizabeth De Santo is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Franklin & Marshall University, based in the Department of Earth and Environment.

In a seminar prepared for our class on May 3rd, Dr. De Santo identified such protected areas as “zones of exclusion,” as Chagossian populations become barred from their former homes and nature-based livelihoods, while national militaries control the region without lessened consideration for environmental needs. De Santo herself is among the world’s leading experts on the human rights implications of MPAs, and dedicated her talk to emphasizing the concept of “fortress conservation,” in which local communities are excluded from sustainably utilizing the protected area for natural resources. Through detailing the plight of the Chagossians in their inability to return to their ancestral lands and appropriately care for the local environment, she reveals the great irony in the failure of MPAs to serve their initial ecological purpose. De Santo also emphasizes the lack of conservation NGO consideration of human rights dimensions as equally relevant to environmental goals, as ecological preservation is often prioritized over the needs of local communities to maintain their livelihoods and sovereignty.

Flyer advertising the public seminar given by Dr. De Santo on 5/3/2021

Our class delved into two of Dr. De Santo’s publications on militarized MPAs, as well as an article by CHamoru scholar and poet Dr. Craig Santos Perez on “blue-washing” of the militarized ocean in preparation for this seminar. De Santo’s Militarized marine protected areas in overseas territories: Conserving biodiversity, geopolitical positioning, and securing resources in the 21st century (2019) describes how the Aichi targets set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for surface-area based coverage of protected areas — “17 percent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas” — resulted in an increase in Large Scale MPA (LSMPA) designations to reach those targets by 2020. De Santo also explains that because of this rush to meet the Aichi targets, these LSMPAs were often positioned in areas considered “low-hanging fruit,” or less heavily used regions with lower socioeconomic impact, generally in remote overseas territories with active or historical military presence, rather than in areas most necessary for conservation. De Santo emphasizes the many hidden motives behind LSMPA designation beyond biodiversity conservation, including “geopolitical and resource-oriented motivations.”

Fortress conservation at sea: A commentary on the Chagos marine protected area by De Santo, Jones, and Miller (2010) provided a concrete example of the human rights and justice implications of militarized LMPAs in the case of the Chagos MPA, which De Santo elaborated on in the seminar. Such a deceptive use of conservation for government or military benefit with the total disregard of the rights and wellbeing of communities connected to these areas is both disheartening and hypocritical given the high ecological, geomorphological, and social impact of military presence.

Our final background reading, Blue-washing the colonization and militarization of Our Ocean by Santos Perez (2014) gave social context to the concept of fortress conservation by describing how the agencies designating marine monuments in the United States are structured within the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior, promoting economic development. Hence private corporations generally benefit from marine monuments, and the “blue-washing” or justification of economically and politically motivated decisions with environmental good disguises these complexities.

Ultimately, MPA management provides an opportunity to facilitate a precarious balance between human and ecological needs. As the Biden Administration has recently promised to protect 30% of U.S. lands and oceans from development by 2030 — yet another conservation goal focused on management quantity instead of quality — this is an important time to consider what effective and just protection means, when the motivations and politics behind “protection” are so convoluted. Conservation should not necessarily mean a complete restriction on all human activities, nor should it allow for exploitation of ecological resources in a region. Rather, successful management of critical ecological regions indicates cross-sector collaboration between local communities, regional and national governing authorities, and international conservation organizations in order to meet the needs of both the biodiversity of the region and its human inhabitants.

You can watch Dr. De Santo’s seminar here.

Works Cited:
Note: * = required readings for ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118 students

Brooks, P. (2021) Biden Administration Could Bring Us a Step Closer Toward a Healthy Ocean. Conservation Law Foundation.

*De Santo, E. M. (2020). Militarized marine protected areas in overseas territories: Conserving biodiversity, geopolitical positioning, and securing resources in the 21st century. Ocean & Coastal Management, 184, 105006.

*De Santo, E. M., Jones, P. J., & Miller, A. M. M. (2011). Fortress conservation at sea: a commentary on the Chagos marine protected area. Marine Policy, 35(2), 258–260.

*Perez, C. S. (2014). Blue-Washing the Colonization and Militarization of ‘Our Ocean,’. Hawaii Independent, June, 26.

Lucy Edy is a Coterm student at Stanford pursuing a Master of Science in Earth Systems with a focus in Conservation Biology and Environmental Justice.

Liza Goldberg is a first-year student of Earth Systems at Stanford and a biospheric researcher at NASA Goddard, with research interests in remote sensing-based tropical forest vulnerability.

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