Almost 5,500 kms from Delhi, far down in Indian Ocean just about 600 kms from coast of Tanzania in Africa, an unimaginably beautiful tiny island with an area of just 11.6 sq. km is a source of discontent because of India. It must be something we rarely know about, but despite its small size Assumption Island, which is part of the Aldabra Atoll in Seychelles has a lot to cherish about. Debate is about India’s plan to make a Naval base at the island. Much to the concern of environmentalists and Seychellois, this island has already been leased out to India for 20 years and just 20 days back India and Seychelles signed a military agreement to develop the Naval base.
Good things first. Often called the jewel in the crown of Seychelles, Aldabra is the world’s second largest coral atoll. The site has been designated in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, purely for three things—it contains superb natural phenomena; superlative on-going ecological and biological processes; and significant natural habitats to conserve biological diversity. Because of its remote location in the Indian Ocean, Aldabra Atoll remains unspoiled by human influence and provides an excellent example of natural habitat where evolutionary and ecological processes can be studied. The atoll comprises four large coral islands which enclose a shallow lagoon; the group of islands is itself surrounded by a coral reef. This atoll has an area of 150 sq km which is about one-third of the landmass of Seychelles, but has no human population other than the staff of the Research station.
Aldabra Atoll thus is a rare and beautiful tropical paradise. Seen from above, the coral islands form a nearly closed ring that is home to a riot of marine biodiversity. The undisputed rulers of the islands are the thousands of giant tortoises. Due to difficulties of access and the atoll’s isolation, Aldabra has been protected from human influence and thus retains some 152,000 giant tortoises, the world’s largest population of this reptile. Biologists have also documented 400 endemic species and subspecies, including birds such as the Aldabra drongo. Extremely isolated, Aldabra is almost untouched by humans. Aldabra atoll is closer to the coast of Africa 630 km than to Mahé, and is in the most southwesterly part of the Seychelles. It is 407 km northwest of Madagascar and 440 km from Moroni on the Comoro Islands. The atoll is the largest raised coral reef in the world with an elevation of 8 metres (26 ft); and the second-largest atoll in the world after Kiritimati Atoll. The name Aldabra is said to be of Arabic origin. Arabs had settled in East Africa in 7th century. But first recorded visit to Aldabra is said to be in 1742 by a Frenchman Lazare Picault. Human settlement in Seychelles is said to have started in 1770. But this human settlement was immediate threat to giant tortoise as well as Green turtles. Both of these rare species almost went extinct in 19th century when some sense prevailed and conservation efforts started. By then their population had got limited to Aldabra atoll.
The island of Assumption lies about 37 kilometres to the southwest. This island has a landing strip and a handful of buildings, it is home to the scientists that are the only continuous human presence on the islands. Assumption is also the gateway to Aldabra atoll. The airstrip of Assumption is the fastest link to the outside world for the Aldabra group. Assumption was devastated by guano mining in the early 20th century. Over 160,000 tons of this deposit was scraped off the tiny island and the vegetation removed to facilitate exploitation. With the loss of the plants, the birds that depended on them were also lost. Giant tortoises were wiped out. Seabirds suffered, especially boobies. Today it is slowly recovering.
In recent years, birds from Aldabra have been sighted for the first time in more than a century. The main beach is one of the finest in Seychelles and some Green Turtles still nest here. Diving too is excellent. Aldabra is said to be biogeographically much more closely related to Madagascar than the rest of Seychelles. All the land birds have their nearest relatives in Madagascar, including the Aldabra Rail, the last surviving flightless bird of the Indian Ocean. Other endemic species we will encounter ashore are the Aldabra Drongo, Madagascar Coucal, Souimanga Sunbird and Aldabra Fody. Seabirds include 10,000 pairs of frigate birds breeding in one of the world’s largest colonies. Shorebirds include large numbers of crab plovers, a speciality of the western Indian Ocean. If that’s not enough, this atoll is also the one of only two oceanic nesting colonies of flamingos. There are large ray and shark populations in the lagoon as well.
The fringing reef Astove averages about 250 meters from the shoreline, and beyond this the floor plummets steeply. The wall off Astove is one of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular dive sites in the world and has been rated by diving experts as one of the finest in the world. From the shallow edge of the reef, the waters plummet to incredible depths. Huge groupers, reef fish and shoals of pelagic fish congregate alongside forests of Gorgonian fan corals as Green Turtle drift slowly past. Hundreds of species of fish, Green Turtles and even the anchors of wrecked ships are to be seen.
Now this rare beauty is embroiled in a huge debate. India wants to build a military base on Assumption, and the Seychelles government is ceding the control of the island to India for 20 years. For India, the atoll is not just an isolated speck of land, but a potentially vital strategic outpost in its rivalry with China, who acquired its first African Naval base in Djibouti in November 2015. Once ready, this base will help India exercise greater control over the Indian Ocean’s western region all the way up to the piracy-prone east African coastline. India already acquired a fully operational coastal radar system in Seychelles in March 2015.
Environmentalists are alarmed at the prospect: The atoll has remained pristine because of its remote location and the limited number of people allowed to visit. That would change dramatically – and in the worst case, the island could become a battlefield. Construction workers and military personnel could introduce invasive animal and plant species to the islands with unpredictable consequences for the ecosystem. Soldiers would litter the island with plastic and other waste. Ships and aircraft would cause noise and pollute the air. Leaking fuel and oil could contaminate the soil and water – not to mention the possibility of major oil spills. These pristine islands are feared to be sacrificed to military and geopolitical interests.
Let’s go just about half a century in past. In 1962 for the first time British and American governments initiated surveys for a military base here. That also included a plan for a deep sea port. But because of huge outcry from scientific and environmental organisations, plans for the military base were abandoned. Instead a research station was established in 1971. In 1982, Aldabra was declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. So, life seems to have gone a full circle for the biodiversity of Aldabra in just about 50 years, with another threat looming.
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Among those opposing the India’s military base in Aldabra is the former Tourism Minister of Seychelles Alain St. Ange. He says that these pristine islands must not be sacrificed to military and geopolitical interests. He plans to send a petition to the government of the Seychelles and UNESCO to protect Aldabra Atoll. There was also a protest in capital Victoria on this issue few days back. Ralph Volcere, one of the organisers of the protest, said that Seychellois do not want this project, as the details were not made public. Volcere said that though there has been talked about the base since 2015, everything was kept secret, adding that it was only a couple of weeks ago that the issue was brought back again and the signing was held soon after. Volcere added that it is not right for the government to give away the island which is part of the Seychelles heritage. Another demonstrator, Vicky Lanza, said that a project of this magnitude has catastrophic impacts on the islands pristine environment. “Once there is a military base, there will be an element of control and locals will not have access even in the vicinity the island,” said Lanza. Many locals are just worried of the fact that just how can one of our islands be given to another country.
The agreement was signed for the second time on 27th January this year after revisions were made to the previous one. In the revised agreement, the main aim is to provide a framework for assistance to Seychelles by India. It will help enhance the military capabilities in control and maritime surveillance. The project will cover about a quarter of Assumption, which is some 1,140 southwest of the Seychelles main island of Mahe. However Indian High Commission says that the revised agreement will benefit both countries.
The Indian High Commissioner to Seychelles, Ausaf Sayeed, said the agreement will provide Seychelles with the opportunity to enhance its military capabilities and safeguard its marine zone. “In return, India will benefit through better communication and safe trade in the region as most imports of goods pass through the Indian Ocean,” Sayeed said. The Indian High Commissioner also said that although the project is being financed entirely by India, Seychelles retains full ownership of the facilities and sovereign rights over the island. He added that the project will jointly be managed by both countries and will not limit the movement of citizens to the island nor to the island of Aldabra as many are speculating. However it is said that 7 villagers here were given an option to stay on island with restrictions or get transferred to Astove island, where Indian government has already built residential houses. India has targeted to complete the construction of all military buildings by this year itself.
On the other hand the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) , the organisation mandated to protect the Aldabra atoll, says that “it is certain that an enforcement presence is needed in the area to cut down on and prevent illegal activities currently happening in the Aldabra Group.” SIF is hopeful that the Seychelles Government and National Assembly will ensure that the implementation of the agreement will benefit Aldabra. But the question of threat to the bio-diversity of Aldabra atoll still remains unanswered.
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