1 March 2007
Foreign military bases often lead to displacement and disenfranchisement. The massive land areas occupied by US military bases are often appropriated from people who are given no choice about leaving their homes and farmland, and are often not compensated.


Foreign military bases often lead to displacement
and disenfranchisement. The massive land areas
occupied by US military bases are often appropriated
from people who are given no choice about
leaving their homes and farmland, and are often
not compensated. Once bases are established they
tend to sprawl outwards, consuming more and
more land. Environmental degradation makes the
surrounding areas uninhabitable. Communal farmland
is also taken, which is even less likely to be
properly compensated, despite the fact that many
people’s livelihoods are dependent on it. The bases
provide only menial jobs in exchange, and even
these may be denied to locals as a result of discrimination
or security fears.

“In a significant number of cases, bases have been
responsible for seizing the land and property of
local peoples and forcibly removing them in the
process” says David Vine, an anthropologist working
with the displaced Chagossian people of Diego
Garcia (see page 24). “These types of expulsions
have generally resulted in the impoverishment of
the affected groups and the profound and destructive
alteration of their ways of life.”

In Vieques, for instance, two-thirds of the island has
been occupied by US military bases and land
assigned for military exercises. This has been the
subject of a decades-long struggle by inhabitants
for the right to return and to have their land
cleared of pollution and abandoned munitions. In
Honduras, peasants thrown off their land in the
1980s to provide bases for the Contra and US
forces to attack Northern Nicaragua were permanently
dispossessed after longer-term agreements
entrenched the bases and the US military presence.

Similar stories can be found as far apart as
Okinawa in Japan or Thule in Greenland.
In addition to the loss of land and livelihoods, the
expulsion of people from their land can have
deeper cultural significance. At Thule, for example,
one of the few remaining communities of
Polar Inuit have been excluded from their traditional
hunting grounds for decades, destroying an
entire way of life and forcing indigenous peoples
into ethnocentrically designed “modern” housing
schemes designed to “integrate” them into the
Danish state.

This sense that certain smaller indigenous groups
– be they Inuit, Chamorros from Guam or
Chagossians – can be forced off their land and
displaced without compensation pervades the
struggles over many US bases. US authorities have
united with national governments to, in effect,
ethnically cleanse minority groups, leaving them in
legal limbo with few means of claiming their

Diego Garcia

In 1971 the horrified islanders of Diego Garcia, the
Chagossians, watched as every dog on the island
was rounded up, herded by the British authorities
into sealed sheds, gassed, and burnt. This was part
of the final stage of the expulsion of the
Chagossians from their land – for several years anyone
leaving the islands for medical treatment, holidays
or work had been prevented from returning.
Now that their culturally significant dogs had been
slaughtered, the entire human population was to
be forcibly expelled. Some were simply dumped on
the docks of Mauritius and the Seychelles.

The handover of Diego Garcia to the US military
had begun in 1960. The resulting major base is still
operational today, providing the launch point for
many recent US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Chagossians have largely been left in dire
poverty. Small amounts of compensation were paid
in the late 1970s, which were largely used to pay
off debts incurred by the dispossessed people, who
were given no support in finding jobs or houses.
Despite two High Court rulings on the illegality of
their expulsion, the British government is still
appealing against the verdict, while the US government
and courts deny all responsibility. Studies carried
out as late as 2004 show that many
Chagossians remain totally marginalised economically,
and they are racially barred from getting
labouring jobs on Diego Garcia.

David Vine, an anthropologist and supporter of the
Chagossians’ right to return to Diego Garcia, has
documented the damage the expulsion has caused
the people. “A clear and terrible injustice has been
committed against this people by the United States
and its government. It has never accepted any
responsibility for its actions nor done anything to
ease the plight of the Chagossians, who have
been mired in poverty ever since the expulsion,”
says Vine. He has worked with Chagossian communities
in the slums of Mauritius and the
Seychelles to document the impacts of decades of
dispossession in terms of mental and physical
health, alienation, unemployment and political disenfranchisement.

He has created a compensation
model to show how much the Chagossians are
owed as a result of the expulsion and has demonstrated
that they are the indigenous people of
Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago.
The Chagossians are still attempting to win the
right of return to their homeland, from which they
have been exiled for more than 30 years, as well
as proper compensation for their expulsion, and
the right to work on the base.

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