By Nicole la Hausse de Lalouviere
Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago
The Chagos archipelago is a group of seven atolls (over 1,000 individual islands) situated 500 km south of the Maldives. This tiny landmass (60 km2 total) is at the center of a global territorial dispute involving the U.K., the U.S., and the island nation of Mauritius, a British colony at the time of its 1968 independence. Between 1968 and 1973, the Chagossian population was displaced in its entirety by the British Government and deported to Mauritius where they have struggled in poverty since.
The largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, was leased to the U.S. for a period of 50 years in 1966. It has become critical to the U.S. military presence in the Indian Ocean, used as a base during the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. A 2009 wikileaks cable revealed the U.S.–U.K. plan to make the area a marine reserve with the intention of preventing resettlement. In spite of this evidence, the Chagos islanders are still fighting for compensation and repatriation. They have taken their case to the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Houses of Parliament, and the European Court of Human rights.
Exploring Possible Futures using Design Fictions
With the future of the archipelago wrapped up in complex geopolitical disputes, exploring the possible futures for the Chagossian population makes a case for deploying “design fictions.” Championed by Bruce Sterling, design fictions have found traction in the academic world for their potential to pose critical questions about possible futures for our society as a whole.
Design fictions are not about planning, feasibility, or prognostics of the future. Rather, they are about enabling the suspension of disbelief to explore a broad range of alternative perspectives. Design fictions can expand our notion of possible futures and enable us to critically engage with them.
It has been suggested that design fictions are a form of postmodern bricolage. Indeed, they are “postmodern” in the sense that they accept ambiguity, complexity, and propose a skeptical interpretation of culture; rather than presenting a conventional and linear idea of the future (often tied to the notion of progress), design fictions seek to explore scenarios that envision futures as “thick,” multidimensional, and non-uniform. Design Fictions are also “bricolage” because the speculative worlds that thay create are not meant to be perfect, but rather pieced together, often from elements of the “strange now” and informed extrapolations of current trends.
Five Radical Narratives for the Future of Diego Garcia
The Five Wounds of Christ presents five radical narratives for the future of Chagossians on Diego Garcia. The film is a device in which design fictions are recognized as a fundamental mode of thinking in architecture, empowering the islanders to critically engage with the uncertain fate of their home.
A discrete solution is not offered, and none of the storylines are ideal for the islanders—but the film presents Chagossians with critical questions about potential within their complicated current reality. The islanders’ design problem lies in defining a vision and ambition for their society and their identity; they are fighting to return to an idyllic life on Diego Garcia, but their idea for a possible future is actually the idea of a romanticized past, a past that never existed. Below a synopsis for each of the five narratives are outlined:
I: Wasteland Lagoon
The sudden collapse of the United States as a world superpower leaves the military base on Diego Garcia abandoned and rapidly decaying. The Chagossian islanders finally regain sovereignty now that their island no longer holds strategic value for America. Upon returning, they find a landfilled lagoon and dangerously polluted island, a condition far from the idyllic tropical atoll they dreamed of. The aircraft hangars provide the only protection from the abandoned chemical and biological weapons. These house the refugees from the sinking Maldives who provide scavenging labour for the Chagossians, whose new economy survives on dealing in the second-hand market of military hardware.
II: Base for Pre-Emptive Conservation
Building on its status as the world’s largest marine-protected area, the Chagos Archipelago becomes a strategic base for the world’s new hegemonic power: the Global Conservancy Alliance. This benevolent organization fights to re-establish pristine environmental standards throughout the world, upholding the Chagos as their model for unspoiled natural conditions. The islanders are a significant part of this global effort: they maintain the old coconut plantations to guarantee vegetative cover for the emitters on the ground, making them invisible to satellites above. These emitters transmit signals through the very shallow water lens on the island, which connects directly with the ocean, enabling the Global Conservancy Alliance to run a fleet of marine drones and launch deadly strikes on enemies of global conservancy.
III: Footprint of Freedom
After decades of legal battles, the Chagossian people are given British passports, and groups of them move to the outskirts of London. The U.K. has granted citizenship but not the right to re-settle the archipelago. Like many other immigrants, the islanders live in Crawley, drawn to the town for the jobs available at nearby Gatwick Airport. The islanders endure menial labour and long hours in the hope of providing a better future for their children. While most still long to return to their atolls in the Indian Ocean, the main island, Diego Garcia, is still of great strategic value to the Americans, who have nicknamed it “Footprint of Freedom.”
A resurgence of Cold War tactics in an unstable global political system has devolved into rampant nuclear testing. No part of the world is left unaffected by radiation, including Diego Garcia, where nuclear tests have taken place both underwater and underground. The islanders’ way of life as farmers has become unsustainable, forcing the economy to survive by exporting electricity from the nuclear power plant that was built on the island years ago. With generous international subsidies as the only method for maintaining their life on the island, Chagossian youth are disillusioned by a system that has left them with a purposeless existence.
V: Offshore Data Haven
Privacy and data storage have become the most sought-after commodities and radical alternatives to conventional data security now exist for the rich and powerful. Consequently, a new breed of tourist destination emerges, pioneered by Diego Garcia. The island offers secure data encryption services in the DNA of its coral reef. Wealthy tourists travel with their digital data to Diego Garcia, where it is translated into synthetic genetic code, synthesized, and then merged with coral DNA. When the coral spawns, this data is released in the lagoon to mate with non-modified coral DNA and ensure the covert storage of data in the living reef.
Nicole la Hausse de Lalouviere grew up in Mauritius. She holds a liberal arts degree from Colgate University, with a major in Art and Art History, and a Masters in Architecture from the University of British Columbia. She has also studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and worked with MAD Architects in Beijing. She is currently a project manager at Vogt Landscape Architects in Zurich.