The island of Diego Garcia is sometimes called “Fantasy Island” due to its extreme remoteness. But for 5000 of its former inhabitants, who have been exiled due to a US naval base established on the island, life is less of a fantasy. In her graduate thesis at the Royal College of Art, Rosa Rogina explores how an architectural infrastructure could cause a shift in the balance of power crystallized within the politics of the island, enabling the resettlement of the displaced community and reversing the damage done to the environment of the atoll while under military control.
Uninhabited for most of its history, Diego Garcia was settled by the French in the late 18th century. The island soon became home to a coconut plantation, run by workers of mostly French and Mauritian descent; due to their varied backgrounds and isolation, these people, now known as Chagossians, developed a unique creole-like culture. After the Napoleonic Wars, Diego Garcia became a colony of the United Kingdom. The UK continued to farm the island until 1965, when, realizing its strategic location and proximity to South Asia and the Middle East, the land was loaned the the United States Navy. To maintain privacy, the US government mandated a “sweep and sanitization” of the island, meaning an uprooting of all native people from their homes. Anchoring points were placed in the lagoon, and large parts of the lagoon and the channel were dredged to accommodate large Naval ships, destroying a vibrant coral reef ecosystem. Today, after 50 years in exile, the majority of the 5000 Chagossians are still actively campaigning for the right to return home. Now is a crucial time to examine the island; by the end of 2016, the UK’s 50-year lease of Diego Garcia will expire.
Rogina’s project explores a speculative scenario in which the return of the Chagossians to their homeland is one of the conditions for the US Navy’s lease to be extended – the design is a proposal for the infrastructure that may sustain their resettlement. The Coral Frontier network, supported by UN Environmental Programme for biodiversity and led by the Chagossian community, acts as an environmental healer for the scarred military lagoon that lost 2/3 of its coral area because of military activity. While the island would initially be a shared territory between two opposite presences – an occupying army and a community of returning exiles, the project imagines the progressive replacement of the former by the latter, through a process of reclaiming water and land.
The project envisions a network of coral-remediating platforms strategically located above military anchoring points, which will, apart from being used to heal the coral, gradually reduce the anchoring area for the US military and reclaim the territory of the island’s lagoon. Just as it uses the fragility of the coral as a line of defense, this project attempts to turn vulnerability into a force, and to challenge the defeatist assumptions that a small exiled community always has to bend to the will of powerful governments.
More analysis into program and functionality would need to be conducted to make this into a fully-realized, viable project – how do these platforms work to ensure the success of Chagossian community, for example? However, perhaps the proposal’s greater strength is not in its potential to be physically realized, but in its use of design to provoke debate and question the assumptions around a little-known humanitarian cause, exemplified in the principles of the Royal College of Art’s “Architecture as Activism” studio. Whether viewed as a realistic proposal or as a utopian provocation, Rogina’s design starts to make the Chagossian people’s fantasy of returning home seem more like a reality.