“Seychelles and Aldabra in the context of global geopolitics” was the title of the address which Seychelles’ founding President Sir James Mancham delivered to 120 privileged passengers and 80 officers and crew on the luxurious cruise ship National Geographic Orion as she cruised from Astove Island of the Aldabra group towards Desroches Island of the Amirantes group on Thursday, April 16, 2015. The Aldabra atoll is 400 km from the nearest mainland. There is little soil, practically no fresh water, no guano, no phosphate, no deep-water anchorage. The jagged coral can quickly tear shoes, and feet, to ribbons.
The atoll is an inhospitable and even dangerous place. And therein lies its value to science. Over the centuries Aldabra has proved unattractive to sailors, fishermen, settlers and commercial interests. No other Indian Ocean island – and few islands anywhere in the world – has been spared human interference for so long. Aldabra harbours a colony of 100,000 giant tortoises, endemic birds, insects, plants, coral reefs and fish that have survived as part of a unique ecological system undistorted by Man. This system was threatened with destruction in 1966, when Aldabra was still part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Plans to build an airstrip for use by the British and American military were only abandoned after worldwide protests from conservation and research organisations, led in Great Britain by the Royal Society and in the United States by the Smithsonian Institution. As soon as the atoll came under threat, the Royal Society mounted a systematic programme of research in Aldabra and this continued when the atoll became part of the independent Republic of Seychelles in 1976.
The preservation of Aldabra’s unique ecosystem depends on international support. The atoll and its research station are managed by the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), a public trust established to safeguard the treasures of Aldabra and promote its use purely for research and education. Aladabra was designated a World Heritage Site on November 19, 1982, and is administered by the SIF based on Mahé. An environmental disaster for the island was averted in the 1960s when the British had agreed with the United States to turn the island into a military air base. The proposal created an international protest by ecologists and their lobbying resulted in military plans abandoned and the wildlife habitat receiving full protection. After elaborating on the political chess game which the big powers like USA, China, India and France are playing in the zone, Sir James said that little Seychelles had to ensure it did not get itself entangled within the wed of rivalry and ambitions of big nations. Sir James recalled the spearheading role which the late Lars Eric Lindblad, Tony Beamish and Sir Tufton Beamish M.P and himself played alongside the Royal Society and Smithonian Institute to stop the Anglo-American plans to build a naval complex military. As a result of the campaign Aldabra was saved and the base was built in the Chagos archipelago. “Where the birds and tortoises of Aldabra won, the people of Chagos lost,” Sir James elaborated.
Following his hour-long address, Sir James was questioned on various issues. One pertinent question revolved around the concern of a passenger in connection with news that India was being allowed to build a naval port in the island of Assumption. Sir James was asked to give more details. He said what he had read was just a brief announcement. He was also interested to learn more details of the proposed development and was also concerned about the project. Another question related to the 3D film about Aldabra. Sir James said he understood that the 3D film on Aldabra, produced by a Czech company, was to be shown exclusively to the trade at the coming Cannes Film Festival in a few weeks and that an official launching of the film would take place in September at the Toronto Film festival in Canada. He said he believes the premiere showing should take place in Seychelles. According to him the American actor Morgan Freeman, who played Nelson Mandela in a recent film, would be the narrator of the documentary. Sir James personally believes that Seychelles should benefit from the commercialisation of this film one way or another.