The British Overseas Territories (BOTs) are among this country’s greatest assets. These communities, scattered across the world’s oceans, offer us opportunities on the world stage that few other nations can match.
In recent months, I have spoken up on the crucial role they play in Britain’s contribution to the Western Alliance. The RAF station on Ascension Island, and especially the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory, are essential to maintaining NATO’s global reach.
It would, however, be a mistake to focus too narrowly on defence. In fact, our partnership with the Overseas Territories has allowed Britain to become a world leader in a critical though different sphere: protecting the planet.
With our 14 Overseas Territories, the UK is responsible for over 6.8 million square kilometres of ocean, an area over twice the size of India and nearly 30 times the size of the UK itself. This makes us responsible for the fifth largest marine estate on the planet. It spans an extraordinary range of ecosystems, from the Antarctic to the tropics, and contains “globally significant biodiversity”. Indeed, thanks to their isolated locations, many of the BOTs are home to wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.
Yet this vast estate also comprises the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This is the territory over which, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Britain has a sovereign right with respect to exploration and exploitation of resources below the surface, including oil, gas, minerals and fish.
Many small island nations face a cruel choice between safeguarding their natural inheritance and exploiting their natural resources. But we have taken a different approach. Over the past few years, the Government has committed £20 million to the Blue Belt Programme. This initiative has seen four million square kilometres of marine environment placed under new, long-term protection.
Ascension Island, for example, has agreed to place their entire Exclusive Economic Zone in a new Marine Protected Area, one of the largest in the world. This will reduce pressures on fish stocks and safeguard vulnerable populations of sharks and turtles. Likewise, the British Indian Ocean Territory has enforced a ‘no-take’ policy, with Blue Belt funding helping to support intelligence-gathering which has helped to ensure that vessels illegally fishing its waters are intercepted, detained, and prosecuted.
In the Pacific, the Pitcairn Islands control one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world, and have agreed to a no-take fishing ban (with an exception for the tiny local population) covering over 830,000 square kilometres. Significant investments have also been made in our South Atlantic territories of St Helena, South Georgia, and Tristan da Cunha. All this is part of the UK’s commitment to ensure that 30% of the world’s oceans are protected by the end of the decade in 2030.
Too often I hear the Overseas Territories dismissed as imperial relics. But the Blue Belt initiative demonstrates exactly why these partnerships have their place in the modern world. Without the financial support offered by the United Kingdom, it is impossible to imagine that any of these territories would be able to place so many of their natural resources under such strict environmental controls. Economic reality – and rival global projects such as China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative – would create huge pressure towards overfishing, deep-sea mining, and more.
Of course, not every BOT is part of the Blue Belt initiative. Some of the others, such as the Falkland Islands, are home to significant natural resources and intend to develop them. But even there, the protection and stability afforded by their bond with Britain means that this can be done responsibly, and with our commitment to the planet incorporated at every stage.
Finally, the UK must invest now to make sure all our Overseas Territories receive their full allotment of ocean territory. Under the UNCLOS, any state can extend its control beyond the 200 miles of its EEZ to a limit of 350 miles if it can demonstrate that the seabed is connected to the continental shelf. For instance, between 2003 and 2015, France invested €25 million in sophisticated geological research of their continental shelf – evidence that supported applications which saw Paris granted an extra million square kilometres of territory!
Timely investment in ensuring all our Overseas Territories receive their full quota will not only maximise our ability to protect the environment and seize the economic opportunities afforded by our unique maritime estate, but signal to potentially hostile powers that we are committed to the long-term future of our partnership with them.
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