Falklands War turned distant outpost into flourishing community


As the 30th anniversary of the struggle with Argentina approaches, the islands are booming, writes TOM HENNIGANin Stanley

THOUGH MARGARET Thatcher’s admirers do not like to recall it now, on coming to power in 1979 she adopted the foreign office’s long-standing policy of pushing the Falkland Islanders into the arms of Argentina.

In 1980 she dispatched Nicholas Ridley, one of her favourite ministers, to sell the islanders a plan whereby they would accept Argentinian sovereignty and then “lease back” the south Atlantic archipelago from Buenos Aires.

At a tense public meeting Falklanders angrily rejected the proposal, prompting a furious Ridley to warn, “if you continue with your intransigence on your own heads be it – we will not be sending a gunboat”.

Three Argentinian air force officers in the hall left shortly afterwards. Less than 18 months later, on April 2nd, 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship invaded the islands.

But the generals had miscalculated. Faced with such a blatant challenge to British authority, Mrs Thatcher suddenly transformed herself into the most ardent advocate of the Falklanders’ desire to remain British and dispatched a task force to expel the invaders. In doing so, she initiated a process that has transformed life on the islands in the 30 years since the conflict.

What was an unloved colonial outpost seemingly in terminal decline is today a thriving community with some of the highest standards of living in the western hemisphere, largely thanks to a post-war boom in fishing.

Before the conflict London ignored Falklanders’ requests to create a fisheries protection zone around the islands, condemning them to watch as eastern European trawlers scooped up vast wealth from their waters while the local sheep-based economy was battered by a global depression in wool prices.

But in 1986 the Falklanders took advantage of Britain’s renewed commitment – most visibly expressed by a strong military presence designed to keep Argentina from reinvading – to turn a war-time exclusion zone around the islands into a fisheries protection zone.

Now, European and Asian trawlers pay the government in Stanley handsomely for the right to hunt for loligo squid and Patagonian toothfish, which reappear on European and North American plates as calamari and Chilean sea bass.

The income has provided an unprecedented bonanza for the 3,000 islanders. Last year the islands’ government had a surplus of more than €20 million and has built up a reserve fund equivalent to three years’ expenditure.

“The revenue and activity in the fishery has transformed the economy of the Falklands and it is difficult to envisage that happening without the war, not that anyone would want a war to get an economic transformation,” says John Barton, the Falklands official who oversees the fishery.

The money from fishing has allowed the government to upgrade the islands’ previously ramshackle infrastructure and there has also been significant investment in education.

Today the islands’ government pays for Falklands children who want to study A-levels and go on to university to do so in the UK. Though there is no obligation to return to the Falklands more than 80 per cent of them do, providing an increasingly well-trained workforce.

“I miss a bit the choice you get when you go shopping in the UK,” says Zoë Luxton who left the islands in 1994 to do A-levels and returned in 2007 a qualified vet. “But there is such a good quality of life here and as one of only two vets on the islands I get to do all sorts of veterinary work, whereas in the UK I would probably have had to specialise.”

The ability to hold on to its young people means the Falklands have been able to reverse the steady population decline of the half-century prior to the 1982 invasion. Next month’s census will count a record number of islanders.

Most importantly for the Falklanders, the economic transformation means they are largely self-financing. “The only things for which the UK government is responsible are foreign affairs, which are discussed closely with us, and defence. And defence is only needed because of the perceived threat from Argentina. Everything else we pay for ourselves,” says Jan Cheek, who sits in the Falklands’ legislative assembly, its eight-member parliament.

But there are clouds on the horizon. Lucrative fish stocks are in decline and the Falklands government fears the culprit is overfishing by trawlers in neighbouring Argentinian waters.

Buenos Aires blames overfishing on the Falkland Islands, claiming ships from its zone illegally cross over into Argentinian waters. Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner said recently that Britain was allowing predatory fishing in the south Atlantic “without any environmental control”.

Argentina had co-operated with the Falklanders on managing shared fish stocks. But in 2005 it walked away from a six-year-old fisheries pact.

The lack of co-operation worries the Falklands’ authorities. While a 2009 study carried out by the Public Library of Science ranked the Falklands, along with the Faeroe Islands, as having the best-run fisheries regime in the world, environmental groups in Argentina warn that overfishing, abetted by corrupt officials and poor monitoring, has pushed many stocks along the country’s coastline close to collapse. Argentina’s government did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

“It is absolute lunacy that there is no co-operation on science. We can see the stocks being depleted because of Argentinian overfishing,” says Gavin Short, Falkland Islands assembly member with responsibility for fishing. “We still want to co-operate. But they’ve spat their dummies out.”