Oil fuels Falklands dispute as war anniversary stirs up rhetoric


LONDON LETTER:Islands are back on British public’s radar 30 years on, as Argentina plans to take UN case

FROM A small office near St James’s Park, set up shortly after the 1982 war, the Falkland islanders have made their case to the powers that be in London.

The office, led by Sukey Cameron, has rarely been busier, as each day brings reports of new tensions in the already difficult relationship between the UK and Argentina.

In her latest move, Argentinian president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner chose to address her fellow-nationals from the “Room of Latin American Patriots” in the Buenos Aires parliament.

Declaring she would complain formally to the UN about Britain strengthening the Falklands’ defences, Kirchner, however, did not ban Chilean flights to the Falklands passing through her country’s airspace.

Such a decision had been feared by the islanders, who could live without the link – since they already have a twice-weekly link to Brize Norton RAF base in the UK, but not easily so. Before the Argentinians began to ratchet up tensions, the 3,000 islanders had been enjoying one of their most optimistic periods: fishing rights produce strong revenues, oil exploration is beginning seriously in their waters, while job vacancies remained unfilled because of a lack of workers.

Up to recently, the Falklands had but one law firm – a trivial complaint for 3,000 people, one might think, until one thinks of the difficulties of running a legal system without opposing sides.

The courts, however, in Stanley are rarely busy. The high point, as it were, for the island’s prison population came in November 2008 when there were four inmates, says legislative assembly member, Dick Sawle.

Up until his retirement, Sawle, like many others on the islands, was in the fishing industry. In 1986, the Falklands began to charge licence fees to fishermen operating in their waters.

From £4 million (€4.8 million) in revenues, the fees have grown to £48 million, while charging people to fish has turned most trawlers into “policemen of the seas”, since they are keen to report law-breakers.

Fishing has given the Falklands a long reach, with up to 80 per cent of loligo squid eaten in Spain – calamari to diners – coming from its South Atlantic waters.

All but 350 of the islanders live in Stanley, though many of the town-dwellers are farmers by day far out in the countryside.

Sheep meat goes to the UK, skins to China, eyeballs and other such pieces to Egypt, though the islanders have yet to create a premium-brand meat because of the transport difficulties.

Today, the Falklands costs the British exchequer £62 million a year to defend, most recently with the decision to deploy the Royal Navy’s most advanced destroyer, HMS Dauntless.

However, the islanders, grateful for the protection, argue that the islands offer the British military training opportunities that would be impossible on the more crowded islands of home.

In decades past, islanders prided themselves on their ability to keep up with world news from the BBC World Service, though today the connections are kept up with satellite TV.

Communications once carried out by CB radio that passed on every move have now been replaced by Facebook. “Even I have a page,” says Sawle.

The Falklands, he continues has the highest internet penetration in the world.

For now, the islanders believe the tensions will pass once the anniversaries of the invasion are over, but that will take months since the Argentinians mark the beginning of the war in April, 1982, while the British remember Stanley’s liberation in June.

In the eyes of the Falklanders, Argentina has behaved with bad faith since 1982, breaking every agreement – from sea travel to oil exploration.

Like others, Sawle went to the Falklands after the war to work as a Spanish language teacher, but stayed on. In recent weeks, he has fought the islanders’ case on Argentinian radio shows.

The encounters have been confrontational at times, since the Argentinians do not accept the rights of native-born Falklanders, let alone incomers.

History, he insists, is on the islanders’ side. “For 90 years, there wasn’t a mention of sovereignty by the Argentinians, until their ambassador went to the UN in 1964,” he says.

That speech, he says, was littered with 60 historical inaccuracies, but it sowed the seeds for the future – leaving Argentina’s military dictators free to invade in 1982 to distract the public from a collapsing economy.

The timing of the anniversary is unfortunate, with Kirchner in power, since both she and her now-deceased husband, Nestor, who was president before her, are from Argentina’s south.

“This is where most of the conscripts in the Argentinian army came from, so for them it is something of a personal crusade. Would a northern president be so obsessed?” Sukey Cameron asked this week.

Once the anniversaries are over, the Falklanders publicly declare their hope that tensions will decrease and they can return to normal worries, such as the fact that Stanley’s primary school is no longer big enough.

In truth, however, the waters off the Falklands hold the key. Four exploration wells are currently being drilled, amid talk that there are 500 billion barrels “out there”.

British Conservative MP Rory Stewart, a former deputy provincial governor in Afghanistan, believes Argentina’s rhetoric will toughen if discoveries are made: “They will be saying that we have a chance to get our hands on this oil.

“The revenue would not go to the United Kingdom, it would go to the Falkland islands. But if it becomes a sort of Gulf state, a sort of Kuwait with penguins, we expect people will really start making noises,” he said.