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View from the Falklands: The other British isles

Amid the sheep and battlefields of the Falklands, the diversity is a surprise
April 11, 2017

The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic offer a starkly beautiful but treeless landscape of mountains, moorland and rivers. Britain has ruled the Falklands for the best part of two centuries, but scarcely knew it until the Argentinian invasion in 1982.

We flew into Mount Pleasant Airport from Santiago in Chile on the once weekly service from mainland South America. An alternative is to fly with the RAF  from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on one of the twice-weekly flights (20 civilian seats available, subject to cancellations.) There is only one proper hotel and a handful of guest houses. Change is always in the offing, although it is difficult to build new infrastructure because the Argentinians refuse to allow more flights over their airspace. And the British won’t allow flights from Argentina at all unless the Argentinians once and for all give up their claim to what they still call the Islas Malvinas.

Since 1982, the military presence based at Mount Pleasant Airport and Mare Harbour has transformed the cultural fabric of the archipelago. After all, the presence of over 2,000 military personnel increases the overall population by well over half. Keeping them there costs around £60m annually. This behemoth is augmented by the Falkland Islands Defence Force. Its budget, funded by the Falklands’ own government, is just £400,000. It is a light infantry company manned entirely by the local population. They meet once a week for training.

There are 2,400 people living in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. The rest of the population, which numbers only a few hundred, is thinly scattered across the farms of the mainland and outer islands. Surprisingly, it is a multi-racial society, with 60 nationalities, including ninth generation islanders. Under the 2009 Constitution the islands are self-governed, though the UK remains responsible for foreign affairs. Through traditional sheep farming, commercial fisheries, oil exploration and nascent tourism, this community has achieved self-sufficiency—but only if you disallow the extraordinary cost of the defence.

We visited the military sites with Nobby and Carrot, fifth generation islanders with West Country accents. We drove to San Carlos over the rugged terrain populated by sheep, upland geese and the odd raptor. A short walk away from the San Carlos Water is the small museum containing photos and relics of the battle that was fought here. The stone corral of the Blue Beach Cemetery overlooks the Water.

Our next stop was Goose Green—site of the most famous battle of the conflict. Geese wander on the grassland in front of the Gallery Café. Nearby was the site where Colonel “H” Jones led his men in his last assault. We called at the Argentinian cemetery nearby and then on to Tumbledown, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet—all remote places no one in Britain had heard of, until they earned their fame as battlegrounds where our men fought and died.

Back in Port Stanley while preparing to leave for South Georgia, 800 nautical miles to the east, I took a ride to Eliza Cove—the Port Stanley rubbish dump. Along the side of the road was a group of Africans sheltering from a rain squall in an empty container, an unexpected and miserable sight. Nearby two of their colleagues were poking around in the field with bamboo sticks. Here was the elite 36-man Zimbabwean Mine Clearance Unit run by the British bomb-disposal firm BACTEC. They are continually clearing mines from the war with little or no record from the Argentinians as to where the ordnance was placed. It is, then, the real as well as the diplomatic war that rumbles on.

The Falkland Island Museum was packed with Argentinian veterans who were fascinated with the original footage being shown on a screen, which they were trying to record on their smartphones. These visiting veterans will have largely been ill-equipped teenage conscripts back then, and they visit the islands via a special once-a-month flight. At Mount Pleasant Airport on the way out, they searched poignantly for the rocks and earth they collect as souvenirs. A large pile of the rubble was in a corner of the check-in area when we departed from Stanley, while the RAF flew two Eurofighter Typhoons in a screaming display overhead.

The islands also remain as a strategic point of entry to our British Antarctic Territory, one more reason why they deserve our continued interest and support. As for the dream of oil production, two companies recently merged and have signed a £57m deal, now that the Argentinian government has dropped the threat to prosecute exploration activities in the Falklands’ Maritime zone. Oil is always “just around the corner” here, but it would so transform this place that on the islands, there is talk of little else.

In March 2013 a referendum was held, purportedly on the political status of the Falklands, but really it was a publicity exercise. The islanders voted overwhelmingly to remain as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, rejecting Argentina’s call for negotiations on sovereignty. On a turnout of 92 per cent of eligible adults, 99.8 per cent voted to stay British. That implies there were only three votes against.