The Falkland Islands are back in the news again. There was the referendum on March 10-11 that saw all but three of the electorate of 1650 people vote to remain British. Then there were the newly released Thatcher papers revealing that the 1982 war decisions were controversial within her government. And Argentina’s President Kirchner first meeting with the new (Argentine) Pope Francis seemed to focus on her plea to him to intercede on behalf of Argentina in this territorial dispute.
It’s a funny thing about islands and how they can arouse patriotism in more than one country. China and Japan have been fighting over small, uninhabitable rocky islands, North and South Korea are having renewed island issues (I know, that’s the least of their issues), and Cyprus, which is facing a different type of problem at the moment, has been the focus of frequent clashes between Greece and Turkey. In most cases, this island love is more about territorial sovereignty and strategic advantage than the desire to provide quality habitation to its citizens. Until the prospect of offshore oil and gas was added to the equation relatively recently, the attraction of the Falkland Islands for Argentina was definitely about territorial sovereignty and for the most part I’m sure it still is.
I’m basing this speculation on a brief stop there during a cruise we took two years ago that went from Santiago, Chile to Rio de Janeiro. The stop might have been brief, but it was unexpectedly fascinating. When I saw that it was on the itinerary, I wasn’t particularly excited – or even keen. And the shore excursions offered didn’t enthuse, seeming to focus on visiting a sheep station or touring around the (only) town of Stanley and learning about the Falklands War of 1982. But in the course of the tour we chose, taking us to Volunteer Point to see a gazillion penguins (absolutely fabulous), we learned a great deal about the history of the islands and the way of life of the islanders (aka Kelpers) from our driver and guide. And I had occasion to eat my words once again; it turns out that any tour of the Falkland Islands would be worthwhile, because their story is an interesting and unique one.
So what did we learn about the Falklands? The Islands are populated by 3000 people, 500,000 sheep, and 1,000,000 penguins. The territory consists of 2 larger islands plus 776 very small ones, the entire land mass being about the size of Connecticut. It has been known to Europeans since the 1600s, and had a significant role as a way station for ships sailing around Cape Horn, and then as a successful whaling station. It’s been under British control since 1833, and the majority of the current population are native Falkland Islanders of British descent, having lived there for generations. For the most part they are sheep farmers and fishermen, with the sheep farmers spread sparingly across the rocky, treeless, undulating countryside, somewhat reminiscent of the isles of Scotland, while the majority of the small population lives in the only town, Stanley, which is their capital. Our guide was a young woman who runs a sheep farm with her husband and small children, and uses her 4×4 to do cruise tours for extra income during the cruise season. She explained that most rural kids are schooled at home until high school, with assistance from travelling teachers. When they are older, they can board at a hostel in Stanley while attending high school. Students who wish to continue with their A levels and university are sent to Britain.
Interestingly, except for defense, the Falkland Islands are self-sufficient. Their economy (fish, wool, meat, tourism) produces more revenues than expenses. How rare is that?! Our driver told us that many farmers are nearly self-sufficient in electricity these days as a result of installing improved-technology wind turbines. I can confirm that if wind turbines were to be effective anywhere, it would be in the windy Falklands! We were given the gift of a fine day when we were there (early March 2011, it was 10C or more and occasionally sunny), but typically the Islands see monthly average temperatures ranging from 9C in January and February (their summer) to 2C in July (their winter). Never too warm, but they rarely see temperatures stay below freezing. What a concept, being so close to Antarctica. That ocean influence is impressive.
For us, the best – and overwhelmingly fantastic – part of our day in the Falklands was our hour or two among the penguins at Volunteer Point. Totally awesome. Volunteer Point is a long stretch of beach where at least 3 of the 5 species of penguins that breed on the Falklands have set up shop, so to speak. The Point, a private conservation area, lies within the boundaries of a very large sheep farm, and 4x4s are permitted to travel overland to reach the penguins. Once you are there, it is you and the penguins. They walk around you, up to you, and by you. They swim and fish, get stalked by seals, nest, sit on their eggs, and nurture their chicks. They pretty well ignore the people. Spending that time among the penguins was an extraordinarily enjoyable experience.
So, lots of penguins and lots of sheep. Few people, but all of them productive, happily living a remote, self-sufficient existence. There may be few Argentines who would want to live that existence, just as there are undoubtedly few Brits who would line up for the chance to join the current 3000 citizens to share their way of life. But it appears that who is living there is not really the issue. Of all the articles published on the Falklands/Malvinas in the past few weeks, and there have been many, one of the most measured is one in Al Jazeera. The underlying theme is that there needs to be dialogue between Britain and Argentina. Former PM Margaret Thatcher’s newly released papers suggest that it was something of a miracle that the Islands were defended 30 years ago. There are commitments and then there are politics and reality. It doesn’t mean that the way of life of the Kelpers will necessarily change, but the flag they fly might change within their lifetime. We’ll see. Regardless, let’s hope that the way of life of the splendid penguins is preserved and that people who venture to that remote corner of the world can continue to “drop by” and enjoy their company.
Map credit: CNN