The view from the ground.

Island Tango

With their afternoon tea, brogue accents, and fields of diddle-dee, just who do the Falklands Islanders think they are?

Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

To the rest of the world, the Falklands War may have seemed like a bizarre blip on the geopolitical radar screen. But in the Falklands (known to Argentina as "Las Islas Malvinas"), the 74-day conflict is remembered rather differently. It started on April 2, 1982, when more than 1,000 Argentine special forces landed near the capital city of Stanley, and it ended 10 weeks later when Argentina surrendered after a massive British naval task force left 649 Argentine soldiers dead. Families in both Stanley and outlying farm settlements remember that they were herded like sheep by invading Argentine forces and imprisoned in their own homes for weeks. If a settlement wasn’t invaded, the Argentines simply cut off all communication and supplies.

Such memories are why Falkland Islanders still aren’t very fond of the "Bloody Argies" and are less than thrilled to be back in the news, this time over an oil controversy with their former invaders.

In the past month, British exploration companies have resumed oil-drilling operations in the North Falklands Basin, where Shell estimates there may be up to 60 billion barrels of hydrocarbon deposits. (The statistic comes with a caveat: "The Falklands is a frontier area with no supporting oil industry nearby, so planning and executing drilling programs takes time," says Phyl Rendell, director of mineral resources for the Falkland Islands. "It took Newfoundland 30 years before they found commercial hydrocarbons.")

Yet even these first steps toward oil extraction by British companies have brought back into the headlines a long-standing dispute about sovereignty over the island. The issue dates back to the early 19th century, when Argentina claimed sovereignty over the archipelago. In 1833, the British, who had first established a colony in the Falklands in 1765, reasserted their own claim and the islands have been de facto under British control ever since.

On the particular issue of offshore drilling rights, in the past 15 years there have been talks between the U.K. and Argentina regarding the oil deposits; they just haven’t gone anywhere. Recently, when Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, who has described the islands as "a colonial enclave and embarrassment for the 21st century," met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she implored the United States to step in and mediate the oil issue "so that we can sit down at the table and discuss sovereignty."  

The fact that Argentina is still contesting the sovereignty of the islands, especially after one extremely unsuccessful invasion, doesn’t sit very well with most Falkland Islanders. Their general aversion to Argentina’s claim may be due to the fact that only a handful of Argentines actually live in the Falklands. Most of the islands’ 2,478 residents are an amalgam of "sheepocracies" — i.e., distinguished families who have owned large farms here for decades — mixed with more recent immigrants from the U.K., the Philippines, South Africa, Chile, Australia, and other British Overseas Territories, like St. Helena ("Twenty-three nationalities are represented in the phone book," one proud resident told me when I visited in January 2009 on assignment for Outside magazine). The islanders’ accents vary widely, but many speak with variations on a thick brogue or with a tinge of formal, cheerful "British colonial."

In most regards, the Falkland Islanders have life pretty good. Aside from the 1982 war, there’s been only one civilian murder here since the 1970s. If residents can tolerate the occasional 60-knot wind, most come to love these treeless, undulating islands and the pure and pragmatic way of life it offers. Falklanders choose to live here because they want to, not because they’ve been relegated to the outermost ends of the earth by a force outside themselves.

Take Alan Henry, a British customs agent and avid birder who took me hiking across a boggy track to find the elusive Hudsonian Godwit. "I absolutely fell in love with the Falkland Islands from the minute I came," he told me. "There’s no crime, no vandalism, no litter, and no graffiti. We’re healthy, we’ve got no money worries, and have great family. Do we miss Chinese restaurants? The answer is no. Plus, the art of conversation is not dead."

Indeed, the Falklands feels like a throwback to a pre-modern Britain, a place where Milton or Keats might feel more at home than in fast-paced 21st century London. Today in the Falklands, the ritual of tea accompanied by fresh-out-of-the-oven shortbread is still very much alive, and kids can kick a soccer ball through downtown Stanley until midnight without their parents worrying about crime or kidnapping.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Falklanders consider themselves to be fully British. For all their flapping Union Jacks, red phone booths, and birthday celebrations for the Queen, Falkland Islanders view themselves as distinct. "That’s like saying Texans are Mexicans," one local farmer told me. "We’re Commonwealth citizens, but we’re not British." (After the 1982 conflict, the U.K. government granted full British citizenship to islanders.)

As for the other option?

"We certainly don’t want to be part of Argentina," a trawler captain named Mike Clarke told me. "I’ve got nothing against the Argentine people, but we’re just totally different cultures. All the Argentines need to do is drop their claims and we’d all be happy and friends. But," he adds, "it’s not as easy as that."

He’s absolutely right there. Some islanders may need prodding — they can be pretty introverted folks when it comes to talking with outsiders — but eventually almost every local over age 40 had a tale of Argentine carnage from the "dreaded war."

The signs are still evident: Every few kilometers along the only paved road in the 740-island archipelago, signs with a black skull and crossbones tilt in the stiff breeze. They mark the areas where Argentine soldiers planted as many as 30,000 plastic and, therefore, highly undetectable landmines. It’s illegal to walk beyond the barbed wire, but it’s not uncommon for a cow to wander in and blow up.

Out on Pebble Island, a 34-square-mile penguin-rich speck just north of West Falkland, the wreckage from an Argentine Dagger fighter jet is splattered across a field of  diddle-dee, a distinctive shrub prevalent throughout the islands. A lone wheel lies next to a sheep carcass, which lies next to a battered jet-engine cylinder. A few hundred yards away, a mangled piece of fuselage stenciled with the word "ARGENTINA" glimmers in the sun. The jet crashed almost 30 years ago, but the metal carnage is so well preserved that I almost expected to trip over a human limb.

"Life was flipped completely upside down," Allan White, a 42-year-old fifth-generation Falkland Islander told me as we walked through the wreckage. "These people had led very peaceful, quiet lives. But the Argentine soldiers followed them everywhere, even to milk the cows."

As Sarah Crofts, a British biologist who has worked in the Falklands Islands for six years, told me, "People here are really friendly. They really like to have a yarn," she said. "But one thing islanders don’t like is people coming down and telling them what to do."

A sentiment with which local businessman Stuart Wallace, whose mother’s family settled in the Falklands in 1842, agrees wholeheartedly.

"While Argentina talks of ‘negotiations,’ in fact they will accept nothing less than their colonization of the Falklands," he explained. "We do not want Argentina to ever have influence over the way we choose to lead our lives. If oil is found in commercial qualities, this will have obvious economic benefits and perhaps enhance our political security, but we still have many challenges to face."

Oil may eventually bring economic benefits to Falklanders, but in the meantime, it doesn’t seem to be doing much for their fragile "right to self-determination."

<p> Stephanie Pearson is a contributing editor to Outside magazine. </p>
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