Is Argentina trying to sabotage the Falkland Islands with Economic Blockade?
It has been thirty years since the 1982 Falkland Islands War where Argentina and British troops clashed over their differing viewpoints on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (in Spanish Islas Malvinas). Over 1000 people were killed while others have been scarred for life.
For their part Argentina, as explained by BBC news magazine, maintains “it has a right to the Malvinas because it inherited the islands from the Spanish crown, bolstered by the French concession in 1767. It also says the British left the Malvinas in 1774 and remained silent for over 50 years, only objecting when a newly-independent Argentina made a series of actions in support of their sovereignty in the 1820s. It has also based its claim on the islands’ proximity to the South American mainland.”
Britain’s case is based on “its long-term administration of the islands and on the principle of self-determination for the residents. It says the islands have been continuously, peacefully and effectively inhabited and administered by Britain since 1833.”
In marking the anniversary of the battle, the Falklands, located in the South Atlantic, 300 miles from Argentina, have seen increased international attention and the government of the Falkland Islands has stepped up its publicity efforts. There have been hundreds of visits by journalists to the islands this year. Last week the islands welcomed six Caribbean journalists to their shores. Members of the Falkland islands legislature have also been travelling the world to bring attention to the islands.
But the sudden burst of increased attention has less to do with the anniversary of the war and so much more to do with the resurfacing of Argentina’s claim to the islands, which is a British Overseas Territory, as the islands are poised for increased development of its oil and tourism sectors. Argentina has stepped up its efforts to get countries to side with them on the issue (including Caricom) and according to several people in the Falkland Islands there have been efforts to frustrate and isolate the 3000 inhabitants of the British territory. So even while Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been requesting negotiations and talks with Britain over the islands’ future it appears that there is a deliberate attempt by Argentina to prevent economic development in the Falkland Islands. Some in and out of Argentina are even suggesting the president is simply using the issue of the Falkland Islands as a smokescreen, as all good politicians do so well.
Islanders in the Falklands gave Caribbean journalists clear examples of some of the frustrations they face trying to get around the Argentina issue. With the self-financing country reliant on fishing, sheep farming and tourism, with penguins, which breed there in their millions, a main attraction, the Argentinian blockades are part of what is holding the Falklands back from being more advanced.
Member of the Legislative Assembly Dr Barry Elsby explains that Argentina has been playing politics with the islands for a long time and this has stretched to the right of the Falklands to establish an oil industry. UK-based company, Rockhopper Exploration, is expected to begin oil production in the Falklands region by 2017.
“They [Argentina] keep saying for example that the oil belongs to Argentina,” Dr Elsby said in an interview on Tuesday last week. “The oil exploration phase has gone on for two years and that proves that despite what Argentina has tried to do, like blockading ports and things like that, it hasn’t worked. The oil exploration has gone on successfully and we have no doubt that the development of the field will also go on successfully.”
The Falkland Islands also face frustrations when it comes to travel to the islands, whether by land or sea.
“At the moment we have a twice weekly flight that comes from the UK,” explained Elsby. This 18 hour flight is managed by the UK military and links the islands directly with the UK. The island has just one other flight by LAN Chile, that comes in once a week.
“It would be lovely if we had a midweek flight to South America as well. We all recognize the importance of that. We are certainly looking at trying to create a link with the United States in order to tap into the North American tourist market so they don’t have to hop all the way to South America, they can fly straight here. We are looking at those options but Argentina is very reluctant to have any extra flights through Argentina air space into the Falklands. They have banned charter flights through their air space and LAN Chile, who I am sure would be happy to run another flight to the Falklands are constrained by Argentina’s willingness to allow them to put on more flights. So we are trying to get around that by perhaps flying straight up to North America.”
Agreements with Argentina in the past over co-operation regarding travel have also gone out the window.
“We are just about to start the tourism season here where we get lots of ships and boats coming in who do the loop from South America, down to the Falkland Islands then maybe over to South Georgia then Antarctica and then back up again,” explained Elsby. “We had an agreement with Argentina when President Menem was in power in the 90s where we had passenger exchange flights and that worked very well straight from Santiago. But when President Kirchner got in that was stopped despite the agreements we had. Then there is Decree 256 where they say any boat passing through Argentinian waters is supposed to ask for permission to do that. That is against all the international laws of the sea regarding innocent passage. They have also persuaded other groupings within South America to try to ban Falkland flagged vessels from their ports. It raises a lot of difficulties for us. The tourist industry has been affected as a whole.
“We have to constantly come up with ways to try to get around it. But that has become part of what comes with living in the Falkland Islands; it is this constant attention by the Argentinians trying to stop ordinary trade. We just want to be able to trade normally with all our neighbours in the area, with Chile, Brazil and everyone. We just want to be good trading partners. On a recent trip to Central America again it was clear that they see this potential for oil in the Falklands and they ask us why are you doing everything from the United Kingdom and not with South American companies. I mean we tell them it’s fine with us but it is your Argentinian neighbours that are blocking this. The blockade is actually perhaps harming South American countries who want their oil industry to be involved in what is happening in the Falklands; there are billions and billions of pounds worth of development going on here and they see it on their doorstep and they wonder why they can’t be a part of it. That is probably what will make the situation change in the end; the reality on the ground.”
Travel consultant Sally Ellis also spoke to Caribbean journalists about the potential for the tourism industry in the Falklands. She explains that thousands of people come every season but that has been hindered by the lack of charter flights.
“We are trying to work around it. There are people who come on the cruise ships who want to exchange when they get to the Falklands and fly on to Chile. It has been difficult but we will try to find another way,” she said.
John Barton, director of natural resources, spoke to the effect of the Argentinian conflict on the fishing industry which mainly harvests squid. In one way or another the Falkland Islanders and Argentinians share waters and Barton admits that for 15 years the countries had good relations and even exchanged data.
“For a long time we did have the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission which operated from 1990 to 2005, which was a bilateral commission involving the United Kingdom and Argentina, with Falklands participation and that operated well. We had joint research, scientific workshops and we used to set recommended levels of fishing for squid. We had coordinated closures of our fisheries in order to protect the industry and stocks.”
That all changed in 2005, explained Barton when Argentina “pulled up the draw bridge and decided that they really didn’t want to have that level of interaction with us anymore.”
“It is unfortunate in many respects,” he lamented. “It is unfortunate for the fish stocks, for the fishermen and it is unfortunate for us really because there is no longer that coordinated approach to fisheries management which at least held out some prospect that stocks would be well managed for the long term. We still try to do it on our own but with both of us doing our own thing there is less likelihood that we will get it right.”
Barton admitted there was concern about Argentinian coast guard or war ships coming into the Falkland Islands zone a few miles and advising fishing vessels that had been licensed by the Falkland Islands that they are not licensed and they are fishing illegally. He said however such incidents don’t escalate. For his part, the director hoped that Falkland Islands could resume cooperation with Argentina in terms of the fisheries sector.
“It is an aspiration,” he said of the establishment of a multi-lateral commission. “It would be quite difficult for the Falklands to generate that type of commission without Argentina because whilst we have perfectly good links with a lot of the countries that fish around here they also have good links with Argentina and they do a lot of business with Argentina in other respects so the likelihood of them participating in a multi-lateral arrangement initiated by the Falklands will be difficult to do . . . For a while, for the first ten years of the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission, bearing in mind there was a sovereignty dispute the actual work that was done on fisheries went pretty well and some good work was done.”
Dr Elsby has adopted the approach that other Falkland Islands people echo: “It is not going to stop us.” Despite the setbacks with Argentina the Falkland Islands is poised for development both in tourism, fisheries and oil. There are major plans in the island to construct a new port and seek out increased airlift.
In the meantime Falkland Islanders hope that a Referendum to be held early next year about their sovereignty will send a clear message to the world, in particular Argentina, about where they stand. It remains to be seen whether Argentina will recognize the outcome of the vote, although many are not optimistic. Signs around the main town of Stanley seem to say it all as Falkland Islanders proclaim that they are “British to the core” and sing: “Don’t cry for us Argentina.”