Sunday, June 17, 2012

Falkland Reflections

Stanley Harbour
So 30 years after Liberation, what's happened to the Falkland Islands?

In my view the islanders have used the opportunity given to them and made a real difference to the islands.  Partially that opportunity came from financial help after the conflict but also from the judicious use of their natural resources, such as organising the commercial sale of fishing licenses.

As a result the islands are now self-sufficient apart from defence, and they'd like to pay for that too.  They have invested heavily in education, in health and in infrastructure.  In 1982 the only roads were in Stanley, now there are paved roads in Stanley and gravel roads in many parts of the islands.  Pre-82 education often finished at 15, now the offer is there for all young people to continue to degree level with government funding.  Large farms have been bought from absentee landlords and divided and sold to local farmers.  The islanders show immense gratitude and kindness to those in the armed forces who fought to liberate them in '82.

The islands have changed, there are more people living in Stanley than the countryside now.  Tourism has boomed as the pristine nature of the islands and its fantastic wildlife has been recognised, it is now the second largest source of income for the islands.  The internet, although it is expensive and slow, means that the islands are connected to the world - fancy dress costumes can be bought on ebay and posted via the twice weekly flight from Brize Norton.

There are challenges.  Argentina's sabre rattling unsettles people and takes up a lot of time in terms of communicating the islanders' views to the rest of the world.  If oil can be produced in commercial quantities, then there will be big decisions to make about how to spend the money.  Various sectors could grow but need the labour to do it, so the islanders need to decide if and how much they want the population to grow.

I hope that the Falkland Islanders make the right decisions about the future for themselves.  They have a strong and positive community, which they are justly proud of.  They live in a spectacularly beautiful place, which they cherish.  I feel very privileged to have been invited to share in their commemoration of the events of 1982 and their celebration of their freedom and I hope that they will be left in peace to continue with their lives as they choose.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Liberation Day

Falkland Island Defence Force on parade
June 14th is liberation day. It is a public holiday on the islands with numerous events to celebrate.

The day dawned dry and cold, but the clouds promised rain.  We set off for the cathedral service at 10am, very well wrapped up.  The service was led by the Reverend Hines but included prayers led by the forces chaplain, the Catholic parish priest and a representative of the Tabernacle Free Church ; with readings from a school pupil, a veteran of 1982 and the Governor, so it was a service for all of the community.  The service was one of thanksgiving, remembrance and also looking forward to the future.
At the end of the service we then moved outside to walk down to the memorial ready for the service there.  The weather was awful, it started off as light snow and then turned into horizontal, in your face snow. However, no one was put off and the ceremony and parade took place with significant numbers of spectators and was broadcast live on the radio.  There were short prayers and then wreaths were laid – I was proud to lay one on behalf of Chichester College.  The services then paraded past, looking immaculate despite the conditions, whilst some of their comrades stood immobile at each corner of the monument. They didn’t twitch despite the fact that they were slowly freezing.  Once the parade had finished everyone got inside quickly.  There was a community event at lunchtime, with around 1,000 people attending, and which featured a 45 foot model of HMS Invincible made out of sponge cake, quite a sight!  Once the choir had sung, the Governor measured the cake and the food was finished, we slipped away, leaving some stalwarts still celebrating!

TheWild West

On Wednesday we visited the settlement at Fox Bay on West Falkland after the service at San Carlos.  We were travelling in three of FIGAS’ four Islander aircraft and even this short journey demonstrated the changeability of the weather here.  When we left San Carlos it was snowing but by the time we arrived at Fox Bay it was a bright, sunny day.

We visited the school at Fox Bay, which has a school population of two children, from two different families.  They are taught by Jim, who is a travelling teacher working with children in isolated areas.  He spends 2 weeks out of 6 with each family, which means 4 weeks at Fox Bay and then 2 weeks with another farming family in the north west of this island.  There are no roads to his other pupil’s home, so Jim’s driving skills and determination are tested in the winter, when travelling conditions are very difficult.  The normal routine is that rural children are taught by travelling teacher or in a settlement school but transfer to Stanley primary school at about 9 years old and live in the hostel there.  This isn’t always the case and I meant one teenager who had done all her secondary education by distance learning and had passed her GCSEs, a testament to her motivation.

The community at Fox Bay were very welcoming. They had organised a display of unseasonal sheep shearing and explained how they shear to ensure high wool quality and a good wool price.  The farms run very large sheep flocks, 7,000 sheep is not unusual and so the islanders have professional shearers, who can shear upwards of 350 sheep in one day. 

We then enjoyed a lavish lunch in the community’s social club, with spectacular views out over the bay. On a bright, still day it was absolutely beautiful and didn't live up to West Falklands' nickname of The Wild West!


One of the themes of this trip is remembrance for those involved in the Falklands war, both in the armed forces and the population.

Yesterday, we attended a short ceremony at the memorial for those killed on HMS Glamorgan.  The memorial is about two years old and is on the shoreline near Stanley.  HMS Glamorgan was hit by an Exocet missile whilst supporting 45 Commando in their attack on Two Sisters, near Stanley.  A mix of residents, veterans, forces personnel and visitors participated in the ceremony to remember all those affected.

Later in the day we visited an exhibition in the museum about the war.  There were lots of quotes from residents, including a letter from a child to her grandma telling her about the invasion.  She ended by saying words to the effect that - this is a sad letter, I’m sorry, but I needed to tell someone.  Other exhibits told of terrifying experiences, such as when residents were inside their houses, when fighting was taking place round them (the houses here are usually wooden and easily penetrated by bullets).  The exhibition vividly brought to life the hardships of the local population during the invasion and the war.  It was clearly something that none of us would want to happen to us.

Today, Wednesday, began with a short flight to San Carlos, where the British cemetery is and memorials list all of those who died during the conflict. It is a beautifully made cemetery maintained to a very high standard, as are all the memorials on the islands.  The service was attended by the Governor, the Foreign and Commonwealth Minister, as well as the President of SAMA and others who laid wreaths in remembrance.  It also seemed to be attended by quite a lot of media, so you may have seen it on TV before reading this.  It was a bitterly cold day, and the weather conditions and the difficulty of the terrain that we flew over made us think about the many adversities faced and endured during the campaign.   This service, like all those we have attended, was thoughtful and grateful and the islanders’ gratitude for their freedom was very clear.

Wildlife Paradise

First thing Tuesday morning we were taken by helicopter to see some of the Falklands famous wildlife.  The helicopter flight was only 10 minutes from Stanley to Volunteer Point, a journey that takes around 3 hours in the summer by car and considerably longer in the winter, depending on how often you get bogged down.  Locals develop excellent off road driving skills and can drive in places that most of us would struggle in.

At Volunteer Point we saw two types of penguin that live on the islands year round – Gentoo and King penguins.  It was an incredible experience.  

The landscape is spectacular and the penguins are relaxed about people, so you can walk very close to them and if you stand still they will come even closer to you!  Whilst we were looking at the King penguins, some of their adolescent chicks came so close they were almost standing on our feet.  During the winter they only visit their chick three times, so these chicks are hopeful that even people might have some food for them.  These colonies of penguins are healthy and in general wildlife on the Falklands is doing well.

The marine wildlife has become increasingly important to the islands, as they attract tourism, a growing sources of income.  Last year around 40,000 people visited, the majority for day visits from cruise ships.  For anyone interested in seeing animals in the wild, I think the Falklands is an incredible destination.