The penguins that wouldn’t explode

It all started with a random line spotted during a search for something else. “Penguins aren’t heavy enough to set off landmines,” it said, or thereabouts. Was that true?

Yes, it was – or, at least, mostly true: anti-personnel mines need about 8kg of weight to set them off, and most penguin species don’t get that heavy (kings and emperors do, but they didn’t matter for the story that transpired).

I was already going to the Falklands, commissioned by BBC World Service radio to make a documentary examining the often-overlooked links of history, culture and identity between the islands and the continent of South America. But more work would help make the trip pay.

The Falklands has penguins. It also has landmines. The combination sounded perfect. And the more I looked, the better the story got. Minefields in the Falklands – which I saw on my visit there last year – have all been fenced off since just after the 1982 war with Argentina. Many of them are on bleak, boggy land in the interior, but the sweeping white-sand oceanfront beaches around Stanley – formerly loved by locals for walks and picnics – were also mined.

In the intervening 35 years, sealed off from human (and animal) encroachment, there’s been remarkable restoration of natural habitats within the minefields. Flora has regrown. And down on the beaches the penguins – particularly the gentoos and the magellanics (both of which are lighter than 8kg!) – are thriving behind their barbed-wire fences.

But the UK has signed up to the international treaty banning landmines. We are under an obligation to clear mines from territory we control. Happy penguins or no, we must dig up the beaches and clear the mines.

What do the locals think? How are conservationists liaising with the mine-clearance teams? Doing potentially life-threatening work every day, do the deminers even care about the plants and the penguins?

The tension between interests sounded fascinating.

Luckily, Radio 4’s environment strand Costing The Earth thought so too.

This programme resulted, along with this article for BBC News – and, for good measure, Radio 4 also asked for this programme about how one Falklands couple manage to combine sheep-farming with penguin tours.

My World Service documentary about Falklands/South America culture is in the pipeline – more details soon.

What amazing places.