FOOC – Falklands identity is shifting

My report for FOOC (From Our Own Correspondent) on shifting identity in the Falklands, talking to Zimbabweans, Chileans and others who are choosing to settle on these South Atlantic islands.

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Transcript reproduced below:


I met Innocent in a minefield.

Well, strictly speaking it was an ex-minefield, up on the wild & woolly moors outside the Falklands capital Stanley.

Innocent was dressed in a peat-smeared protective apron, his perspex visor spattered with blobs of rain that were being blown in sideways out of a sky the colour and texture of a filthy sheep. He was about to cross some barbed-wire from the area cleared of mines in which we were standing, into the uncleared bog beyond. Then he would crawl on his belly through the squelch, to clear mud with his fingertips from around a 35-year-old piece of plastic the size of an orange that could blow up in his face.

“It’s like driving,” he said. “You have to be cautious.”

Innocent Mudzamiri is one of 107 demining specialists brought in by Dynasafe-Bactec, a firm the Foreign Office has contracted to clear landmines that have remained undisturbed since they were laid by Argentina during the 1982 war with Britain.

Most of those deminers, like Innocent, are Zimbabwean. With long expertise lifting mines in their own country, and in other places like Angola and Sudan, Zimbabweans are renowned as some of the best mine-clearers in the world.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, after several years crawling through the mud, some like the Falklands so much they’ve brought their families and settled.

Falklands society is changing.

In Stanley’s West Store supermarket – full of familiar global brands, but where I didn’t fancy shelling out £2.85 for a locally grown lettuce – you can eavesdrop nowadays on Zimbabwean banter in Shona, Filipino chit-chat in Tagalog, the almost-Caribbean drawl of St Helenians, and several different dialects of South American Spanish.

Among the 3,000 population here, one of the largest expat communities is Chilean.

Falklands history is rooted in the culture of the gauchos – South American cowboys who came over from Argentine Patagonia and southern Chile in the 19th century to round up wild cattle.

Relations with Argentina have since become fraught with complication – but Chile remains a lifeline: the Falklands’ only commercial air link arrives every Saturday afternoon from the Chilean capital Santiago, and the plane’s midway stop, the southern port city of Punta Arenas, is where Falkland Islanders go for a short break to shop and relax.

“I consider myself a new Falklander,” says Alex Olmedo.

He was born in Santiago, but arrived in Stanley 26 years ago after seeing a tourism job advertised in a Chilean newspaper.

Now he owns an upmarket hotel and restaurant, and is employing more Chileans, to do work for which it’s hard to find willing Falkland Islanders.

Falklands English sounds like a soft-on-the-ear blend of West Country & Australian accents, but mixed in you keep hearing Spanish loan words as well. In this surprisingly big place, two-thirds the size of Wales, everything outside Stanley is known as The Camp, from ‘el campo’, the countryside. Acquaintances call each other ‘chay’, meaning friend – as in Che Guevara.

Children here learn Spanish at school – though some speak it at home already.

And Falklands placenames tell their own story: Estancia, Rincon Grande, Salvador, San Carlos…

On a beach full of penguins I met Brian Aldridge. He called himself “British through and through”, but then added: “there’s a lot of Aldridges in Patagonia”. Many Falklands families have these links with Argentina, dating back to the gaucho days, when farm-hands would travel freely between the islands and the continent.

Writer John Fowler told me that these links should now be recognised without shame, “as part” – he said – “of what makes the Falkland Island identity somewhat different from the identity of the average British person.”

In the recent census here, only a quarter of people identified as British, compared with more than half who said they were Falkland Islander first.

That shift, says John Fowler, has been accelerated by Argentine governments’ long insistence that a Falkland Island identity separate from Britain’s doesn’t exist – thereby prompting Falkland Islanders to say “oh yes it does”.

Over home-cooked dinners of succulent local lamb, I heard from several people of a new worry – not about war, but about money.

Aside from the £75m annual cost of maintaining Britain’s military presence – paid by London – the Falklands are economically independent. Fishing and tourism create a healthy surplus. But oil was also discovered in 2010. Commercial extraction could be on the way.

Falkland Islanders could suddenly become very rich, and there’s a fear that oil money might end traditional ways, distort the economy and stratify society.

“We don’t want to end up like the Gulf,” one local said.

It’ll be interesting to see how far the Falklands can weather the next waves of change.