Argentine-Falklands conflict touches both to core

STANLEY, Falkland Islands (AP) — Ever since seafaring explorers happened upon these uninhabited islands in the 16th century, people have been fighting over them.

The early years were a jumble, reflecting expansive dreams in the age of empires. The remote South Atlantic archipelago was variously spotted, mapped, named or claimed by Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Spanish and American sailors for three centuries before Argentina officially declared its independence from the Spanish crown in 1816.

To Argentines and Falkland Islanders, the words "colonialism" and "self-determination" aren't mere abstractions — they still touch the core of how each see themselves as a people. It's why, as the 30th anniversary of Argentina's brief and bloody war with Britain approaches, many islanders believe the dispute will never end.

But some islanders are beginning to imagine a way out. While all agree that islanders alone must determine their future, and most seem comfortable with being a self-governing British Overseas Territory, some say the conflict with Argentina can only be resolved if they remove colonialism from the discussion by charting a course toward complete independence. Many islanders already refer to their land as a "country."

"I think it's up to us to announce, even if it will never come to pass, that we aim for independence," said John Fowler, who made the islands his home after arriving as a contract schoolteacher from Britain in 1971. "It changes the argument. It says we are a developing nation of our own, which is much better understood in a postcolonial world."

But Fowler's remains a minority view.

"We have our own identity — Falkland Islanders first and foremost, and British second," said Stephen Luxton, the Falkland Islands Government's mineral resources director. "Our status as a British Overseas Territory is one everybody here is quite happy with. We're not an imposed population and we're not oppressed either."

The Argentines' identity also is wrapped up in their historic claim against the British, which dates back to the republic's founding.

The French settled the islands first, in 1764, naming them Iles Malouines, which the Spanish translated as Las Malvinas. A year later the British established a settlement there as well, claiming the islands as their own, without realizing that the French were already there, on the other side of the archipelago. Their dispute, and many others, continued until 1833, when the British Navy definitively took control.

A few years earlier, in its campaigns against Spain, Britain had attacked Buenos Aires. Memories of British troops in their capital were raw as Argentina became a nation — and ever since, Argentines have considered the islands their lost province, a vestige of colonial power they believe Britain stole from them after ousting the South Americans who had been there.

The view in the Falkland Islands is quite different. Records in Stanley show that there were hardly any people on the wind-swept, treeless islands when the British took control. The only people ousted were eight workers led by Antonio "Gaucho" Rivero who were arrested for murdering their five overseers, who were Scottish, Irish, German and French, in a labor dispute. The workers were paid in worthless scrip, and wanted real currency to make purchases from passing ships.

An accounting of the 1833 population written by the settlement's clerk at the time, Thomas Helsby, describes Rivero and the other gauchos and Indians as "murderers" who were eventually captured in 1834. These events also were recorded by naturalist Charles Darwin and his crew, who stopped in the islands twice during their historic scientific expedition.

The British said they had to intervene because the islands had become lawless. The U.S. Navy had declared them free of any national authority in a bid to protect the interests of American sealers and whalers.

Other contemporary documents, now kept in the archives of Argentina, Britain and Spain, together show that no nation had undisputed ownership before 1833, when British naval power finally gave settlers the security they needed to establish themselves.

The population of 3,000 that has grown up since then arrived by birth or by choice, apart from shipwreck victims who decided to stay. And together they have forged a unique identity: They speak the Queen's English, fly British flags, watch the BBC and get their kitchen appliances by container ships from England. They have much more in common with a small village in the north of Scotland than mainland Argentina, even if the South American coast is just a 45-minute plane ride away.

"All the kick-up now about the sovereignty is missing the point," said Adrian Lowe, a sheep farmer raising five children and 3,000 sheep with his wife Lisa, a fifth-generation islander. "Regardless of what history says, these people have worked the land, they built it up, they made it what it is now."

The hard work and self-sufficiency of the settlers who began cutting turf and laying stone for shelter nearly two centuries ago comes through in the insular culture. Most islanders are directly or distantly related to each other, and depend on each other in ways that much larger societies can no longer relate to. They tend to look on outsiders — even British who come to work on temporary contracts — with a certain degree of suspicion.

Since 1851, the Falkland Island Company dominated the colonial economy, employing sheep farmers at punishing wages and sending the profits back to its shareholders in Britain. Only in the 1980s did the FIC, as the company is known, begin selling its farms to the islanders. It wasn't until 2002 that the islands' government formally became an Independent Overseas Territory.

The Falkland Islands Government now runs a direct democracy. It has its own constitution, sets laws, raises taxes and pays for itself, apart from the $70 million pounds ($110 million) Britain spends annually on its defense.

Vestiges of colonial rule remain. The highest authority is a governor, appointed by the British Foreign Service to act as the queen's representative, but he "wouldn't dream of just trying to impose something on us," said Jan Cheek, one of eight members of the island's legislative assembly.

Argentina's constitution, meanwhile, was amended in the 1990s to make recovering the Malvinas through peaceful means a national priority.

President Cristina Fernandez has tried to pressure Britain into sovereignty talks by turning away British ships, encouraging Argentine companies to divest from Britain and raising other trade barriers. Now she's preparing to mark the April 2 anniversary of Argentina's 74-day occupation with fresh calls for Latin American unity against British colonialism.

Islanders say the Argentines have deliberately left them out of the equation, trying to pressure Britain into talks as if they have no say in their own future.

"Argentina has never said what it would do with us if it got us. The British have said it's up to us. But if we keep bleating on about being British, then the rest of the world can get on describing us as a colony," said Fowler, who has served as education superintendent and editor of the weekly Penguin News.

The Falkland Islands remain one of the world's most remote, underpopulated and unspoiled places. About the size of Northern Ireland or the U.S. state of Connecticut, it has mountain ranges and wide plains, meandering rivers and white-sand beaches, plentiful wetlands and an incredible variety of wildlife, including penguins, sea lions and the rare caracara bird.

Stanley still has just a handful of pubs and no stoplights, and the countryside remains little changed from how it was centuries ago.

"It's a very special country. We do experience some small hardships and there's an awful lot of isolation, but I love it," said Cheek, whose great-great-great grandfather James Biggs arrived from England in 1842 with his wife and four children and a collection of seeds. Now she's one of the matriarchs of a nine-generation family that has lived in the islands ever since. "Living, belonging. When you've lived here this long, it's in your DNA. It's home."


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