As a student in Oxford in 1982, I demonstrated (with heavy police protection) against the sending of the British task force to retake the Falklands.
I thought then, as I think now, that whether the inhabitants are British or not isn’t the key point for determining who should have sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas. The key point is to see where they are on a map. It makes about as much sense for the Falklands to be British as for the Outer Hebrides to be Argentinian. Especially now that the UK is running the highest peacetime deficit in its history, and spending billions of dollars annually to keep almost as many members of the military in the islands as there are islanders.
But events rendered all this irrelevant. Enough blood was shed in 1982 to make even discussing the return of the Falklands to Argentina a political impossibility for any British government for at least another generation. The fact Argentina is now a stable democracy doesn’t alter that. So, after many years of quiet, it was sad to see the Falklands/Malvinas back in the newspapers for that most depressing of reasons, for anyone interested in the environment: oil.
The British decision to start looking for oil around the Falklands is foolish on a number of levels. It predictably led to outrage in Argentina and to damage to Britain’s image in Latin America as a whole, as regional leaders fraternally lined up fraternally along their peer. One imagines that Hillary Clinton, starting a visit to South America this week, was also not pleased with the distraction. But so far the strongest Argentinian argument has been strangely unused: the environmental implications of what the British are up to.
Argentina is to marine conservation what the Amazon is to terrestrial. Its long coastline boasts some of the world’s best sites for marine mammals and seabirds, including the largest known penguin colonies outside the Antarctic and the remarkable national park of the Peninsula Valdes, where killer whales launch themselves onto beaches hunting baby seals, supplying arguably the most spectacular wildlife footage ever shot in the process.
Argentinian waters are relatively well protected by marine parks and Argentina has a long and proud tradition of excellence in marine biology. All of which suggests the outline of a much smarter approach to getting the British to back down.
There is no good evidence of oil in the waters off the Falklands, and even if there were the costs of getting it ashore would be high, to say nothing of transporting it to market.
So rather than focusing on hypothetical oil, Argentina should be loudly drawing attention to the clear danger oil production in the South Atlantic would pose to the area’s very non-hypothetical marine mammals, fish species and seabirds. This would give Argentina the moral high ground, and also shift the argument to an area when Argentina can point to an impressive track record.
It would also be highly embarrassing to the British. A nation of animal lovers being nasty to whales and penguins? A country trying to lead the way on climate change and greenery starting up an oil industry in one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses?
It’s already difficult to build another runway at Heathrow because of opposition by climate activists. If Argentina played its cards right, it could have Britain’s foolish moves in the South Atlantic defeated not by declarations from other heads of state, which have little practical impact, but by aroused public opinion in Britain, which really does care rather more about animal rights than the rights and wrongs of the Falklands conflict.
Argentina may not be able to embarrass the British into giving the Falklands back, but embarrassing them into a retreat on the oil issue through making the case for leaving the penguins, albatrosses and sea lions well alone is a real possibility.
(Image: Eared seals on the Peninsula Valdes. Image credit: Mannheim Reinhard Jahn/Wikimedia Commons.)