Falklands eye oil wealth and autonomy

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The Independent Online

Port Stanley, Falklands

The Falkland Islands want "secure independence" from Britain, according to a document just published here by the eight elected members of the islands' Legislative Council.

In a document entitled The Future for the Falkland Islands, the councillors say that independence for the 2,200 inhabitants will be "a very gradual process". But the formal publication for the first time of their views, often expressed in private, is a major development for the islands - especially on the eve of talks this week in Buenos Aires on oil and fishery matters.

Phylis Rendall, director of education and a leading public figure, said: "We don't want to remain totally and utterly dependent on Britain long- term and it's a very bold step for 2,200 people. But it may take decades."

The councillors are keen to appear forward-looking as the population moves towards what could be immense oil wealth. The islands' government came into relative prosperity at the end of the 1980s when it started to sell licences to fish its waters; these are expected to bring in nearly pounds 17m this year, half the government's income. But that figure is likely to be dwarfed as the administration seeks bids from oil companies to exploit potentially huge energy resources in the surrounding waters.

Even one small oilfield could make each inhabitant wealthier than the average Briton. The councillors want a political regime able to cope with any new situation.

Excitement about possible oil money was palpable as the Legislative Council met last Friday. Talks centred on oil and the fear of "Third World sleaze" creeping in if vast new income were to be concentrated into the hands of local entrepreneurs. But Andrew Gurr, the chief executive, said: "If that huge income does not create very substantial advantages for every man, woman and child on the islands, then government will have failed the people."

Islanders are considering the changes oil money could bring to their way of life. Some say things will be go downhill as their traditional hardy way of life is doomed.

The more optimistic concentrate on the benefits oil money could bring. They point to the fact that in the years since the rout of the Argentine invaders in 1982, a large British military presence isolated in a garrison an hour's drive from Port Stanley has done no great social damage and a lot of good. They argue that a similar situation could obtain with any influx of oilmen.

The island leaders have studied the experience of Shetland, where social and geographic conditions are similar, and they have been encouraged by how the Shetlanders have maintained their own personality amid oil wealth.

The atmosphere in the Falklands has changed a great deal since the 1970s, when a report by the late Lord Shackleton painted a picture of submissive people, most of them in thrall to absentee landlords and seeking solace in alcohol.