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Originally published Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 10:44 AM

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Falklands population stagnant, aging, census finds

A census in the Falkland Islands has produced some results that fundamentally challenge what many outsiders think about the people who live in the remote, wind-swept archipelago that Britain and Argentina fought over 30 years ago.

Associated Press

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STANLEY, Falkland Islands —

A census in the Falkland Islands has produced some results that fundamentally challenge what many outsiders think about the people who live in the remote, wind-swept archipelago that Britain and Argentina fought over 30 years ago.

For one thing, most residents of this self-governing British Overseas Territory don't consider themselves British. Fifty-nine percent say their national identity is "Falkland Islander," compared to 29 percent who feel "British."

That has implications for Argentina, which refuses to deal directly with the Falkland Islands' local government, and accuses Britain of running what Argentines call the Islas Malvinas as an illegal colony.

The survey also puts the average annual income at $32,213, much higher than Argentina's $9,620 as of last year, or that of the Falklands' other Latin American neighbors.

The income figure underlines how much things have changed since before the 1982 war.

Back then, wool prices had bottomed out internationally and invading Argentine soldiers were told they would be welcomed by impoverished and oppressed tenant farmers. Instead, they encountered a stubbornly defiant population that helped British troops retake the islands.

Sheltered by continued military support, Falklanders have seen their livelihoods greatly improve since the war, with revenue flowing in from fisheries, tourism and offshore oil development.

But the census also reveals an existential challenge: The islands' population hasn't grown since the last survey was done in 2006. There are only 2,563 residents after civilian contractors and British military personnel and their dependents are excluded.

The population is aging rapidly, too, with the ranks of people older than 65 increasing by 14 percent in the last six years.

"If the Falklands is to progress we need to increase our population," said Les Harris, a 73-year-old retired power station manager who was born in Chile.

The census shows unemployment at just 1 percent, with one-fifth of all workers having multiple jobs. The largest employer by far is the government, at 28 percent, followed by agriculture (11 percent) and hospitality and tourism (11 percent).

Offshore oil and gas development could bring sudden wealth to the islands if several drilling efforts strike it rich. But the effort currently employs just 26 islanders, and there simply aren't enough people around to work the jobs created by a growing economy.

"There is virtually no spare capacity within the labor market to accommodate any additional employment opportunities that may arise in the future. Indeed, almost 20 percent of persons in employment have more than one job," the government said Tuesday.

The census shows immigration slowing, due to one of the world's most restrictive policies: Newcomers aren't allowed to apply for islander status, giving them voting rights among other things, until they have completed seven years of residency. That can be done only by repeatedly renewing temporary labor contracts. Even then, only 40 people can apply each year, and not all are accepted.

The census says 70 percent of the population, 1,973 people, are Falkland Islanders or Falkland Island Status Holders. Only 4.3 percent, 121 people, have the permanent residence permits that enable them to apply for islander status.

"We don't have a big enough work force to get things done," said Tim Cotter, an executive at Falklands Islands Development Corp. "... In the short term, we could employ seasonal workers from St. Helena and South America, and those who like it, and fit in, will stay. That is the way the population has grown since the beginning."

Government officials have said that if they don't carefully control immigration, Argentines could move in and vote to reclaim the territory. But many islanders also have expressed doubts about Britain's willingness to continue defending its South Atlantic fringe.

The result has been zero population growth in one of the world's most under-populated and unspoiled places, a set of islands about the size of Northern Ireland or the U.S. state of Connecticut, with mountain ranges and wide plains, meandering rivers and white-sand beaches, plentiful wetlands and an incredible variety of wildlife.

And fewer people than many public high schools have in the United States.

Three quarters of the population lives in the capital, Stanley, while several hundred people live scattered on remote farms around the islands. Outside town, there are only several gravel roads, and many people depend on boats or small planes to get around.

The government has plans for a permanent port for bigger oil, fishing and cruise ships, and hotels and paved roads so visitors can stay long enough to see historic sites and wildlife.

Expanded drilling would require a dedicated fresh water system, and economic growth will require more windmills for the wind energy that already provides a third of the islands' electricity.

If the Falklands get even a fraction of the $10.5 billion in taxes and royalties some industry analysts have predicted will flow from just one of the offshore oil fields being explored, islanders could become richer than Saudi oil barons.

But as this year's census shows, that future has yet to arrive.


Associated Press writer Corina Goss reported this story in the Falkland Islands and Michael Warren reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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