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Falklands wealth: a glimpse of St Helena’s future? Maybe that’s going a bit far…

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St Helenians might look with envy to their South Atlantic cousins, just over the horizon (and a bit) on the Falkland Islands. There’s prosperity on those windswept hills – and no one seems to mourn for hard times, now gone.

An interesting article in the UK newspaper, The Independent, paints a picture of the economic transformation the islands have undergone since the ending of the “sheep-ocracy” that once prevailed, when the Falkland Islands Company owned pretty well everything. Now houses stretch for a mile along the shore at Stanley; there are decent roads to farmsteads out in Camp, but few people live there now.

Oil wealth even raises the prospect of the Falklands doing what many want Scotland to do, and becoming independent. With a flow of black gold, the islands might even be able to fund their own defence, and have enough left over to pay ‘aid’ to the UK. It’s a delicious idea.

Assembly member Mike Summers says the islands used to be feudal and colonialistic, ‘but what you see now is a modern egalitarian society with opportunity for everyone.’

As islander Robert Rowlands puts it in the article, ‘It’s beyond our wildest dreams how it’s changed. Now we are the luckiest working-class people in the world.’

Compare this with the trepidation many people on St Helena are feeling – understandably – about the change that an airport might bring. This was Julian Cairns-Wicks in eloquent mood in last week’s Independent (the St Helena one), admittedly prompted by idiots who drop litter on their beautiful island:

‘The real shame of it all is simply the whole premise on which this airport, hotel, chalet, golf course etc. is based, would appear to me to be fallacious, because the real beauty of the island is the manner in which one is removed from the grime and grot of an uncertain world, into a slow meandering way of life, pleasantly decanted from a different time.

‘Thirty Thousand visitors per year will strip away all vestiges of this timeless society and all will be rendered unpleasant, without beauty, tranquillity or calm. The price of progress is not kind or thoughtful; the fact is we are sitting on the very branch we are sawing from the tree.’

It’s not for this far-distant observer to say that St Helena should or should not have an airport, though I will say that my family’s visit in 2009 was driven by an anxious wish for our daughters to see St Helena before it was irretrievably changed by air access.

On the other hand, I have to confess that life is immeasurably easier when there’s a bit of money floating around (what am I saying? I don’t miss the stress of my BBC job now it’s gone).

Older Saints will be quite entitled to grieve for whatever parts of St Helena’s culture are lost, but future generations might see it differently.

And the Falklands offer an interesting comparison there, too – and one that may be even harder for some people to swallow, as Argentina becomes more aggressive in its attitude to Las Islas Malvinas.

Many who lived through the traumas of the 1982 conflict find it too painful to countenance a closer relationship with Argentina, reports The Independent, but university graduates who’ve returned home to the islands would be quite prepared to do business with professionals in Buenos Aires, and maybe even join Mercosaur, the South American economic federation.

‘Over time.’ says Mike Summers, ‘Our children or our grandchildren or our great grandchildren may take the view that they would be better off associated with Argentina or Mercosur than the United Kingdom.”

And on St Helena, what might yet-unborn children grow up to think? In 30 years’ time, all the worries about protecting St Helena’s distinctive culture may not seem so important. Returning to the island in 2009, I found fondly-remembered aspects of island life already gone – the packed floor at Blue Hill dances, for instance.

There will still be Saints in Jamestown and ‘porpoises’ off Lemon Valley, and extraordinary walks, and with a bit of luck and love, amazing colonial heritage. Whatever drops out of the sky in 2015, I suspect St Helena will be special for a long time yet.

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