ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
You'll find a welcome in the Falkland
Islands these days - just as long as you don't get too interested
in the penguins
After 18 years on the windswept
Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, biologist Mike Bingham moved to
the South Atlantic in October 1993 as Conservation Officer for
Falklands Conservation, a wildlife charity founded by the venerated
Sir Peter Scott and funded by the Falkland Islands Government
(FIG). Six years on, he is clinging on to the rocks after a nightmare
ride through the worst that a remote and largely unaccountable
government can throw at an outsider.
In 1995/96 Bingham led a
penguin census of the archipelago. The results appeared to reveal
a species in deep crisis: the rockhopper penguin population had
slumped from 3 million pairs to less than 300,000. The decline
was clearly linked to the boom in fishing that has become the
Islands' main source of revenue in the 1990s. But with oil exploration
fast becoming feasible, and 13 companies already expressing interest,
environmental objections were the last thing the Islands needed.
In the course of 1996 the
nature of Falklands Conservation changed from wildlife club to
quasi-government body: FIG councillors and directors of companies
involved in oil, fishing and shipping replaced amateur naturalists
on the Board of Trustees. DL Clifton, a member of the eight-man
Legislative Council established in 1985 after the Falklands War,
and now a director of Desire Petroleum, one of the companies drilling
in the Falklands, became Chairman; FIG funding tripled to US$240,000.
In 1996/97, Bingham spent
his vacation making a penguin census in South America. He wanted
to establish whether the rockhopper decline was a region-wide
phenomenon. It was not. On 31st March 1997 he was told by Clifton
that if he did not suppress his findings, he would lose his job,
his membership of all FIG committees, and be kicked out of the
Islands as an 'undesirable'. On 17th April his job was advertised
in the local paper, and two months later he was out: contract
He determined to go it alone,
and found shift work at the local power station to pay for further
studies under the auspices of his own company, Environmental Research
Unit Ltd. His first task was to go public in the pages of Penguin
Conservation, but by the time the data was published in March
1998, oil exploration was already underway. Falklands Conservation
had published statistics in the Atlas of Breeding Birds of
the Falkland Islands in 1997. It recorded 550,000 breeding
pairs of rockhopper penguins compared to Bingham's 297,000; and
102,000 breeding pairs of gentoo penguin, not the 65,000 of their
Despite criticism from experts,
Falklands Conservation continued to publish its controversial
figures on the state of the penguin population. In 1998 its annual
research report quoted breeding success rates of 1.29 chicks per
nest for a species that only rears one egg a year in storm-tossed
conditions. Within weeks of the first oil rig arriving in April
1997, three separate oil spills had killed and injured penguins
and other seabirds. Despite the fact that gentoos and cormorants
forage close to shore, Falklands Conservation claimed the oil
had come from outside the 200-mile zone.
Meanwhile Bingham was seeking
funding for his own operations. There were two possible sources:
the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) was interested in an albatross-banding
programme and the Islands' Environmental Planning Department (EPD)
had written to ask if it could purchase data from his coastline
surveys. On 24th April Falklands Conservation wrote to the BTO
accusing Bingham of banding birds without a licence and alleged
he was also guilty of data theft - although the research that
interested the EPD was conducted after his contract had been terminated.
On 29th May an FIG official informed him that his application
for residency had been suspended because of the charge.
By the time Bingham straightened
out these 'misunderstandings' - and Falklands Conservation had
sent a full retraction of the charges to FIG - he had lost his
funding. FIG refused to lift the block on his residency application,
refused to explain why, and refused to reveal the details of the
allegations that might have enabled Bingham to take legal action
for slander and lost earnings. By now, the shy and retiring local
press, in the shape of Penguin News, had become more interested,
but FIG refused to talk to the paper.
In September 1998 Bingham's
home was broken into. More important than what might have been
taken was his discovery of items of a highly illegal nature that
had been left behind. On 5th October he told friends that he believed
the police or customs were about to search his premises; Penguin
News now printed a letter and an editorial exposing the campaign
A few days later, customs officers conducting
a 'routine mail search' discovered a pornographic video addressed
to Bingham from a fictitious name and address in the UK. On 21st
November a search of his house duly took place. "It would all have
been very different if I hadn't come across the items hidden under
my bed prior to the search" said Bingham. He was fined for importing
prohibited material but not deported.
Then the phone calls began.
From the end of January 1999 to March, Bingham was subjected to
calls threatening further attacks and urging his immediate departure
from the Islands. He wrote down every threat and passed the transcripts
to the police, his solicitor and the local press. The police signally
failed to trace the caller; Bingham became convinced the threats
emanated from within the justice system itself. On 21st February
he wrote to Penguin News and to The Sun and Daily
Mirror in the UK, predicting his arrest and further attempts
to deport him on false charges.
On 3rd March a customs and
immigration officer called on him at work to caution him about his
possible deportation for alleged deception. Bingham, he claimed,
had mentioned no criminal record on his residency application forms,
but Falklands police had discovered he had convictions in the UK
for burglary, car theft and affray - ample grounds for expulsion.
Bingham's fingerprints were dispatched to Interpol. They replied,
with considerable irritation, that they had already told the police
back in January that the convictions belonged to a man two years
older than Bingham with a different middle name.
On 22nd April - one week after
the authorities discovered their 'mistake' - Bingham was charged
with making a dishonest statement on a job application form. He
denied the authenticity of the document in question, and trial was
set for 9th August. Two weeks later, Bingham's lawyer was informed
by FIG that the case was being withdrawn. "A week before FIG decided
to drop the charges," said Bingham, "they notified me in writing
that if I insisted on proceeding with a plea of 'not guilty' and
if I lost the case, an order would be sought to make me pay all
the prosecution costs including the costs of witnesses attending.
I told them I was prepared to take the risk since I did not believe
I could lose. The fact that the Attorney General withdrew for fear
of being left holding the bill suggests he thought so too." The
Falklands police have now admitted that the application form they
presented had been fabricated at the police station.
Attempts at redress have fallen
on deaf ears. Complaints against the Immigration Department remain
unacknowledged, while the Police Complaints Authority in London
say that jurisdiction lies with the Islands' governor who is "too
busy" to see Bingham or reply to his letters. Meanwhile, the harassment
- both official and unofficial - continues: his residency is still
suspended, Bingham's wife and son are now receiving malicious calls,
and on 16th August, somebody sabotaged his vehicle.
So why does he stay in such
an inhospitable zone? Though the oil companies have so far not found
commercial quantities, drilling is shortly to begin to the west
of the Falklands, the most sensitive wildlife area. "At present,"
explains Bingham, "there is a cosy arrangement whereby the FIG pays
Falklands Conservation large sums of money, and in exchange, it
supports government policy, even to the detriment of the wildlife
they are sworn to protect. I cannot allow that to go unchallenged.
"There is no reason why oil
cannot be developed, and the penguins and the Falklands way of life
safeguarded," he continues. "I think the majority of the population
would agree with that strategy, but their views are often ignored
by people in power. They have their own agenda with vested interests."
You can read other newspaper articles about
us our In The Newspapers page.
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The Falklands Regime by Mike Bingham
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