5 July 2002

Slaughterhouse holds the key

Twenty years after the Falklands War, farmers in these far-off islands

are pinning their hope on meat exports, reports Mark Rice-Oxley

AN abattoir may not be the average persons idea of a beacon of hope – but then Falkland Islanders are not your average people.

Farmers and officials on the remote South Atlantic islands are hoping that a spanking new slaughterhouse could hold the key to lifting the archipelagos rural community out of a decade of decline and into a bright new future.

The £2m facility was completed last year as part of a plan to help farmers end their reliance on the depressed wool monoculture and diversify into meat production. But although the slaughterhouse is open for business, it will remain a dead end unless the islands secure an EU export licence so that farmers can start shipping mutton to lucrative overseas markets.

"We had the EU inspectors here earlier this year and it went well," said Mike Summers, one of the islands eight elected councillors who oversees the agriculture portfolio with its 86 farms, 200-odd farmers and 750,000 sheep.

"If everything goes all right we hope we will get our licence in August," he says. "There are a number of things we have to respond to but its mostly just administrative. There is nothing in the abattoir itself that was amiss."

An export licence will give farmers the chance to sell their mutton in the 15 European Union countries, including Britain. It will also mean they can supply meat to the 1500 British servicemen stationed on the islands. The air base is currently supplied with provisions flown 8000 miles down the Atlantic from Britain.

"Once we get EU permission to export, farmers can do meat and wool as a mixture," said Michael Blanch, chief executive of the Falkland Islands government.

"It does tend to gall – when foot-and-mouth broke out, we were declared part of the UK, but for exporting purposes were not," he said in a recent interview.

A positive verdict from the EU will give the islands something else to celebrate this summer – besides the 20th anniversary of the end of the war with Argentina, which fell on June 14.

Most of the 2300 Falkland Islanders readily admit that the war ultimately changed things for the better, forcing the British government to help islanders take economic affairs into their own hands and build a new prosperity largely based around the fishing industry.

The economy has grown 11-fold since 1982. Per capita gross domestic product is an impressive £21,000. In all, 370 miles of road have been built. The population has swelled to a record level.

The prosperity can be felt in the capital Stanley, but in the outlying rural areas known as Camp, the mood is more grim.

A decade of slumping wool prices left many farmers dependent on the commodity facing ruin. Many sold up and moved into Stanley. At the time of the 1982 war, more than 700 people lived in the Falklands countryside – 40% of the population. Now less than 400 do so.

"Since 1989 wool prices havent been any good," said Brian Hewitt, a 42-year-old shepherd at Goose Green, a village west of Stanley that gave its name to a key battle in the 1982 war.

&#42 View the wildlife

"Prices have come back a bit recently, but not enough to make it sustainable," he said. "There is going to be more emphasis on meat production rather than wool. Provided this abattoir works there could be a future in it.

For those like Hewitt who are determined to stay on the land, diversification has long since been the name of the game. Some have converted their farms to lodges for tourists flocking here to view the wildlife. Others are branching out into horticulture.

Terence McPhee regularly leaves his Kingsford Valley Farm and its 6000 sheep behind to do electrical or stevedoring work in Stanley to supplement his income.

Last year, thanks to slightly improving wool prices, his 10,000ha (25,000-acre) farm netted just £18,000. Thats revenue, not profit.

"There used to be a community here – 30 people – but they have gone for ever," he said, looking over the deserted hills around San Carlos, some 50 miles west of Stanley.

"The price of wool has dropped so drastically in the last 10 years that they just couldnt support people any more."