Trouble in Paradise
Mike Bingham was a
Falkland Islands Conservation Officer. His work revealed worrying
penguin declines which he claims put him in conflict with powerful
local interests. Here is his story.
I moved to the Falkland Islands
in 1993 to work for the UK registered charity Falklands Conservation,
although my post was funded by the Falkland Islands Government.
In 1995 I led a penguin census
of the islands, revealing huge population declines. Rockhopper Penguins
in particular had declined from 2.5 million pairs in 1984 to less
than 300,000 pairs by 1996 - down nearly 90 per cent in 12 years.
The most likely explanation was over-fishing, but as the Falklands
economy is almost entirely dependent on fishing, the news was not
popular. Oil exploration was also about to begin, and there was
a feeling that oil companies might be discouraged if too many hurdles
were put in their way.
An environmental advisory
committee was set up, and I was asked to sit on it. After a few
months it seemed to me that the Falkland Islands Government was
using this body to rubber-stamp a pre-determined course of action,
and environmental safeguards proposed by the committee were being
ignored. I complained and was told to leave the committee.
A week later an oil spill
occurred in Stanley Harbour, under the very noses of the harbour
authorities. Seabirds lay dead and dying in the water, so I brought
the local press down to publicise it, making the point that if the
authorities couldn't control what took place in the harbour, it
didn't bode well for their ability to control an offshore oil industry.
Soon after the story hit the
headlines, Lewis Clifton, the Director of Desire Petroleum, was
appointed Chairman of Falklands Conservation. This was not by election,
as should have been the case, and the UK Charity Commission investigated.
Falklands Conservation was found to be in breach of its constitution,
but Lewis Clifton remained as Chairman. Immediately after his appointment,
I was forbidden from making any further public statements about
oiled birds or penguin declines. A few weeks later I was told that
Falklands Conservation were publishing population figures stating
there to be approximately twice as many penguins as their own census
had revealed. I was appalled, and refused to let the decline be
covered up in such a manner.
On 31st March 1997 I was warned
that if I did not agree to suppress the research data, I would lose
my job and be deported. I refused, and stated that I did not believe
that other members of Falklands Conservation or the Falkland Islands
Government would allow such an abuse of power. I was wrong.
Three months later I lost
my job, and it seemed to me that Falklands Conservation had decided
to reduce the number of references to oiled birds through censorship,
rather than improved environmental protection.
I continued with my penguin
research, paying for it myself. Falklands Conservation unsuccessfully
tried to stop the publication of my results which showed that the
penguin population collapse had not occurred anywhere else in South
America, only in the Falklands (Bingham 1998). The Atlas of Breeding
Birds of the Falkland Islands - published by the UK Chairman
of Falklands Conservation in 1997 - quotes 550,000 breeding pairs
of Rockhopper Penguin, but its own census had recorded just 297,000
pairs. The correct figures would have placed greater emphasis on
environmental protection, but by the time the truth was out, oil
exploration was already underway.
Two months after the publication
of my research paper I received a letter from the Falkland Islands
Government stating that my residency had been suspended. Falklands
Conservation had accused me of data theft. I was told that I had
used coastline sensitivity data belonging to Falklands Conservation,
but I was soon able to prove that they had never ever conducted
any such research, making it impossible for me to have stolen the
On 13th August 1998 Falklands
Conservation wrote to the Falkland Islands Government offering a
full retraction and apology for the allegation that I had committed
theft or otherwise behaved dishonestly. But the government refused
to lift the suspension of my residency, and refused to give a reason
for their decision.
Two months later I was shocked to find a
pistol and ammunition hidden amongst storage boxes under my bed.
I immediately disposed of them, and went to see the Governor and
Attorney General to express my concerns about what was happening.
I also told newspaper reporters, and a number of other people, that
I feared police or customs were about to search my premises; the
items would not have been planted unless a search was to follow.
A few days later customs officers
conducted a "routine mail search" and discovered a parcel addressed
to me containing a pornographic video. It had been sent from the
UK by registered mail, from someone using a false name and address.
On the basis of this find they searched my property - just as I
had predicted - but of course, they didn't find the firearms. I
received a small fine for importation of prohibited material, but
this was not enough to bring about deportation. It would have been
a very different story had I not found the pistol first.
Two months later the police
arrested me on charges of deception, claiming that I had made a
false declaration on an application form the previous year. I was
questioned and shown an application form in my name which did indeed
contain a false statement. But it was not mine. I told them that
the form was a fake, and I was able to prove that the application
form produced by the police was not the original, and that my form
had made no false statement. The false statement only appeared on
the copy which the police produced. They now admit that the false
copy had been made up on the computer in the police station, but
claim that it was an administrative error.
Two months later an immigration
officer came to caution me on yet another charge. The police now
claimed that I had previous convictions for burglary, car theft
and affray - grounds for deportation - but I was able to prove that
they had used convictions from a totally different person, and that
I had no criminal convictions. Just a week later the Falklands Police
served me with another summons on new charges of deception, this
time that I had made a dishonest statement on a job application
form to join Falklands Conservation.
I wrote to Amnesty International
to ask for help, and the Attorney General immediately ordered that
the charges be dropped, but by now the ball was rolling. Amnesty
put me in touch with Index on Censorship, which exposed the story
in its newsletter. This drew the attention of the British press,
and the whole sorry saga was published in The Sunday Times, The
Guardian, The Observer and The Daily Post. The Home
Office sent a Police and Criminal Justice Advisor to the Falklands
to conduct a 'routine' investigation of the Falklands Police, and
I received an apology from the Falkland Islands Government and the
The harassment has now stopped,
but the future of wildlife in the Falklands is hard to predict.
Falklands Conservation replied to the press articles by stating
that my research had only confirmed known penguin declines, but
their newsletter states that it is too early for any population
changes to be identified. Surely a 90 per cent drop in 12 years
I believe that while Falklands
Conservation is governed by the directors of oil companies, fishing
companies and shipping companies, that it will remain a Trojan Horse
for Falklands wildlife. Only continued scrutiny from the outside
world will protect the wildlife, and those who stand up for it.
Bingham, M. 1998: Penguins of South America
and the Falkland Islands. Penguin Conservation 11.1: 8-15.
Falklands in feud over lost penguins
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The Falklands Regime by Mike Bingham
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