Wikileaks: From South Atlantic to South Pacific, It’s Open Season on Environmentalists

Commentary by Nikolas Kozloff, special to

Though Wikileaks documents have illuminated the underhanded foreign policy shenanigans of governments world-wide, the cables also demonstrate that many states are intent on halting meaningful progress on the environment. Previously, I discussed how the U.S., as well as other emerging powers such as Brazil, sought to derail international climate change negotiations. In light of recent cables, however, it’s clear that these revelations merely represent the beginning of larger disclosures. From the South Atlantic to the South Pacific, governments are paranoid about environmentalists and worry that activists might get in the way of inhumane or polluting industries.

Take, for example, cables relating to the Falkland Islands. A remote archipelago located in the South Atlantic, the Falklands, or Malvinas as the Argentines refer to the islands, has long been a disputed territory. When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, the British fended off the attack in a brief but bloody war which cost 650 Argentine and 250 British lives. During the conflict, the U.S. backed Britain over the Argentine military junta. Since then, tensions have calmed but erupted again in early 2010 when Argentina protested imminent hydrocarbon development in territorial waters which Buenos Aires claimed fell squarely within its own legal jurisdiction. The exploration would be led by the British though an American company, Diamond Offshore Drilling, would also be involved in the effort.

According to Wikileaks cables, the British had grown concerned about Argentine threats and were unsure how far the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government might press its claims.

Speaking at the United Nations, Kirchner said that the Falklands still represented “a colonial enclave” in the south Atlantic. Chiming in, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a Kirchner ally, remarked “Get out of there, give the Malvinas back to the Argentine people. Enough already with the [British] empire.” In an effort to ascertain how Argentina might react to oil exploration off the Falkland Islands, including possible military actions, Secretary of State Clinton wrote the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires in early 2010. Clinton was particularly concerned about possible Venezuelan military involvement in the Falklands imbroglio.

While the geopolitical and military intrigue was interesting, what particularly grabbed my attention in the Falklands cables was this particular line: “Their [the British] concern is over the shape of future sanctions on companies as well as threats and protests against energy companies operating in the Falklands by NGOs, including environmental activists[my italics].” The cables, then, shed rare insight onto the British perspective and suggest that the authorities were as concerned with environmental protest as they were with Argentine retaliation.

Just what are the environmental stakes in the Falklands, and why would the British be so concerned with local protest? The Falklands archipelago is an important part of the wildlife equation in the South Atlantic. South Jason, an island about four miles long, supports populations of black-browed albatross (also known as mollymawks), endangered rockhopper penguin, Magellanic penguin, and prions (a small white seabird similar to a petrel).

At the time of the Falklands confrontation, I wrote a rather lengthy piece about these vital issues, analyzing in particular the plight of the Magellanic penguin which spends half the year in and around the Falklands, Argentina and southern Chile. In recent years, there’s been massive petroleum development in the Southern Atlantic including Patagonia, and scientists have grown increasingly concerned about oil pollution and its effects on the penguins. As they ingest oil from preening their feathers, the penguins’ immune systems are put at risk and the animals become more prone to disease. What’s more, the oil gives rise to lesions in the penguins’ stomachs and as a result the animals have difficulty digesting food.

Needless to say, it is difficult to see how the longstanding territorial dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands, which is now being exacerbated by oil rivalry, will increase environmental protection for local penguins. If the Wikileaks cables are any indication, Britain is determined to get at offshore oil, even if that means antagonizing the environmental community. Such narrow mindedness is certainly deplorable, but perhaps not too surprising given that up to 60 billion barrels of oil may lie near the Falklands.

News of the Wikileaks cables certainly doesn’t come as any great consolation to groups like the Organization for the Conservation of Penguins or Falklands Conservation. Moreover, in the event that environmentalists launched a concerted campaign in the south Atlantic to halt oil exploration, the authorities could rely on a local airfield at Port Stanley which is equipped with Typhoon jets. In addition, the Royal Navy has deployed a submarine and other vessels to the area. What lengths would officials resort to in order to protect oil development? Hopefully, the Brits would not escalate like the French, who bombed and sunk the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985 in an effort to deter protest over nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

As it turns out, making the connection between the South Atlantic and Pacific is not entirely unfounded. Other recent cables disclosed by Wikileaks reveal that, to this day, scheming governments will stop at nothing when it comes to deterring environmental protest in remote areas of the globe. In 2009, the U.S. and Japanese governments discussed taking action to weaken the well known anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd. The activists, whose ships routinely confront whalers on the high seas, have long been a thorn in the side of the Japanese government. Seeking to appease Tokyo, the Americans discussed revoking Sea Shepherd’s tax exempt status in the United States.

While it’s unclear whether the U.S. government ever followed up on the matter, the mere fact that the two powers held high level discussions about Sea Shepherd will surely give pause to environmentalists. Indeed, if activists had any doubts about the true intentions of the world’s most powerful governments, Wikileaks documents have certainly laid any such uncertainty to rest. Far from demonstrating any regard for marine wildlife and protection, diplomats confer amongst themselves about the threat posed by environmentalists. In the final analysis, it may be the Magellanic penguins and South Pacific whales that pay the highest price for this cynical diplomacy.

Author: Mongabay

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