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Amy English

Congressional Liaison for the Foreign and Security Policy Group

Part of UK in USA

21st February 2013 Washington DC, USA

Of Congressmen and Penguins

It’s late afternoon and I am standing next to a Congressman on a warm, blustery day, surrounded by thousands of eyes looking inquisitively upon us. Despite our best intentions to understand them, their voices only get louder, squawking with unrestrained excitement. In late January, thousands of gentoo penguins are being introduced to a special visitor – Congressman Tom Petri from Wisconsin.

US Congressman Tom Petri

A sixty hour return trip to the Falkland Islands is not for the faint-hearted, but Congressman Petri was encouraged by his Wisconsin colleague, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, that these rugged Islands in the South Atlantic were well worth the visit.

As one of the most southerly places on earth, the Falkland Islands can easily be mistaken for a sleepy backwater. Yet with a population of roughly 3000 people, the Falkland Islands are hardly a barren set of islands. Rather, they accommodate a bustling community, bursting at the seams with promise and potential.

Congressman Petri’s visit marked a historic occasion for the Falkland Islanders to showcase the Islands, their means of governance and their plans to develop their industries responsibly. As we met with representatives from the Legislative Assembly, the government and the Chamber of Commerce, there was a sense of commitment to develop industries that will grow with their community; not change their culture.

With oil production slated to start in 2017, the Islanders are acutely aware of the changes that oil production will bring. As a small community, the Islands enjoy a safe and inclusive environment, along with a vigorous strategy in place to preserve their territory to maintain their wildlife and fish populations.

US Congressman Tom Petri reading the local newspaper – The Penguin News

We also gathered a true sense of what daily life entails as a Falkland Islander. With almost zero unemployment, the Falkland Islanders wrestle with an problem unfamiliar to Americans and mainland Brits – overemployment. Most Islanders work two, sometimes three different jobs, due to the nature of the industries which sustain the islands.

During our visit, we witnessed the arrival of the Seabourn Sojourn, which joins other US cruise ships in bringing thousands of US tourists to the Falkland Islands each year. As the visitors arrived by boat, they were met by a crowd of Islanders, waiting to drive them to Bluff Cove to visit the penguins.

But when the tourists leave, the Islanders go back to their day jobs – until another group of tourists come ashore.

For tourists who manage to spend more than a day on the Falklands, there are numerous spots on the Islands to meet the other set of friendly hosts – the penguins!

We travelled to Sea Lion Island to experience an overwhelming number of black and white furry friends – all whom seemed unfazed by our attempts to take photos worthy of National Geographic (see my efforts accompanying this blog). The sole lodge accommodates only a handful of guests on Sea Lion Island, but the island itself hosts four species of penguin, elephant seals, sea lions and a varied avian life.

Getting close and personal with wildlife may not sound attractive to everyone, but when the opportunity arises, it’s difficult not to become enchanted by these happy-footed friends.

US Congressman Tom Petri

As the week progressed, the delegation members themselves began to experience the intimate community of Falkland Islanders.

Congressman Petri would meander down the streets and bump into a variety of people he met during the week; from the legislative representative en route to his second job to the high school head girl whom he met during his visit of the schools.

This small, tightly woven community contributes to the unique identity which defines a Falkland Islander. It is the intimacy highlighted throughout our visit to the Falkland Islands which the Islanders hold dear and wish to retain. Next month they will have an opportunity to reflect on this when they vote on whether to retain their status as an overseas territory of the UK.

Viewed from the US perspective, the Islands appear to lie at the end of the world. But from the Islanders’, they feel at the centre of it. As their economy thrives, the rest of the world may come around to this point of view.

No doubt there will be more and more distinguished human visitors to pique the penguins’ curiosity.

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About Amy English

Amy English is Congressional Liaison for the Foreign and Security Policy Group at the British Embassy in Washington. Before joining the Embassy, Amy managed communications and public affairs for a…

Amy English is Congressional Liaison for the Foreign and Security Policy Group at the British Embassy in Washington. Before joining the Embassy, Amy managed communications and public affairs for a nonprofit organization against child sex trafficking, travelling throughout the United States and the Caribbean to raise the level of response among civil society, governments and legislators. Amy has spent her life crossing the pond; she studied Politics at the University of San Diego, but returned to her homeland to obtain her postgraduate degree in International Relations from the University of Warwick.