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South Africa to build St Helena airport

Friday, May 12th 2006 - 21:00 UTC
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The isolation of British Overseas Territory St Helena in the mid-Atlantic is about to end: the British Department for International Development is going ahead, at the second attempt, with the building of an airport to connect the island with the rest of the world.

One of three South African consortia that have pre-qualified for the contract will build the airport. With a population of 4,000 St Helena has no viable economy beyond the remittances of its people working elsewhere, especially in the Falkland Islands.

St Helena has hardly made it to the news agenda since Napoleon, after having fallen in the hands of the British, died there. The house and surrounding gardens where the emperor and master military strategist that almost conquered Europe two centuries ago lived is considered French territory and a shrine to his followers.

However since then somehow St Helena has survived wars, invasions, U-boat attacks and the ruin of its flax-based economy, and establishing an air link with the rest of the world is a most precious goal. Currently a vessel calls in from South Africa approximately once a month.

But many St Helenian have doubts about the move since with the airport development the island faces a new threat in the shape of Aids, from which St Helena is currently entirely free. The labourers working on the project are expected to come mainly from South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of HIV/Aids infection rates in the world, and locals are insisting that the workforce, of up to 300 men, should be screened for the infection.

In a letter to their Governor and Councillors, the Department for International Development has ruled against them. The letter states that South African law does not allow discrimination against HIV/Aids sufferers, and screening "cannot be justified on public health grounds as a means of reducing risk of transmission" and "is potentially a violation of human rights".

However, St Helenians insist that the British government which is responsible for their welfare has an obligation to protect them in their present "happy state of affairs".

"Most of us simply cannot understand it ... The official view is that Aids will come anyway, and testing is against human rights. What about the human rights of a population in a very unique situation? Isn't this akin to wiping out the South American Indian tribes?" argue the locals.

Categories: Mercosur.

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