The Beginning of the End for Antarctica?

Untouched Antarctic mountains

Will Antarctica fall prey to the same greed which has ravaged the Arctic as nations search for gas and petrol? That’s the fear which is spreading round the world like wildfire following a sign that Russia has its sights set on prospecting the natural resources of the last untouched continent.

Hidden in a document presented by the Russian delegation at the 34th consultative meeting about Antarctica in Buenos Aires, Russia has stated its intention of prospecting Antarctica and the oceans which surround it to find out if there are hydrocarbons there, and if so, how much. Russia has said it wants to ensure “the development of activities carried out by the Russian Federation in the Antarctic for 2020 and in the longer term” to carry out “complex investigations about the mineral resources, hydrocarbons and other resources of the Antarctica”.

This move from Russia brings them into direct conflict with the 1991 treaty of Madrid, which designated the continent “a nature reserve dedicated to peace and science” – in other words, a place safe from the relentless hunt for natural resources which has devastated other continents – most notably the Arctic. At the moment, all non-scientific investigation there and any subsequent exploitation is theoretically forbidden.

However, Russia’s plans to carry out this investigations is not in itself all that surprising – what is more worrying to observers is that the other 48 nations who have signed the treaty have remained silent. If anything, this tentative step by Russia has possibly inspired other nations to think about doing the same. None of the other nations raised the alarm or even voiced concern, and the document itself was simply discreetly put online (www.ats.aq).

This all seems very disappointing to environmentalists around the world who had hoped that the 1991 Treaty of Madrid would continue with the successful protection of Antarctica’s natural beauty and resources. In spite of some teething problems, Antarctica has become an area of geopolitical cooperation. This area is, legally speaking, completely unique. All the seven countries who are “in possession” of part of the Antarctica can keep their claims over the parts they already hold, but can’t exercise their possession in any way. Any new buildings, settlements or investigations must be solely in scientific interest, and must be approved by the consulting agency.

Nevertheless, it now seems that through their silence the other member countries are at best illustrating their apathy, and at worst tacitly giving their approval for Russia’s advances. Giving into temptation to prospect the great white continent and the resulting rupture of this treaty could have huge and irreversible consequences and carries substantial risks.

Arctic oil tanker, perhaps soon to arrive in the Antarctic?

The first big risk is simply to upset the fragile geopolitical balance. At the moment, seven countries can claim “ownership” of part of the Antarctica, (Argentina, Australia, new Zealand, Chile, Norway, France and the UK), but theses pretensions of ownership are “frozen” – meaning they cannot exercise these controls, which in some places are potentially conflicting. Breaking the treaty means these restrictions would be lost, and countries would be free to seize any land they could.

Moreover, this new advancement could not only bring the countries already there into competition, but could also attract the emerging powers of China, India, Brazil and South Africa to begin their own prospecting on this “natural reserve”. Above all others, China has already started to make a move to consolidate its position in the Antarctic. Its new base “Kunlun” is situated at 4,000 metres of altitude, far above any of the other scientific centre on the continent. This takes even more importance when because this location doesn’t seem to be of any particular scientific interest or relevance according to the consultative agencies who give the authorisation to create these stations. Furthermore, the position is far away from many other camps and would prove strategic should a land-rush ever occur. A report by the Lowry Institute in Australia states that “The patriotic names given to these scientific stations by China indicate an underlying nationalism in the Chinese political agenda” and goes on to say that the base, which has been set up in the middle of a territory considered by Canberra to be Australian, is adorned with a “Welcome to China” banner.

The other obvious risk is perhaps even more important, but seems to have been forgotten. As Michel Rocard and Robert Hawkes, the previous French and Australian Prime Ministers, advocated when creating the 1991 treaty of Madrid, experimenting with this great continent could have a massive impact in relation to the environment and climate change. Also, the precious hydrocarbons which would be the ultimate downfall of Antarctica cannot be a viable long term solution – they argue that burning hydrocarbons cannot, and should not, last forever. Yet despite this seemingly sound and reasoned logic, it seems that this long-term view has been replaced by urgent needs, as climate change is forgotten in place of national debts and countries desperate for a quick fix.

In light of these potential risks, the growing appetites for this beautiful continent and the indifference shown by the member countries, Felipe González (the former Spanish prime minister), Hawke and Rocard have launched an appeal to ratify the protocol of the treaty. At the moment, there are 14 countries that are part of the treaty who didn’t sign the famous 1991 treaty and instead joined seven years later. González, Hawke and Rocard are seeking to make sure it compulsory that all of these “newcomers”, which include China, will have to adhere to the agreed terms and conditions of the treaty.

M. Rocard says that the treaty outlines that “The protocol can be modified after 2048, in the case that three quarters of the 12 consultative countries agree. By this date, the world will have seriously experienced the acceleration of global warming, and going to search for hydrocarbons in the Antarctic will not seem like a good idea to anyone.”

But if this latest development is anything to go by, the treaty could be in serious risk of collapsing well before 2048 unless the attitudes of each and every member state change. This tentative advance from Russia could mark the beginning of a slippery slope. If Russia continues along this path and the other member states do not intervene, the treaty will inevitable crumble, and after that happens, it will only be a matter of time till some, if not all, of these risks become a reality.

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