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Polarization over Polar Affairs

Polarization over Polar Affairs

. 7 min read

Originally published in the April/May 1980 Issue.

With so many pressing problems confronting world leaders, the future of Antarctica might seem to occupy a minor spot on the international agenda. However, the continent is actually the subject of an emerging legal battle of great significance for the allocation of the world's natural resources.

At present, twenty nations are engaged in activity on the continent under an agreement known as the Antarctic Treaty which provides for review of existing legal arrangements by a conference scheduled for 1991. Although that conference is more than a decade away, many issues which the review committee will consider are receiving attention now.

Foremost among these issues is the question of who controls and benefits from the continent's many resources. Because of the worsening world energy situation and a rapidly increasing world population, the fate of Antarctica's oil and mineral reserves and high-protein marine life has assumed new importance. Nations that currently are not parties to the Antarctic Treaty have al- ready voiced their dissatisfaction with the existing arrangement and have advocated placing Antarctica under the control of an international agency so that all will share the benefits of exploration, not just the twenty parties to the current treaty. This proposal has particularly threatened those nations which have laid claim to parts of the continent, setting the stage for an important debate on the allocation of the resources of unappropriated areas.

Shrouded Titles

The seven nations that have formally claimed parts of Antarctica - Argentina; Australia, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – argue that their claims are valid because of their roles in the exploration of the continent, because of the traditional contiguity principle, or because of the inheritance of the claim of a predecessor.

Both Argentina and Chile claim territory on the grounds of this last argument, asserting that they have inherited the part of Antarctica assigned to Spain by Pope Alexander VI when he divided the New World into Portuguese and Spanish areas of colonization. These claims occasionally overlap and constitute nearly 85 percent of the continental area.

Other nations participated in the exploration of the continent. Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States were active in Antarctica prior to World War II but made no claims and have refused to recognize any existing ones. The Soviet Union has become interested in the continent only since World War II and has also refrained from making any claims or recognizing those of any other nations.

Despite disagreements regarding the validity of the claims, the seven claimants, the United States, the Soviet Union, and three other interested nations – Belgium, Japan, and South Africa - negotiated the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. Because the previous claims raised barriers to cooperation, the parties to the treaty agreed to ignore them. However, to satisfy the claimants, the signing nations stated that nothing in the treaty should be interpreted as a renunciation by the the claimants of "previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica." Furthermore, "no new claims, or enlargement of an existing claim" could be asserted while the treaty was in effect.

Although the negotiations did not settle the issue of sovereignty, the parties arrived at a precise definition of the continent and established several basic rules. The treaty provides for freedom of scientific research, reserves Antarctica for peaceful uses, and prohibits establishment of military installations, weapons testing, nuclear explosions, and the disposal of nuclear wastes.

The treaty also gave veto power to each consultive party – any party to the treaty engaged in substantial research on the continent. This clause has rendered the treaty inadequate for current purposes. Because any consultive party may veto a proposal, it is doubtful that the parties could deal effectively with anything as potentially conflictual as resource questions. As the search for sources of raw materials, high-protein addition to oil, natural gas, and coal, Soviet geologists foodstuffs, and fuels intensifies, these questions are becoming more important than ever.

Antarctic Gold

The Antarctic possesses significant natural resources worthy of the attention they are now receiving. The marine creatures of the continent have long been recognized for their value: the region's fishing grounds attracted vessels as early as the late eighteenth century. Over one hundred species of fish populate Antarctic waters, but relatively few have commercial value today. However, the returns to fishing ventures in the area are still sufficient to maintain substantial activity in Antarctic seas, most of it Soviet-sponsored.

The value of the several species of seals, penguins, and whales that live in the Antarctic was also recognized early in the continent's history. Whaling and sealing since the early nineteenth century have depleted the populations of both these animals. Similarly, efforts to kill Antarctic penguins for their oil have severely decreased the continent's penguin population. All three of these industries have come under the regulation of international commissions which have banned hunting of some species and placed quotas on others. But, even with these restrictions, in 1977 whaling activity in the region accounted for nearly 100 percent of the Sei whales taken around the globe and nearly one-sixth of the world's sperm whale harvest.

The antarctic marine animal with the greatest potential as a food source has only recently attracted commercial attention. Krill, tiny shrimp-like creatures ,with a protein content similar to that of beef or lobster, abound in the waters of the region. The estimated total stock of krill in the area approaches 6 billion metric tons - enough to sustain an annual harvest of 60 to 150 million metric tons. Many countries recognize the potential of the krill industry. The Soviet government and Japanese fishermen have already invested a total of $350 million in ships and equipment.

Krill usually drift in large clusters at a depth of 100 meters and are easily scooped onto ships at a rate of eight to twelve tons per hour. But krill spoil quickly, so the rate of processing has posed some limitation on the industry. At present, however, the main obstacle is marketing: although krill products for human consumption are marketed in the Soviet Union and Japan and as animal feed in other countries, it will be some time before krill win popular acceptance.

Similarly, as the search for fuel and mineral resources intensifies, the non-living resources of the Antarctic have attracted increasing attention. Although the costs of exploration and exploitation are high, increasing fuel costs could make the process economically profitable in
the not-too-distant future. No one knows exactly how much recoverable oil is contained in the continental margin of western Antarctica, but current estimates are in the order of tens of billions of barrels. Scientists believe that 1 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are also contained in the area and that eastern Antarctica could prove to be the world's largest coal field, although this coal is bituminous and not of very high quality. In believe that Antarctica harbors uranium in its waters. Thus, Antarctica could provide much of the world's future energy supply.

The Antarctic may abound in mineral resources as well. Scientists speculate that large iron deposits the area, and easily recoverable manganese nodules have already been found in the Antarctic sea bed.

Because of the proximity of the South Pole, however, these nodules are not of a very high mineral concentration. With ninety percent of the world's ice, the continent possesses seventy percent of the world's supply of fresh water. Although heavy exploitation would have serious ecological ramifications, the use of a mere fraction of the continent's water supply would not damage the environment and is already economically feasible. It has been estimated that taking a mere ten percent of the estimated iceberg yield would provide some 120 million cubic meters of usable fresh water a year, enough to irrigate 15 to 25 million acres of land.

Although the continent has abundant resources, the high costs of extracting them in such a climate and becoming commercially significant for years. For on-shore exploitation, nations must transport all materials to the continent's interior by plane, helicopter, or tractor-train, and the costs of building the necessary airstrips and fuel depots is quite significant. Because icebergs preclude reliance on pipelines, transportation of oil and gas recovered in off-shore exploitation poses a major problem. In addition, to attract labor, projects must pay substantially higher wages to entice workers to such a remote area and construct accommodations for these workers. Thus, the costs of foodstuffs and the minerals will have to increase significantly before exploitation of Antarctica's resources becomes economically viable.

The Current Debate

Recognition of Antarctica's potential has provoked the resurgence of debate on the status of the continent. The seven claimants continue to assert their ownership of the resources found in the portions of the continent that they have claimed and favor a plan for division of the continent when the current treaty is reviewed in 1991. These countries will probably settle for a condominium arrangement (joint ownership) or one in  which the current parties to the 1959 treaty continue to manage the resources of Antarctica (a consortium arrangement).

However, the prospect of internationalization of the continent has greatly increased in the last decade. Supported principally by the third world nations, the plan would place Antarctica under the control of an international agency. The supporters of this plan have denounced the division of Antarctica and the notion that occupation is equivalent to ownership as remnants of the colonial era and have stated that all nations should benefit from the exploitation of regions currently unappropriated.

Proponents of internationalization benefit from the precedent now being established by the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference which is devising an equitable arrangement for the exploitation and allocation of the resources of the seabed. The proposed arrangement, scheduled for adoption in the next year, creates an International Seabed Authority (ISA) which will both regulate exploitation by controlling licensing and operate an international mining enterprise. A company will receive a license with the stipulation that it will bear responsibility for exploring not only the chosen lot but also an adjacent lot which the ISA will keep for itself. Furthermore, when a company mines a lot, it must reveal the technological process used in order to facilitate ISA mining of the "international" lots.

All profits from the ISA's mining efforts, as well as the licensing fees, will be distributed among the members of international community according to a formula that will most likely favor the less developed countries (LDCs). Furthermore, the LDCs will play a significant role in managing the ISA, because all major decisions will issue from the ISA's assembly in which each member nation is represented and given one vote. A council with limited membership will decide day-to-day matters.

This agreement has already laid the foundation for a similar arrangement in Antarctica. Supporters of internationalization will probably base their arguments on the principles agreed upon by the international community at the Law of the Sea Conference and develop a plan similar to the one established to regulate exploitation of the seabed. An international agency governed by an assembly of all nations will certainly be one proposal for consideration. Because this arrangement gives significant influence to the LDCs, which would comprise a majority of the assembly, the plan will probably receive the active support of the third world at the United Nations and will therefore be given serious consideration when the current Antarctic Treaty is reviewed.

During the next ten years, broad questions of international resource allocation and of the definition of ownership will merit considerable attention. With the development of the necessary technology, Antarctica could become a major source of fuel, minerals, and high-protein foodstuffs, and the question of the status of these resources will certainly occupy an important spot on the international agenda.