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The Antarctic mine field

ONE of Antarctica's virtues is that its relative isolation and inhospitable climate have helped make it the globe's most politically benign continent. Until now, that is. Representatives from 33 of the countries party to the Antarctica Treaty of 1959 have initialed a new set of rules that govern mining and drilling at the bottom of the world. Known as the Antarctic Minerals Convention, the pact could turn the region into a source of broad international friction.

That would be an ironic twist for a part of the world often cited as a model of peaceful international cooperation: The 37 signatories to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty recognize no territorial claims on the continent; the area is set aside primarily for scientific research; and military activities there are outlawed.

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One thing was missing, say convention proponents: a means for controlling resource development. They say that the new agreement plugs that gap. It sets up some formidable barriers to mineral exploitation and establishes environmental safeguards to govern such operations.

The convention negotiators were trying to anticipate events, not react to events already taking place. They were also trying to do so on the same basis of peaceful cooperation that underlies the Antarctica Treaty itself. So far, so good.

But implicit in the resource regime is the notion that the continent is fair game for economic exploitation, no matter how strict the ground rules. Therein lies the fundamental change. Up to now, the stated purpose of human activity in Antarctica has been scientific research.

Unless managed with extreme care, the convention poses problems for international relations.

The most immediate battleground is likely to be the United Nations. It passed a resolution earlier this year calling on the parties to the Antarctica Treaty to put mineral talks on hold until the UN could take up the issue of exploiting the continent's resources. For years, many nations have wanted Antarctica's minerals designated as the common heritage of mankind. This concept has already found expression in the Law of the Sea Treaty and a similar pact governing the moon.

Indeed, suspicions that the UN might ban or take any profit out of future minerals exploitation on the continent was probably a driving force behind the talks. Current evidence for minerals is too sketchy and the economics too forbidding for there to have been much concern about near-term commercial activity.

Over the long term, the challenge for the signatories will be to buck history.

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Until now, territories opened to economic interests have ultimately become sources of political tension. Tension can arise even over preliminary exploration.

Interestingly, political pressure has been cited as one way to enforce the minerals convention, especially on countries that have not signed, and are therefore not bound, by the treaty. That by itself acknowledges that the convention has the potential for generating national and regional strains.

Areas subject to economic exploitation have also seen the eventual encroachment of military forces, as countries seek to protect their interests. When the Antarctica Treaty itself expires in 1991, the signatories should renew their commitment to it. That would at least put them back on record as eschewing military force as a way of dealing with problems that arise on the continent.