Antarctic Treaty sets an Example for Future Stewardship of Planet Earth
NEW YORK The entire, continent of Antarctica from towering mountain ranges to seas teeming with blue whales, emperor penguins and leopard seals wifl be set aside as a global wndemess preserve under an intemational agreement that took effeet yesterday. I . The accord bans mining and oil drilling for a minimum of 50 years across the world's coldest and most pristine ecosystem. Unprecedented in its emphasis of conservation over development, it also forbids a wide range of wildlife threats including pesticides and dogs. "The nations of the world have decided to leave one place free of commercialism and industrial development," said biologisi,Beth Clark, executive director of the Antarctica Project, an environmental group based in Washington. DC. "This is a very big deal. We're talking about 10 per cent of the earth's surface." The agreement is known as the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. It first was approved in 1991 by the 26 leading nations with scientific interests in the region, including Australia, the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and most major European nations. But it has taken six years for each country to ratify, or pass its own laws, legalising the measure. Last month, Japan became the final country to ratify it. The world's new approach to Antarctica ends more than 15 years of lobbying by environmental groups and diplomatic talks. In addition to the oil and mining ban, the new rules require that nations running Antarctica's 35 scientific outposts remove all their garbage and clean up pre-existing dumps. Also, tourist ships and scientiflc stations can no longer discharge raw sewage into Antarctica's waters. Explorers such as Norwegian Roald Amundsen who in 1911 was the first to, reach the South Pole, once ran on sled dogs for transportation. But the agreement bans dogs outright from the continent too, because in recent years some scientists' pets have killed penguins and other native birds. Nor can pesticides, polystyrene packaging and non-sterile soil any longer be brought to Antarctica. Lastly, all significant experiments and building projects on the icy continent surrounding the South Pole now wig require enviromnental impact statements. "This treaty is a model," said Democratic congressman Sam Farr of Califonia who has specialised in international wildlife issues. "Despite the incredible pressures for economic development, the world has committed to stewardship. If we can do this in Antarctica, we can do it in other places." In a world where virtually every square inch of land is claimed by some country, Antarctica a wilderness as large as the United States and Mexico combined stands out as a unique exception. The coldest, windiest, most remote spot on the globe, ft is owned by no one. Its land lies under ice that averages one nine thick, supporting only limited plant life such as moss and grasses near the shoreline. That ice contains 70 per cent of the earth's fresh water. Surrounding is a rich web of whales, sea birds, fish and seals. In many ways Antarctica also is the most fragile place on earth. In constant subzero temperatures, growth is very slow. Recovery from disturbances can take years. A footprint on a moss bed might remain unchanged for a decade, for example, and many items take decades to degrade. New Zealand's Associate Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Upton, said the new regime would . apply to all New Zealanders visiting the ice. He said a "robust framework and guidelines for the management of activities" had been set up. The original Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, b6nned nuclear testing and military activity in the area. It also declared that no nation owned Antarctica and established rules for scientific research. NZPA
KEITH SUTER says that for a continent with competing , claimants, Antarctica has brought out the best of human qualities rather than the worst, a "good news" story largely overlooked. Keith Suter is the Sydney-based author of Antarctica: Private Property or Public Heritage?
Mining has been banned in Antarctica for at least 50 years. The treaty setting out the ban came into effect this week. Besides the ban on mining, the Antarctic Environmental Protocol designates the whole continent and its ecosystems as a "natural reserve devoted to peace and science." Antarctica is the world's last great wilderness, a continent of remarkable beauty and a vital international scientific laboratory. The environmental protocol which helps to solidify Antarctica's location as one of the most significant areas for international scientiflc cooperation. For a continent with competing claimants, Antarctica has brought out the best of human qualities rather than the worst. It is a "good news" story that is often overlooked by the mass media. Various countries have made claims to parts of the Antarctic. From about the 1820s explorers from several countries made various landings but none established a permanent presence there. By the 1930s seven countries had staked out claims: Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and Norway (which recognised each other's claims) and Argentina and Chile (whose claims overlapped each others' and Britain's). An international scientific programme in the Antarctic was created under the auspices of the International Geophysical Year. The "year" in the Antarctic ran for 18 months from July 1957, during which 12 countries worked together on research. The success of the International Geophysical Year encouraged hopes of making the spirit of scientiflc co-operation more permanent. This was achieved through the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which does not get nearly as much publicity as it deserves. The Antarctic Treaty was written at a very difficult time in international politics. The Cold War was under way so it is amazing that anything was written at all. The Antarctic is the only continent where scientists have control over the military. The Antarctic Treaty has demilitarised the continent but, ironically, the best-equipped personnel for transport over rough terrain are the military forces of the various countries conducting scientific research. The military do the work under the overall direction of scientists. The treaty has provided a good basis for other treaties. The 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals protects some seal species. No commercial sealing has, in fact, been undertaken since the convention carne into force. The 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was negotiated in response to large-scale trawling for fin fish and krill (shrimp-like creatures) during the 1960s and 1970s. This represented a major breakthrough in marine conservation at the time because, instead of considering each species separately, it provides for an "ecosystem as a whole" approach to conservation and marine resources. With the marine living resources concord completed, the Antarctic Treaty consultative parties looked to the need to regulate mining and oil-drilling. But this coincided with speculation that the continent could be the scene of an oil, natural gas and mineral rush because some transnational corporations had hopes of exploiting the wealth. Environmental non-governmental orgariisations, loosely coordinated by the Antarctic and South Oceans Coalition, fought that proposal throughout the 1980s. Eventually public opinion swung round to their point of view and they achieved one of the greatest environmental victories of the decade. They forced the Antarctic Treaty consultative parties to stop all dreams of mineral prospecting and oil drilling and instead create a treaty to ban all such prospecting and drilling. The environmental protocol was signed in 1991 and it has been ratified by enough countries for it to enter into force. By establishing high standards for all human activities on the continent, the envirorunental protocol goes a long way towards safeguarding Antarctica before it suffers from the human impacts felt over most of the rest of the Earth. The Antarctic is still some way from the world park status that New Zealand proposed for it two decades ago. But it is now better protected under international law than when New Zealand first raised the issue of safeguarding the world's last wilderness.