Who owns Antarctica?

Antarctica is a continent that surrounds the South Pole, which comprises almost 10% of Earth’s land surface. It is the coldest, windiest and driest place in the world: the average annual temperature is -50° C and 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice with an average of one kilometer thick.

Antarctica is not a country: it has no government or indigenous population and does not belong to any country, but there are seven countries that claim to have sovereignty over different areas that, in some cases, overlap each other: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Russia and the United States do not define their own zone, but say they have “grounds to claim”.

Under the “International Antarctic Treaty”, signed on December 1, 1959 by these seven states, with Belgium, Japan, South Africa, Russia and the United States, all the claims on the territories located south of the 60° of south latitude were “frozen”. However, some countries continue to claim their rights over different areas of Antarctica.

Also this Treaty established that “Antarctica shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes”, guaranteed the freedom of scientific investigation and prohibited any claim of sovereignty from being made effective.

Gradually more countries have joined the Treaty, today is composed of twenty-eight advisory members with the right to participate in decision-making, and twenty others who attend the meetings as guests, making a total of forty-eight member countries.

In 1991 the so-called Madrid Protocol was signed, which came into force in 1998 and prohibits mining exploitation for 50 years.

Argentina and Chile

Argentina and Chile have overlapping claims in the so-called South-American Antarctica, which represents practically the same sector claimed by the United Kingdom. Argentina claims the territory between the length of 25°W and 74°W, Chile does it between 53°W and 90°W, which includes the land of O’Higgins to the bottom of the south pole. Therefore the overlap is identified between 53°W and 74°W.

In July 1947 Chile and Argentina signed a Joint Declaration in which both mutually recognized their indisputable antarctic rights and agreed to cooperate for the development of scientific research and the use of natural and scientific resources.

A gold mine

“Humankind will not get any benefit from Antarctica”, said Captain James Cook, one of the first to explore its coast in the 18th century. Considered a World Heritage Site, the entire continent is protected as a scientific reserve, military activity is prohibited, as well as any exploitation of its mineral resources, in an ideal of intellectual exchange that constitutes an example of cooperation and coexistence for all humanity.

But beyond science, countries have tried to gain access to the area because of the abundance of natural resources that are believed to be there, not only for their reserve of fresh water, minerals, but for representing for tourism or espionage among other things, a strategic point from which millions of profits can be extracted.

There are estimates that the Antarctic ice could hold between 50 and 200 billion barrels of oil, which equals the total oil extraction in the United States throughout history. As for tourism, currently, Antarctica receives some 40.000 visitors per year.

The fine print of the Treaty

The truth is that the fine print of both the Treaty and the Madrid Protocol mean that these documents can become a simple statement of intent. Members can retract and in the question of sovereignty, the Secretariat of the Treaty itself recognizes that it “safeguards the different positions of States”, making it clear that countries with territorial claims may continue to have them.

As for the prohibition of mining, this “can be modified at any time if all parties agree”. In addition, the document does not include sanctions for countries that did not sign it.

In August 2011, the Lowy Institute (an independent think tank) defined the Antarctic Treaty as “a fragile and imperfect compromise”, and denounced that “the Antarctic bases are increasingly used for a dual use: scientific research that is useful for military purposes”. In addition, if any of the members request, a new conference will be held in 2048 to revise the Protocol, at least three quarters of the current advisory members agree, a legal regime to control mining is in force, and the sovereignty interests of the parties are safeguarded. It is difficult to predict in what state the world economy will be for that date, but “just as things have been happening, attending the paradigm of globalization that is placed on us, today Antarctica is almost an international space, where all fit, therefore if we erase which is currently happening and place sovereign spaces, new countries will enter and the rest will not be able to enter, therefore it will generate a serious problem, so better leave the sovereign claims where they are, in the Antarctic archive of the United Nations and hopefully the Treaty will not be opened because it will be a conflict in many ways”, Jorge Sanz says.

[Photo from Pixabay]

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