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Debate: Ban on Antarctic exploitation

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Should the ban on exploiting the resources of the Antarctic be maintained?

Background and context

It is little more than one hundred years since humans first set foot on Antarctica and even today few people have visited the frozen and hostile southern continent. Although nine countries have territorial claims on the continent, several of them overlapping, these political disagreements were suspended in The Antarctic Treaty of 1959. In the Treaty (covering all areas south of 60 degrees South Latitude), it was agreed that Antarctica should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and that military activities would be prohibited. It also guaranteed continued freedom for scientific research and promoted international scientific cooperation. Successive treaties have built upon this foundation, providing strong protection for the Antarctic environment and strictly regulating fishing, for example. These have culminated in the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (which entered fully into operation in 1998), which designates Antarctica as a "natural reserve, devoted to peace and science" and establishes environmental principles to govern the conduct of all activities. It also prohibits mining, arguments over which caused the failure of a proposed Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) in the late 1980s. CRAMRA would have potentially allowed future exploitation of Antarctic resources, subject to the agreement of all treaty signatories, but it ran into strong opposition from the international environmental movement, which convinced several of the treaty nations to refuse to sign it. This topic considers whether it is right to maintain Antarctica purely as a "natural reserve, devoted to peace and science". Should some exploitation of its resources be allowed, or should the general ban on economic activity be extended to areas such as fishing and tourism?


Pristine environment?: Should Antarctica be preserved because it is uniquely pristine?


  • Antarctica is a pristine and unspoilt continent of great scientific value: In particular, it has a critical impact on the world's environment and ocean systems. This means that it must be left undisturbed, in order to allow further study of such critical international issues as climate change, ozone depletion, long-range weather forecasting and the operation of marine eco-systems (crucial to sustainable fishing). It is also essential to ensure that a polluted Antarctica does not undergo changes (e.g. melting of its ice caps, a break-up of its ice sheets) with a potentially disastrous global impact.
  • Antarctica presents an alternative to a world dominated by political disputes, economic exploitation and environmental destruction, and we should preserve it that way: Placing the southern continent in the care of scientists and out of reach of both politicians and multinational corporations has ensured it can be preserved unchanged for future generations. This provides a model and a precedent for future international cooperation and global efforts to save the planet.


  • There is not much worth preserving in Antarctica; it's a nearly uninhabited "desert": Antarctica is huge and almost completely unpopulated - only the coastal fringes have any animals or plants. Well-regulated economic exploitation of its resources need not ruin it and could provide valuable raw materials and a boost to the world economy.
  • Any negative effects of exploitation would pale in comparison to other negative environmental activities going on around the world: By far the greatest impacts on the Antarctic are external, e.g. the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer over the south pole, global warming, the effects of whaling and pollution on the marine environment. Compared to these global influences, limited exploitation of Antarctic resources under strict environmental regulation will not make a significant difference.
  • It is inappropriate for a scientific elite to set the agenda in closing off Antarctica, without regard to either economic logic or democratic accountability: If the Antarctic can help to provide additional resources for a rapidly growing world population, then we should be able to have an intelligent debate about the costs and benefits involved. In any case, scientific research does leave a footprint in Antarctica, for example the ice road the Americans are planning to blast and bulldoze through the continent to the bases at the South Pole, or the waste products of the many scientific bases on the continent.

Oil exploration: Should oil/gas exploration/drilling be banned in Antarctica?


  • There are many reasons why oil and gas exploration should not be allowed in the Antarctic: Firstly, proven and probable reserves of oil and gas are still rising faster than global consumption, so there is no economic need to exploit any hypothetical Antarctic sources. Secondly, as the continent is already suffering as a result of global warming, our priority should be to find renewable alternatives to fossil fuels rather than to continue our dependence upon them. At a practical level, the cost of exploration and production would be completely uneconomic, especially given the hostile climate and the serious iceberg threats to offshore rigs, tankers and pipelines, as well as the very deep continental shelf. There would also be a serious danger of pollution, both from the increased human presence in this fragile environment, and from oil spills.


  • Oil exploration in Antarctica is now feasible, should be allowed. Although current technology would not enable exploitation of any reserves at economic prices, future technological advances and rises in the price of fossil fuels may change this equation. Once, deep water extraction from the hostile North Sea or Arctic Oceans seemed impossible, but now these are taken for granted. Our prosperity depends upon cheap energy from fossil fuels, and it would be wrong to risk this by an arbitrary decision to declare the Antarctic off-limits to exploration, especially given the continuing scepticism of many about claims of global warming.

Mineral exploitation: Should Antarctica be protected from mineral exploitation?


  • Antarctica must be protected from mineral exploitation and the 1991 Protocol upheld: There are no known mineral deposits on the continent, so the argument for exploitation is highly speculative, but it is nonetheless dangerous. Even just exploration would greatly damage the delicate environment, both physically and by greatly increasing the number of people disturbing the landscape and eco-system. Actual mineral extraction, with its spoil heaps, pollution, processing facilities and transport infrastructure would be hugely destructive. Politically, placing an economic value upon Antarctic claims would renew dangers of territorial conflict that have been frozen since the 1961 Treaty, and risk the whole system of international cooperation falling apart.


  • The Antarctic Protocol of 1991 should be amended to allow for the possibility of mineral prospecting: The failed CRAMRA Convention of the late 1980s would have allowed for this possibility subject to strict regulation and the agreement of all treaty nations; reasonable conditions which were rejected by environmental purists. Geological analogies with other continents suggest that several very valuable minerals may be present in Antarctica. If multinational companies are prepared to pay high prices to treaty governments for concessions, why should we turn down this source of revenue? Almost all mining activity would be underground, so it would be little affected by the harsh environment and likely to have little adverse impact upon it.

Fishing: Should fishing in and around Antarctica be substantially limited?


  • Fishing is at present allowed under the 1991 Protocol, and has been increasing in recent years as overfishing is exhausting other global fisheries. Although much about the marine eco-system of the southern ocean is still unknown, it is clear that overfishing could quickly damage it, and that any recovery could take decades. At present limits are set according to our current understanding of fish stocks, but there is a great deal of illegal activity by boats from a variety of nations, so the situation is not under control. Even legal fishing can do great damage - thousands of seabirds die each year as a result of longline fishing. Not only should we not relax the Antarctic fishing regime, we should probably seek to tighten it further; the less legal fishing is allowed, the easier it will be to spot unlicensed activity.


  • Fishing in Antarctica provides a crucial source of protein to populations, particularly the poor:
  • The Antarctic oceans are underexploited compared to all other fisheries: Quotas for different species are set very low by scientists sticking to very conservative precautionary principles, and could in most cases be greatly expanded without risk of overfishing. Indeed, increased catch limits would remove much of the incentive for illegal fishing, and might reduce the pressure on other, less well-protected fisheries elsewhere. If fish stocks are found to be under pressure, then quotas can be reduced once again.

Tourism and recreation: Should tourism and recreational activities in Antarctica be minimized?


  • Access to Antarctica should be restricted to those with a serious scientific purpose: Perhaps 27000 tourists are expected in 2004, mostly on cruise ships which call at Antarctic sites for just a few days, but this number is rising rapidly and some visitors are now undertaking adventurous activities such as ski-hiking, scuba-diving, snowboarding and mountaineering. Unchecked, this influx of people is greatly increasing the problems of waste management and their activities are having a negative impact on the coastal environment and its wildlife. Adventurous tourists will also need to be rescued by the authorities, diverting resources from science. The more vessels visiting the continent, the greater the chance of catastrophic oil spills or for rogue operators to neglect proper waste management (both already problems in the Alaskan cruise industry). Overall, tourism will create a precedent for economic exploitation that may make it harder to defend the unique status of the continent in the future.


  • Tourism should be greatly expanded to allow as many people as possible to visit this unique environment: Antarctica should be for all of humanity, not just for an elite few scientists who seek to deny others access while simultaneously demanding huge sums of money for their research projects. Revenues from tourism could in any case be taxed in order to offset the cost of scientific research. Tourism could also promote environmental aims, as it would educate visitors about the importance of Antarctica and so help to influence environmental policy in many countries around the world. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators operates a strict code of practice to prevent damage to the environment.

See also

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