Antarctic Polar Regions | Protecting Antarctica

Calling the "Antarctic System" into question ?

A final threat hangs over the 6th continent; the survival of the Antarctic System itself. Certainly, since it was first established (1959), the System has been able to resist the various crises that have shaken it (the Wellington Accord, for example) and develop on the margins of a sometimes hostile historical and political context (44 years of the Cold War and the efforts made periodically to place the Treaty under the control of the United Nations).
But the more alert experts among us are unanimous in saying that this stability is only on the surface, and that the future of the 6th continent remains uncertain today on account of the numerous problems of the very existence, life and development of the System in the face of the new challenges that constantly have to be faced by the member countries.

One of the first questions concerns the actual effectiveness of the measures taken. The CCAMLR does not really have the means to have its recommendations complied with. Also, the implementation by the IWC of measures to make the southern seas a sanctuary is being flouted by the Japanese whaling industry, and the Madrid Protocol has still not been ratified by all member countries. These are just some examples of the problems being faced.

A second worry relates to the growing number of countries that have signed up to the Washington Treaty (43, with the most recent member being Turkey) as well as other countries that would like to join the System, believing that the Antarctic continent is richer than people would have them believe; all that at least demonstrates a growing interest in the 6th continent. But it cannot be said that all of these newcomers or pretenders have nothing but the development of science in Antarctica as their sole objective.

It would appear obvious in fact that even if mineral exploitation in Antarctica is currently frozen by the Madrid Protocol, applications to join the club are aimed at becoming one of the select few in the event that, one day, the division of the Antarctic cake becomes inevitable. Another consequence of increasing the number of countries that are members could well be a gradual reduction in the actual quality of the scientific output being generated.

A third worry concerns the current relationship between politics and science. Although diplomacy has always played an important role in decisions relating to the Antarctic, we now appear to be witnessing increased politicisation within the System itself. On the one hand, the delegates sent by the nations involved to the various consultative meetings do not always seem genuinely concerned by the problems of the Antarctic, nor are they truly up to date with their ins and outs; what is worse, they generally have no experience - either direct or in terms of commitment - of science. On the other hand, it can be seen that the heads of the Antarctic research organisations are increasingly appointed managers, rather than people providing direction. This leads to the fear that any decisions taken from a scientific point of view are more involved with serving the purposes of political propaganda, leaning towards the spectacular side and in the end, inciting the involvement of mere scientific technicians - underlings in a manner of speaking - rather than genuine researchers imbued with ideals and the spirit of independence.

This threat of the System becoming politicised goes hand in hand with the rampant bureaucracy that is overtaking science in the Antarctic; increasing numbers of scientists are complaining about the growing amount of documents that they have to fill out before they can leave for the Antarctic. This new state of affairs is so worrying that within some of the scientific organisations dealing with the Antarctic, researcher posts are currently being sacrificed because the administrative tasks involved on the projects are increasing with each passing day.

Other more recent dangers are being run by the Antarctic System. The increasingly great complexity of the problems debated at the consultative meetings is unavoidably resulting in member countries multiplying their recommendations (rules) and therefore neglecting somewhat the search for a higher degree of effectiveness for the existing measures in place; the increased frequency of serious international confrontations within the System itself (abandonment of the Wellington Accord, followed by the tough negotiations on the Madrid Protocol) could, if they keep being repeated at such short intervals (1988-1991), have a harmful effect on the entente and solidarity that currently reign among the consultative parties; the hesitation displayed by the System with regard to the behaviour to be adopted vis-à-vis the problems that have appeared in recent years, such as tourism or the activities of non-member nations in the waters beyond 60° latitude south, for example, is more of a nature to weaken the links that exist between member countries, rather than strengthen them; the ever-greater internationalisation of research and the proliferation of the aims pursued by the various scientific programmes could, over time, result in confusion between the aims being pursued, their actual achievement and the real scientific stakes in Antarctica; the proliferation of think tanks, working parties, research or pressure groups that have appeared over the past decade, as well as the almost anarchic hatching of bodies claiming to be concerned about the fate of the Antarctic of course does very little to encourage efficient collaboration, or the exchange of information between all of the parties. Nor does it add to the overall understanding of the problems facing the Antarctic in the eyes of the public at large. It has to be said here that the awareness campaigns launched willy-nilly by ecologist movements over the past twenty years, even if we have to give thanks for the fact that they actually existed, have had the perverse effect in most cases, of placing scientific objectives into competition with the measures required to preserve the natural environment. Whatever the case with these internal problems, it is of value to note that while the 6th continent is the object of serious threats today, no-one can deny that the abandonment of the Wellington Accord and the recent signing of the Madrid Protocol are positions adopted that argue in favour of maintaining the existing international political and scientific consensus on a long-term basis, as well as the lasting peace that has been in place in Antarctica for 40 years; which all goes to prove that the System as it stands at the moment is at least capable of adapting to pressures from the outside and withstanding any dissent generated within itself.