The Antarctic Treaty, signed by the United Kingdom and 11 other countries in 1959, declared that ‘in the interest of all mankind, Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.’ However, three decades later, a debate began brewing over the opportunities available for mining and other such extractive activities on the continent. Instead, in the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed on 4 October 1991 by 31 countries, which designated Antarctica as ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’.
‘It’s this one-off agreement – that all countries came together and agreed to protect a continent’s environment – which makes it unique,’ explains Stuart Doubleday, Deputy Head of the Polar Regions Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). ‘Everything from a ban on mining minerals, through to specific environmental protections for different animal species and particular protected areas, through to managing Antarctic heritage [such as Scott’s Hut].’ Without the Protocol, Doubleday believes there would at the very least be surveying currently taking place to explore the possibility of mining in Antarctica, whereas in reality it is banned forever.
“The big issue is how long countries are going to be politically inclined to protect Antarctica”
‘The fundamental basis of the Protocol requires that everything at Antarctica must be pre-planned, and its environmental impacts mitigated,’ says Jane Rumble, Head of the Polar Regions Department at FCO. She emphasises how increasing tourism or scientific research – while positive when done properly – could be severely damaging if not accompanied by the appropriate environmental guidelines outlined in the Protocol. The UK, one of seven claimants to a portion of the Antarctic (the others being Norway, France, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina), was a key player in establishing these guidelines, as well as in other environmental issues such as protected area management, non-native species development, and environmental impact assessments.
‘The big issue,’ Rumble asserts, ‘is how long countries are going to be politically inclined to protect Antarctica. That’s why it was so important to get all the countries to recommit to the Environmental Protocol, to say we shouldn’t have commercial mineral exploitation. If you can keep that going, then Antarctica should remain as pristine as it can. But we can’t get complacent; it’s going to continue to be an uphill battle.’
This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.