Growing Focus on the Resource Geopolitics: Southern Polar Region during 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s were a landmark in the discursive transformation of the Antarctic. By this time a rather impressive outline of Antarctic resources had emerged as a result of extensive geological and biological research of the region. This was soon filled in by perceptions of the burgeoning population in terms of consumption and depletion of resources in the wake of the oil crisis. During the 1970s, the fact of non Treaty actors taking interest in the Antarctic resources was enough in its own right to galvanize the ATCPs into action. The ATCPs accordingly perceived the need to have a regulatory framework in place before the krill fishery, the dynamic of which were not yet fully understood, was actually overexploited. More over, in the mid 1970s, Northern Hemisphere countries such as the USSR, Poland, and Japan – also South Korea and Taiwan – were excluded from their traditional fishing grounds due to the proclamation of the 200 mile fishing zones.

Against the backdrop of such a curious mix of political compulsions and ecological imperatives, the ATCPs formalized the convention on the CCAMLR at Canberra in May 1980. After due ratification, it came into force in 1982. Although created at least in theory outside the ATS, in reality, CCAMLR is organically linked to the latter. The geopolitical consensus underlying Article IV of the Treaty is not only retained but also explicitly reiterated along with its concomitant ramifications for the freedom of the high seas. Article IV of CCAMLR continues to maintain the moratorium on territorial claims. The steadily creeping jurisdiction of the ATS into the seas 601 South latitude is further extended to the Antarctic convergence. Second, political preeminence of the ATCPs within the ATS is preserved.

It is worth noting that like other Antarctic Treaty provisions, the convention is not enforceable, even on members, and relies on voluntary compliance. Hence, CCAMLR suffers from tremendous disadvantage when it comes to the enforcement of its conservation measures. In recent times, Antarctic finfish stocks, particularly Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), have been heavily fished around the sub Antarctic islands within the CCAMLR area.

The 1970s were a landmark in the discursive transformation of the Antarctic. By this time, a rather impressive outline of Antarctic resources had emerged as a result of extensive geological and biological research of the region. This was soon filled in by perceptions of the burgeoning population in terms of consumption and depletion of resources in the wake of the oil crisis. In the prevailing economic, technological, and geopolitical climate at the time, mining the Antarctic was simply inconceivable. When the ATCPs turned to the question of Antarctic minerals in 1970, to be joined by India and Brazil as consultative members in1983, it was commonly felt, however, that once commercial curiosity was excited, interests awakened, or some mineral deposits on commercial scale found, the question of territorial sovereignty would inevitably surface, thus jeopardizing the ATS. Under the circumstances, it was just as well that full knowledge of the minerals map of the continent was not to hand.

The division between claimant and nonclaimant states that emerged at these discussions was sharper even than expected. The key question appeared to be whether the legal status quo under the Treaty could be reconciled with an equitable plan to develop mineral resources. India, Brazil, China, and Uruguay, after being admitted as consultative members, formed a lobby of countries in their condition to watch and promote Third World interests in the minerals negotiations. No wonder that the ATCPs, faced with such dilemmas, felt obliged to reiterate that mineral resource regime should not prejudice their respective positions on the question of territorial claims in Antarctica. Any agreement that may be reached on a regime for mineral exploration and exploitation in Antarctica elaborated by the ATCPs should be acceptable and be without prejudice to those states which had previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.

In January 1988 when CRAMRA seemed a virtual certainty, dispatch of an expedition to service the Greenpeace's World Park base at Cape Evans highlighted the persistent and well articulated campaign of the Greenpeace movement, along with many other national and international environmental groups, against the very idea of mining the Antarctic. The prospects of CRAMRA's disappeared eventually, when, in May 1989, the Government of Australia announced that it would not sign since it now felt strongly committed to the view that no mining should take place at all in and around Antarctica and a comprehensive environmental protection convention within the framework of the ATS should be pursued instead. French support for the Australian position promptly followed.

In order to enter into force, CRAMRA needed to be ratified by all the countries having territorial claims in Antarctica. The consensus within ATS was obviously threatened. The 'U' turns by Australia and France on CRAMRA brought into question the collective understanding of the ATCPs to abide by the norms of the system, and seriously undermined the capability of the ATS to resolve intrasystem conflicts.

The announcement, on 4 July 1991, of the US decision to sign the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic Treaty marked, in a way, the end of the most critical trial of the inner strength and viability of the ATS. The protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic Treaty (hereafter cited as the Protocol) was concluded by consensus on 4 October 1991 at Madrid.