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Environment, Tourism, Legacy all on the Agenda at Antarctic Treaty Meeting

June 2, 2021 by Kate Michael
Antarctica

WASHINGTON — Competing claims and diplomatic disputes over Antarctica resulted in 12 countries coming together to create an Antarctic Treaty that came into force in 1961. Now 60 years later, 54 countries are involved, and policies and management of the southern pole are as complicated as ever. 

Brief, but effective, the Antarctic Treaty forms the basis for all policies and management in Antarctica, including demilitarizing the area and establishing Antarctica as a zone free of nuclear tests and nuclear waste disposal. It ensures that Antarctica will be used for peaceful purposes only, including scientific investigation and cooperation, and it sets aside disputes over territorial sovereignty.

The Treaty also requires signatories to come together — originally every two years, but now annually since 1994 — to discuss any renewals or supplements to the Treaty and assess its efficiency and relevance. As parties take turns hosting these key Antarctic policy meetings, the 

Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting to be held from June 14-24, 2021, the Treaty’s 60th anniversary meeting, will be hosted (virtually) by France. 

“This is our chance to exchange views on what is at stake in Antarctica in the 21st century,” Ambassador Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, French ambassador for the Poles and Maritime Issues, told the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum, as select signatories came together to describe what to expect at the upcoming ATCM.

“[This is about] what our ancestors created 60 years ago, while [also] addressing the challenges of this century in Antarctica,” said d’Arvor. He predicted that ATCM topics will include a recommitment to preserving the legacy of the Treaty as well as understanding how present work in Antarctica may be relevant to the whole world, including mineral and marine resource efforts, the Ice Memory program, and even the impact of Arctic tourism.

“Antarctic diplomacy is about much more than Antarctic issues,” he said. 

“The environmental protection aspect of [our] Antarctic activities is certainly of grave concern,” agreed Maximo Gowland, Argentina’s national director for Antarctic Foreign Policy. From the retreat of the ice covering to the impact on krill and wildlife that inhabit the area, “we see very directly the impacts of human activity in the peninsula.”

And that impact is also coming as a result of tourism. 

“This is a huge issue because it is a powerful force that is very difficult to stop or control,” said Gowland, seeking tourism manuals and observer mechanisms from the ATCM as well as a general regulatory framework to reduce the environmental impact of Arctic tourism as much as possible.

Chile’s acting director of the Antarctic Division and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rodrigo Waghorn echoed Gowland’s concern around the potential risk of increased tourism activities in the area, warning especially that there will undoubtedly be a dramatic spark in tourism around the solar eclipse on December 4th, 2021, which can only be seen from Antarctica.

Waghorn also called for the upcoming ATCM to discuss a plan for natural disasters as increased seismic activity is being recorded in the area.

“We need to protect this unique place… for the future of humankind,” he said.

After the global COVID-19 experience and the cancellation of the ATCM in 2020, signatories are also looking for the upcoming ATCM, which will take place virtually for the first time, to establish rules and guidelines for virtual operation of the Antarctic Treaty system. 

“We believe the Treaty has been extremely successful [and] effective… in addressing these very concerning issues as they’ve evolved,” said Gowland. But while he said that, for now, the Treaty was “in a very good place,” all parties will definitely need to recommit at the June ATCM and agree to look ahead at an array of important current and upcoming challenges. 

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