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Dividing the Pie : History in Making at South Pole

January 24, 1985|ROBERT A. JONES | Times Staff Writer

AT THE SOUTH POLE — Outside the geodesic dome of the U.S. Science station here, the temperature stood at 21 degrees below zero; a brisk wind blew ice crystals into swirls and pulled heat from humans like a vacuum pump. But never mind. Abdul Koroma had a chance to make history, and make it he would.

Trudging toward the ceremonial barber pole that marks the southernmost point on Earth, the ambassador to the Permanent Mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations carried a small wooden sign announcing his arrival. He was about to become the first Sierra Leonean, and perhaps the first black African, to reach the South Pole.

Koroma plunged the sign's stake into the snow and mused quietly for a few moments. Then he posed for photographs. Six thousand miles away the citizens of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, were going about their business as usual, most likely unaware of this moment in their history. Would they ever know?

Important Moment

Drawing himself to his full height and obviously thinking more of his countrymen than himself, Koroma declared, "I will inform Freetown." Then, history having been accomplished, Koroma marched back to the science dome in his white polar boots for a lunch of chicken and fries.

For Koroma his presence here was not without its irony. One hundred seventy-seven years ago the British had marched through Sierra Leone on their way to colonizing huge chunks of Africa. They ruled Koroma's country for 153 years, letting go in 1961.

Now Koroma and a handful of other Third World diplomats had been invited here--along with the British and most other Western nations--to talk about dividing the pie of another continent, Antarctica. This time, Sierra Leone wanted its share.

"If you look at Antarctica today it reminds you of the scramble for Africa," Koroma said. "Nations have planted their flags and there is talk of great riches. We asked ourselves, 'Why should the developed nations be the only beneficiaries?' "

River of Ice Nearby

The conference attended by Koroma and 57 other diplomats and scientists from 28 countries was one of the most unusual on record. Organized by the United States, it was held 450 miles from the South Pole on an ice field in the midst of the Transantarctic Mountains. Nearby was the Beardmore Glacier, the huge river of ice used 72 years ago by Robert Falcon Scott on his doomed journey to the pole.

The site, with its towering peaks and intertwining glaciers, is considered one of the most spectacular in all of Antarctica. And one of the most isolated: The conference members were ferried to the glacier by ski-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft and housed in a small collection of insulated Quonset huts known as Janesways.

For four days--with the exception of the side trip to the pole--the conferees ate, slept, showered and argued with each other as they moved from hut to hut in unusually balmy 15-degree weather. Next year the assembly of huts, called the Beardmore South Camp, will be used as a base for U.S. scientific expeditions here.

The centerpiece of the debate was the 25-year-old Antarctica Treaty, which has governed virtually all activities here since it was signed by a group of 12 nations that had either scientific or territorial interest in the continent. The original signatories were the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Japan, Chile, Belgium, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and South Africa.

Since the original signing four additional countries--Poland, India, Brazil and West Germany--have joined the treaty as full-fledged members, which are known as "consultative parties."

From the point of view of the Third World representatives, the Antarctica Treaty is a relic of the past when the Western world divided up sections of the globe for their own purposes and more or less ignored the interests of other nations.

As he wandered outside the Beardmore Camp during a break in the proceedings, the Malaysian ambassador to the United Nations described the treaty as a "historical anomaly."

"Here is a whole continent," said Azraai Zain, his arm sweeping around the vast landscape. "A group of countries have maintained to themselves an exclusive right to make all decisions about Antarctica. We have to ask ourselves, 'Why is that?' "

Zain, along with representatives of other developing nations, suspects that the reason may be natural resources. For most of this century, Antarctica was universally regarded as a frozen wasteland, suitable only for the exploits of marginally sane explorers and scientists.

Mineral Wealth

But during the 1970s the possibility was raised that Antarctica might contain hidden wealth. In the wake of the Arab oil embargo the United States, Japan and other countries conducted preliminary oil surveys in the continent's offshore regions, and made optimistic projections based on the sketchy evidence obtained.

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