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Antarctica: Mining the White Space

June 26, 1988|Michael Parfit | Michael Parfit is the author of "South Light: A Journey to the Last Continent" (Macmillan).

ST. IGNATIUS, MONT. — Like the moon, Antarctica is a harsh mistress. Like the moon it is inhospitable, remote, dazzling and full of illusion and mystery. Antarctica is so like the moon that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration studies the effects of its isolation on the people who spend winters there. So like the moon that scientists and construction workers going there wonder if the Earth will still be OK when they come back. So like the moon in its silent cleanliness that anything civilization does there becomes a caricature of civilization itself. So it was a matter of considerable importance to the world when the nations that govern Antarctica, through a curiously ambiguous treaty, announced in early June having finally agreed on terms that may allow private companies to mine the continent's unknown riches.

Negotiations for this agreement were conducted so quietly over the past six years that the announcement came out of the blue like a rocket.

Mine Antarctica? This pristine land of snow and ice where Robert Falcon Scott suffered so nobly, where Roald Amundsen conquered so swiftly, where Admiral Richard E. Byrd planted the flag of international good will and scientific exploration? Will we suddenly see this beautiful place scuffed by industry and hazed over by soot? Will this white sheet of paper over which our pen is poised reveal us as the ultimate destroyers of all things beautiful that we touch?

Not necessarily.

The new agreement is far from an accomplished fact. It must still be ratified by 16 of the 20 nations that hold voting rights under the Antarctic Treaty System--among them the Soviet Union, the United States, China, India, Brazil, Chile; the list is remarkable for its diversity. A similar, less controversial measure took two years to be fully ratified. During the next years the new agreement is likely to come under attack from several sides, and could possibly succumb to the kind of death that met the SALT II agreement on arms, which involved only two nations.

Once the agreement is in place, only certain areas of Antarctica can be opened to prospecting with the unanimous approval of those 20 nations. After that, development is regulated by a commission made up of representatives from 10 of the nations. Then, of course, someone has to find something so valuable that it will be worth the unparalleled costs of mining or drilling in the earth's most hostile landscape. Nowhere, not even the North Slope of Alaska or the Siberian Arctic coast, is as hard to work as Antarctica.

But even if the agreement soars over these hurdles, it may not mean disaster for the Antarctic environment. Those who care about the future of Antarctica, and, by extension, the world, must be looking at this fat concoction of legalese with mixed emotions: it gives and takes away, leaving the future as shimmering and unclear as a distant mountain range. .

The new agreement does one wonderful thing: It preserves the ambiguous glory of the Antarctic Treaty System, which went into effect in 1961. People who go south love Antarctica for its stark beauty, but also for the freedom and friendship that exists there between nations. Without passports you can travel between the bases of nation after nation and make friends in a dozen languages. There are no weapons, no property lines, no national boundaries, no turnstiles--no wars. Although seven of the 20 voting parties to the treaty claim pieces of Antarctica while the rest deny claims, peace is made possible by a clause in the Antarctic Treaty that intentionally sidesteps the thorny problem of sovereignty. The new agreement takes the most difficult aspect of that dodge--the question of how to offer title to minerals without having ownership vested in a nation--and resolves it to the apparent satisfaction of claimant and non-claimant state alike. So for now the treaty seems destined to survive.

The new agreement does one sad thing: It makes pure science less dominant on the continent. For 30 years under the Treaty System, Antarctica has been a preserve of science, where people went simply to learn about their planet. Although scientific exploration was always mingled with some political strutting by all the nations involved, it remained at least the titular head of state. Now science may share that position with prospecting, thereby perhaps eroding some of the openness and friendship that exists today. The first time a base leader hides his work from a visiting scientist will be a sorrowful moment in Antarctica.

The environmental organization Greenpeace, now maintaining a year-round base in Antarctica, will be fighting the agreement as it makes its tedious way toward ratification. Greenpeace wants to see Antarctica become a world park. That goal seems to be an ideal solution to both the problems of sovereignty and the preservation of the pre-eminent role of science. But this opposition is a risky business.

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