The Antarctic Opportunity

The day of the Argentine Antarctica is celebrated on February 22nd. It was on that day in 1904 that the Meteorological Observatory was inaugurated on Laurie Island, South Orkney -the future Orkney Base-, which is considered the milestone of the beginning of our presence on the white continent and the only permanently inhabited base until the 1940s. Two years earlier, Second Lieutenant José María Sobral had joined a Swedish expedition in the area, and the sinking of that ship opened the door to Argentine intervention, which came to the rescue with the Corvette Uruguay under the command of Second Lieutenant Julian Irízar. 

Since then, the Argentine flag has been part of the Antarctic landscape, not only in multiple expeditions, but also in settlements and bases with scientific activity, and a leading role in its governance.

In anticipation of what was to become the heart of global activity on this continent, Argentina founded the Argentine Antarctic Institute in 1951 and also acknowledged the crucial importance of science in Antarctic policy. 

In 1959 Argentina was one of the major players in the negotiations and signing of the Antarctic Treaty, being one of the seven consulting members claiming sovereignty, out of the 12 that were at the table. That number has now increased to 29, and in the current system we must add 25 adherent members. In recognition of its activity and presence, in 2001 and after 10 years of negotiations, Argentina was unanimously elected Permanent Seat of the Antarctic Treaty.

Argentina is currently present in six permanent bases: Belgrano II, Carlini (ex Jubany), Esperanza, Marambio, Orcadas and San Martín; and seven temporary bases: Brown, Cámara, Decepción, Matienzo, Melchior, Petrel and Primavera. The scientific activity of these bases is conducted by the Antarctic Institute, which reports to an Antarctic Direction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Armed Forces, through the Operational Command, are in charge of all logistics support activities through the annual Antarctic campaigns. 

The spirit of governance underlying the Treaty consists ofscientific cooperation and the peaceful presence and use of the territory. After tough negotiations over the years elapsed, the Treaty became a system, and today the governance of the continent is made up of three conventions: Preservation of Antarctic Seals (1972), Preservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980); and the Protocol on Environmental Protection (Madrid Protocol) and its annexes (1991).

Those who have taken part in the negotiations of each of the regulatory instruments mentioned above can attest that there were clashes and disputes, and that divergent interests have always been the order of the day, but a competent bureaucracy in the various countries has succeeded in coordinating national Antarctic interests and achieving the following: environmental conservation, scientific cooperation and the non-commercial exploitation of natural mineral resources. In addition, other activities such as tourism and fishing have been successfully regulated. Power cannot manifest itself militarily but does so through science.

The 21st century is putting this spirit and this type of governance to the test. Antarctic resources are of such a strategic nature that their regulation has given rise to strong controversy leading to the conventions. There are not only living marine resources, but also mineral and energy resources, and a biodiversity that is explored in all scientific activities and which today, with bio-prospecting, is giving rise to debates regarding patenting. The immensity of its freshwater is also strategic in a world where it is scarce. Additionally, the importance given by science to the white continent as a regulator of climate change is gaining valuable significance on the global agenda.

In turn, with the continents for conquest exhausted, the superpowers are exploring unexploited spaces and sovereignty expresses itself in another way in these spaces. The reference in academic literature to the sovereignty of global spaces (cyberspace, outer space, the ocean floor and the high seas) is perfectly comparable to what happens in Antarctica. States exercise sovereignty through their presence there, i.e. only those with state-of-the-art technology, economic and institutional capabilities can be there, prevent others from being there, and get to know and/or exploit what they find.

Growing international geopolitical competition anticipates disputes for these spaces - all of which have some form of global governance - within the context of this century: presence and activity give rights that include participation in the drafting of regulations. Antarctica is no exception to this logic, even with a more robust system of legislation.

This explains why China has doubled the number of bases in the last ten years; why the US has the largest physical presence on the continent, including the US private sector; and why Russia continues to make it part of its policy. In addition, new players are emerging, including those from the private sector, and scientific activity linked to bio-prospecting and patenting is increasing. There are also conflicting interests, such as the United Nations itself pushing for participation in the administration and considering Antarctica a common asset of humanity.

Will Antarctica be able to maintain the governance as it has done up to now?

Realists will say that it has retained this scientific, peaceful and cooperative spirit because its strategic value has so far not been of sufficient interest for global competition, and idealists will hold it up as evidence of what the international community can achieve if the political will exists. What is certain is that as its strategic value increases, the question is pertinent. 

What loopholes in the rules will private players and global powers with muscle and technology find to make commercial and economic interests prevail over scientific and peaceful ones? Will it be possible, given the prospect of a review of the Madrid Protocol in 2048, to maintain the ban on mineral exploitation in the face of the growing divergence between population and resources? Will the humanitarian interest of climate change prevail over the particular interests of some states to negotiate global agendas to their own benefit?

Argentina's limited relevance on the global arena, coupled with its limited resource capacity, is bad news for our colours on the white continent. It can proudly claim that, despite recurrent crises, Antarctic policy has been a great state policy. However, this does not guarantee any concrete benefits today. The same applies to the recovery of the Malvinas Islands, and the horizon of their return to our colours is a long way off. The fact that these are sustained policies does not ensure that we would know what to do with these territories if we were to secure them. If we do not achieve sustainable development in Patagonia, or an exploitation of our South Atlantic that is part of our development, how can we envisage policies about what we do not have full sovereignty over?

Hence, it is time to allow for creative policies. Maintaining and strengthening our presence is still vital, and so is enabling our scientists and our companies to be at the forefront of research. Being the seat of the Treaty gives us an advantage that can be exploited for services of all kinds and for everyone, but it sounds like a chimera in the absence of domestic development policies. The distance between our continent and Antarctica (approximately 1000 km) favours the promotion of a project that has been under consideration for a long time: to turn Ushuaia into a hub for the provision of Antarctic logistics services to countries, companies, and tourismoperators, but this requires a sustained policy and urgent commitment. Britain in our Malvinas and Chile in Puerto Williams are two potential competitors. Yet, Argentina has everything in Ushuaia to be the main player for which political and economic determination needs to be aligned.  

Antarctica can also be the place for us to dare to lead a regional policy that will give political volume to our interests in future discussions and debates on its governance. We already patrol its waters jointly with Chile, a great precedent that we can build on. 

Thinking about sovereignty in Antarctica in Argentineterms today means maintaining our presence on the continent, our leading role in the formulation of regulations, our capabilities and our scientists with access to cutting-edge technology, our businessmen joining the research policy and competing for patents, our South defining development policies that integrate the productive activity of our Atlantic Sea, and our politicians agreeing with countries in the region on positions in international organisations, activities and security in the area, a common front in the battles to come. Having Antarctica on our map and in our colours is much more than a will: it is a commitment and a responsibility. 

Firstly, there is the strategic value of the continent. As mentioned above, this is currently based on its potential to provide natural resources and products derived from them in a world where the shortage of these resources seems to be an inescapable future that looms ahead. In addition, its geographical location gives it unique characteristics in terms of the expansion it allows to other parts of the globe, and its climatic particularities make it an ideal natural laboratory for scientific research. Secondly, the year 2048 opens up the possibility of renegotiating the Environmental Protocol. While any of the 33 States Parties of the Protocol can call for a revision of the Protocol at any time, unanimous consensus is needed to make changes to this instrument. However, as of 2048, any amendments to the terms of the Protocol can be approved by a 3/4 majority of the parties. Taking into account the first premise, it can be assumed that in the future there will be states that see the opportunity to remove this protocol as a suitable option in pursuit of their national interests. Given that major powers such as China and Russia show a keen interest in the mineral resources that exist there in order to meet the future demands of their populations and guarantee their development and political-strategic position, this premise gains strength.

In this connection, the phenomenon of climate change must be taken into account as a multiplier of global risks. The thinning of the ice caps, the change in the current distribution of natural resources in the rest of the world and the depletion of such resources might place Antarctica as a reserve susceptible to exploitation.


Lourdes Puente is a political scientist (UCA), Master and PhD in International Relations (Flacso y USAL). Director of the School of Politics and Government (UCA). Teacher at the Catholic University of Argentina and the Austral University. President of the New Political Action Network and President of the Río de la Plata University Foundation. Member of the Advisory Commission of the Ibero-American Institute of Education and Productivity (IIEyP) in Argentina.

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