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Should We Exploit The Last Wilderness?
Jan 4, 1995

Antarctica is rich, it is beautiful and not yet fully exploited. As commercial interest increases, with the discovery of natural resources, 'developing' nations are waking up to the reality that the so-called 'developed' countries have long been taking advantage of the world's last true wilderness. Complaining of 'unfair management', they are looking for their share of the cake. When we look beyond the resolutions passed at international conferences to the arguments that preceded them, we may well ask ourselves whether there are any nations who want to protect Antarctica for what it is - a beautiful gift from the Creator.

Antarctica is the bottom of the world, the white continent, the harshest, most forbidding land on earth, where winds can reach 320 kph (200 mph) and temperatures can plunge below -85°C (-121° F). At the South Pole, the average temperature is -49° C (-56.2° F), while the highest recorded is -13.6°(7.5° F). The continent is the world's largest stretch of inhospitable land. Precipitation is so sparse that it is classified as one of the world's driest deserts. This 'final frontier' constitutes approximately 10% of the earth's land surface; 98% of it is covered by ice, in places two miles thick. Antarctica accounts for 90% of the world's ice and 68% of its fresh water. It is bigger than China and India combined, or Mexico and the US put together.

A closer look at the seemingly lifeless land and seascape reveals an amazing abundance of life. The continent is home to several species of seals, penguins and vegetation. The surrounding frigid seas are abundant in krill, protein rich shrimp-like crustaceans essential to the Antarctic ecosystem, which is one of the world's most productive. Thirty-five species of penguins and other birds, six varieties of seals, twelve kinds of whale and nearly two hundred types of fish dwell there. The ice itself is permeated with algae and bacteria. The land is home to two species of flowering land plants, a grass and a pearlwort.

Antarctica contains traces of a wide variety of metals and hydrocarbons. Traces of cobalt, copper, chromium, gold, lead, molybdenum, manganese, nickel, silver, tin, titanium, uranium, as well as zinc, have been found in the continent. Geological surveys have postulated large quantities of oil and gas.

Hundreds of people live and work there all year round and no fewer than seventeen nations have established permanent bases to conduct scientific research. Each year, almost 5,000 registered tourists come to look at the peaks and penguins. A body called the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has been established to regulate tourism. However, they have not been able to stop unregistered- visitors. An example was the German ship 'Europe' which landed more than 300 passengers on Deception Island and illegally visited a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) at Whaler's Bay. Standards of safety and ecological care cannot be guaranteed. More alarming than the increased numbers of visitors to Antarctica is the more 'commercial' attitude they have towards it.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for most American research in the area. The NSF pays the US navy for transporting personnel and supplies and other logistical support. Demands for cutbacks in the US navy have resulted in proposals for 'contracting out' these services to commercial companies the market place has reached the 'final frontier'!

Exploitation and commercialism have influenced fishing patterns Paul Rodhouse of the British Antarctic Survey indicated that commercial exploitation has led to the doubling of the catch of squid during the ten years leading up to 1992. The squid industry is notorious for its 'boom and bust' trends in 1972 a Japanese fishery began operating in the North Atlantic near Newfoundland and within eleven years one species of squid, illex illecebrosus had been wiped out. The industry is now turning its attention to Antarctica.

The biggest threat is to the stocks of krill. The 4cm shrimp-like kill live for up to seven years and are the staple food source for five whale species, three groups of seal and innumerable fish and birds, including penguins. They are central to the Antarctic food chain. Too little is known about the krill's lifestyle to guarantee survival against the increase in harvesting that has been maintained since the early 1970s. The countries that are involved in this abuse of Antarctica are those who are supposed to be protecting it.

The Western nations were the first to claim Antarctica as theirs. James Cook circled Antarctica between 1772 and 1775, becoming the first man to reach the mainland. Since Amundsen and Scott arrived at the Pole one after another in 1911, seven nations have claimed sectoral sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula based on either exploration or geographical contiguity, namely Argentine, Chile, France, New Zealand, Britain, Norway and Australia.

With the adoption of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, twelve countries began governing Antarctica. In addition to the seven claimant states, South Africa, Japan, USA and USSR became members of the exclusive Antarctic Club. Since the signing of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, there have been twenty-six countries responsible for the management of the Antarctic Region and another sixteen party to it.

Internal bickering meant that an agreement to establish rules governing oil and mineral exploitation and development signed in Wellington, New Zealand in 1988 did not come into force. Through a protocol adopted in Madrid in 1991, the Antarctic Continent was declared 'a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.' Some nations have not been happy about this situation. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahatir Bin Muhammad, said in 1982, that 'all the unclaimed wealth of this earth must be regarded as the common heritage of all nations of this planet... It is now time that the United Nations focused its attention on these areas, the largest of which is the continent of Antarctica,'

This raised the interest of other Islamic countries. The Twentieth Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers meeting in Istanbul in August 1991, adopted a resolution reaffirming the need for all members of the international community, acting through the UN, to be involved in 'all aspects relating to Antarctica'. In the same year, Indonesia asked a number of questions at the 1991 United Nations session as to the full participation of the international community in the management of Antarctica. The Pakistani delegate to the session, identifying his country's growing interest and involvement in the region, referred to its expedition and establishment of an automatic weather station in January 1991. Pakistan became the first Muslim country to send an official expedition to Antarctica. Pakistan in 1992, established its Jinnah Antarctic Research Station.

There are obvious advantages for the Muslim countries. They have produced some of the top scientists in the field, including, Sayed El-Sayed of the A&M University, Texas, who is a respected marine ecologist studying the effects of ozone depletion on Antarctic life. In 1988, he discovered at Palmer Station, a US base on Antarctica, that high levels of ultraviolet damage the chlorophyll pigment vital for photosynthesis in phytoplankton, slowing the growth rate of marine plants as much as 30%.

The Islamic countries have significant commercial interest in Antarctica. In the long term, the Antarctic icebergs can solve the scarcity of fresh water. This is where the Antarctic icebergs, which amount to almost 70 per cent of the world's drinkable water reserves, become an exploitable resource. There are predictions that in the 21st century, water will be the most precious natural resource. Current research shows that there is considerable economic interest in towing icebergs to the Gulf countries, Latin America and Northwestern Australia as a source of fresh water and energy (Crane, 1993).

Each year, 1.4 trillion tons of ice breaks off and melts into the Southern Ocean. If current difficulties can be overcome, icebergs will be enormous 'mineable' resources, even more valuable than the Antarctic's huge amount of oil reserves. For example, an iceberg weighing 90 million tons would be worth almost $45 million. There are many reasons for the vegetation-poor Arab countries to be concerned with the Southern Oceans teeming with living resources. Krill stocks might be an important resource to help prevent widespread malnutrition in the poor Middle East and North African countries whose populations lack a protein-rich diet.

There are many issues related to Antarctica that the Islamic countries need to address. Should they continue to be left out while other nations exploit the last wilderness? Should they unite and pool their human and financial resources to seek advantages from Antarctica or should they be its guardians. The debate must begin.


CRANE, D. (1993) 'Below the tip of an iceberg', Geographical, December, pp.14-17.