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Luis Adrián Salgado Figueroa

Who owns Antarctica?

- Antarctica is the continent with the largest freshwater reserves on the planet. For this reason, many wonder who owns Antarctica?

Who owns Antarctica?

Antarctica has always been involved in controversy. Beginning with its discovery, which is in debate around the Russian expedition of January 28, 1820 commanded by Fabian von Belingshausen and the British expedition of January 30 led by Edward Bransfield the same year [1]. In the same way, the exploration of Antarctica and the search for the South Pole occurred within a more atrocious competition than the previous one. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen would reach the geographic South Pole on December 14, 1911, just 3 weeks before the British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott, who would perish on his return trip along with his companions.

Since then, Antarctica would only be engulfed in further complications due to subsequent territorial claims [2]:

  • Argentine Antarctica – 1904: Argentina
  • British Antarctic Territory – 1908: United Kingdom
  • Ross Dependency – 1923: New Zealand
  • Adélie Land – 1924: France
  • Pedro I Island – 1929: Norway
  • Australian Antarctic Territory – 1933: Australia
  • Queen Maud Land – 1939: Norway
  • Chilean Antarctic Territory – 1940: Chile

How do you manage a continent where no one lives permanently, several countries claim rights to the land, and where extensive mineral resources are believed to exist?

The Antarctic Treaty

In the middle of the 20th century, the world was immersed in a constant state of tension due to the Cold War that had divided the entire planet into two camps. It was during the height of this that fear finished invading the collective and the analysis of the worst possible scenario appeared in the media constantly. Within this state of alarm, it was feared that the United States and the Soviet Union would use Antarctica for nuclear tests, exploitation of wealth or, even worse, as a means of combat.

Fortunately for the international scene, from July 1957 to December 1958 the International Geophysical Year took place. Which achieved the cooperation of just over 30,000 scientists from 66 countries for observation and research on Earth and its cosmic surroundings. This event, although unrelated to the problem of Antarctica, generated a moment of inertia that led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in the United States on December 1, 1959 by 12 states that, at the time, were conducting research on the continent:

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Chili
  • USA
  • France
  • Japan
  • Norway
  • New Zealand
  • United Kingdom
  • South Africa
  • Soviet Union

Due to territorial claims by seven of the 12 states, it took six weeks of intense negotiations to reach the agreement that resulted in the final treaty. Argentina, Australia and France were the most difficult negotiating parties. They did not like the idea that they would have to compromise on their sovereignty claims.

However, the treaty did not request the relinquishment of sovereignty claims, but rather placed them on a kind of diplomatic “pause” so that there would be no further pressure between the claimants. This can be seen in the fourth article, which establishes:

  1. Nothing in this Treaty shall be construed: a) As a waiver... of previously asserted territorial sovereignty claims... b) As a relinquishment... of any basis of claim to territorial sovereignty that (a State) may have either as a result of its activities or those of its nationals. c) As prejudicial to the recognition or non-recognition (of any signatory) of the claim of any other State... 2.- No new claim will be made... while the present Treaty is in force.

Additionally, the other 13 articles of the Antarctic Treaty stated that the signatories agreed:

  • Define Antarctica as all land and ice south of latitude 60 degrees south.
  • Ensure that scientific activity is encouraged.
  • Share information about scientific activity, meet regularly and prevent other nations from breaking the rules of the treaty.
  • Prohibit military activities, nuclear tests or waste disposal.
  • Allow signatories to inspect the databases of others
  • Resolve any dispute in the International Court of Justice.
  • Modify the treaty if all signatories agree and allow other members of the United Nations to join.

In the end, although all the countries adhered to the treaty, it still needed to be ratified by the parliaments of each state, something that only happened in Argentina more than 18 months later, which finally brought the agreement into force in June 1961.

Since then, not only has the number of countries involved increased to a total of 59, but the Treaty has also undergone various modifications to increase its protection of marine wildlife and the environment in general.

Antarctic Treaty Issues

Fishing is the current front line

Although it is, in theory, regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, not all countries are registered and there are suspicions that even those that are sometimes fish illegally or fail to report the actual size of their catch. The Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, is becoming an important fishing ground as resources from other seas are depleted [3]. However, opposition from China and Russia has repeatedly delayed the creation of new marine protected areas [4].

Krill fishing in Antarctica is a problem with serious consequences for marine life.

Fuzzy boundaries in research

Several hundred organizations, from universities to companies, are studying the genetic and biochemical makeup of Antarctic creatures for possible medical and commercial use. Proteins that prevent fish from freezing in Antarctic waters, for example, could be used to extend the shelf life of frozen foods.

Recently, Unilever, the British-Dutch multinational, has patented a protein extracted from bacteria from the continent to stop the formation of crystals in ice cream. In this sense, when studying the resources of Antarctica, there is always a blurred line between scientific knowledge and commercial exploitation – which is prohibited by the treaty.

Tourism Regulations

For most tourists, who pay between $10,000 and $100,000 for a trip, visiting Antarctica means getting off the boat at just a handful of landing sites highly regulated by the Antarctic Treaty System. However, there are loopholes in the system, such as private yachts that can reach Antarctica bypassing permit rules, as well as a growing number of tours that involve activities such as kayaking or skiing.

What happens if it is violated?

Since 2004, the permanent headquarters of the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty has been in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In it, meetings are held with relative frequency to discuss reforms and additions to the treaty. For example, a consensus was recently reached regarding the use of drones in Antarctic territory. However, there is a subject that is evaded with greater impetus – What happens if someone violates the agreements? In this sense, there is no further regulation and the binding power of the treaty has been repeatedly tested. This is a serious problem that calls into question the treaty.

The agony of the Antarctic treaty

Not only is there a problem regarding the sanctions that should be applied to those who violate the agreement, but in the last 20 years there has not been any major change in it. This is largely due to the number of signatories which has made the system unwieldy: in 1980 there were just 13 countries that had 'consultative' status to make key decisions on treaty matters; this number has increased to 29 – being a group whose members are extremely diverse: from Peru to South Korea and South Africa.

The fact that the number of signatories has expanded means that there will be many more voices involved in any possible revision which could hinder possible changes due to the fact that - as it is a system that requires full consensus - all members have a power de facto veto. We should then ask ourselves what role the new members will play within the treaty and what has been their motivation for being part of it.

Certainly, due to the conditions under which the signing of '59 took place, there could be some rancor towards the original signatories – a group of 12 countries then determined the fate of an entire continent. And they did so, or rather, “got away with it” because much of what we now call the Global South, much of the modern world we take for granted, did not exist in the late 1950s. .

Meanwhile, the number of permanent scientific research stations in Antarctica has risen to more than 75. China, which in 1959 was busy with domestic affairs, has been a particularly enthusiastic builder of new research stations since it joined the treaty in 1983.

China's strong presence in Antarctica is likely to create tension with Western countries.

Recently, one of his proposals has raised concerns within the treaty. This is a special "code of conduct" that would apply to a large area around its Kunlun Station research base, which has been seen as an attempt by China to limit activities near its base. This is in contrast to Article VII which states that "All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, facilities and equipment within those areas...shall be open to inspection at all times."

The construction of China's fifth research base has also been controversial because preliminary construction activities were started before the environmental impact assessment was completed, in violation of protocol. The lack of punishment for these, and other similar offenses in other countries, is one of the weaknesses of the treaty system that could predict its imminent extinction.

China's interest is not limited to the possible natural resources available, but also to the strategic importance of the continent: having a ground station near the South Pole can increase the accuracy of global navigation satellite systems. This situation has not gone unnoticed by other technological powers such as the USA, Russia and the EU, which could be a reason for conflict in the not too distant future.

In this regard, it has not only been China that has been building strategies that generate benefits in the event of a collapse of the Antarctic treaty. Argentina and Chile have carried out a series of activities to strengthen their claims, including allowing several children of their citizens to be born on the continent. In both countries, the sense that the countries are literally geologically connected to Antarctica is instilled in education. This fact can be appreciated in the national maps that show Argentina and Chile extending to the South Pole.

The Argentine government has maintained a firm discourse and position regarding its sovereignty in Antarctica.

Who owns Antarctica?

It is a question whose incidence in society is relatively null in these times. However, as we get closer to 2048, the date on which the ban on mining and extraction activities in Antarctica “expires”, or, as climatic conditions worsen as a result of global change, this question will resonate in echoes. within various international institutions and organizations.

It is not even necessary to wait decades before there is any conflict over Antarctic resources. Recently, a plan to drag an iceberg from the Antarctic continent to the country has been the subject of discussion in South Africa and thus temporarily resolve the critical situation of cities such as Cape Town, which has a severe shortage of water [6]. With the continent having the largest freshwater reserve on the planet (70%), and with a scenario that points to more cities in the world suffering the same misfortune as Cape Town, it won't be long before chaos can break out within the Antarctic treaty system in a fight for its resources.

Coupled with the fact that there's a strong possibility that Antarctica shares the same oil and mineral wealth as Australia – the two were part of Gondwana, the supercontinent, for millions of years – it's time to remember that a gentleman's agreement only works between (true) ) gentlemen.


    [1] Fogg, G.E. (2000). The Royal Society and the Antarctic. London, The Royal Society: Notes and Records of the Royal Society London, Vol. 54.

    [2] Prieto Larrain, M. Cristina (2004). «El Tratado Antártico, vehículo de paz en un campo minado». Revista Universum.

    [3] ABC (2019). Failure to agree on new Antarctic protection calls group’s ‘credibility into question’. Revisado el 03 de nov de 2020 en:

    [4] The Atlantic (2020). The Countries Taking Advantage of Antarctica During the Pandemic. Revisado el 03 de noviembre de 2020 en:

    [5] Business Insider (2019). A pirate-fighting sailor wants to lasso and tow a 125-million-ton iceberg from Antarctica to solve South Africa’s water crisis. Revisado el 03 de noviembre de 2020 en:

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