United Nations, N.Y.
It is the coldest, windiest, and least accessible of the seven continents. One of its most famous explorers called it ''an awful place.'' Legally, its status is murky. And as for population, it has none - except for a few scientific teams scattered about and large numbers of penguins.Skip to next paragraph
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Nevertheless, Antarctica is gaining increasing interest from a number of countries because of suspicions that it could be a goldmine of precious resources. There is so much interest, in fact, that Antarctica may soon become the focus of an international struggle of diplomacy played out at the United Nations.
The questions: Who owns - or who should own - Antarctica? And how should its mineral resources be divided?
In the past, debate over these questions has generally been limited to the 12 signers of the Treaty of Antarctica, which went into effect in 1961 and expires in 1991.
Now, however, the third world is beginning to insist that it have a role in Antarctica, too.
Buoyed by the recent passage of the Law of the Sea Treaty in the UN, several African and Asian nations are asking that the United Nations intervene - a prospect that worries the signatories to the original treaty.
Will this huge land - larger than China, larger than the United States and Mexico together - be carved up into national territories or ruled for and by all nations?
At last fall's UN General Assembly, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatin Ben Muhammad said, ''Now the time has come for the UN to focus its attention to the continent of Antarctica. This land does not legally belong to its discoverers just as the colonialized countries did not belong to the colonial powers.''
As early as 1956, India's permanent representative to the UN, Arthur S. Lall, requested that ''the question of Antarctica be included on the provisional agenda of the General Assembly.'' In 1979 Peru's Alvaro de Soto, now an adviser to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, had warned the 12 nations that had in 1959 signed the Treaty of Antarctica ''not to set aside private hunting grounds in the Antarctic.'' The New Zealand Prime Minister at the time suggested a form of UN trusteeship over Antarctica.
A number of third-world countries (Guinea, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, to name but a few) are indicating a growing interest in the fate of Antarctica. Others are likely to follow suit. It was after all a tiny country, Malta, that first, in 1962, brought up the question of a Law of the Sea Treaty at the UN. Nobody paid much attention to what seemed a cranky idea at the time. Today, 20 years later, the Law of the Sea Treaty has been adopted by a majority of nations and has become international law.
There has been a flurry of scientific interest in Antarctica in the last year or two. Last month Brazil sent two ships equipped for scientific research with great fanfare. India launched an expedition of its own in great secrecy and for 10 days installed a base of its own 60 miles north of the Soviet base of Novolozaresvskaya on Antarctic territory. France is building a landing strip on one of its Antarctic bases (''Terre Adelie'') so that it may fly its scientific personnel there rather than send them by ship. West Germany installed its own Georg von Neumaier base on Antarctica. Even China is showing interest in scientific research regarding that icy continent.
Some analysts here say the attraction felt suddenly and simultaneously for Antarctica by these and other countries may not be purely scientific. Technologies have recently been developed to extract Arctic oil and similiar methods could allow extraction of other minerals in 10 to 15 years. Exploiting Antarctica's mineral resources has become cold reality. By engaging in research, countries want to legitimize their present or future claims on slices of Antarctica, according to a UN official.
In the opinion of geologists, Antarctica holds not only major offshore oil deposits but also deposits of platinum, nickel, copper, chromium, zinc, cobalt, gold, tin, possibly uranium, and certainly the largest coal field in the world. Australian, Canadian, Japanese, American (Gulf Oil, Texaco, Exxon, Atlantic Richfield) companies have already shown interest in obtaining prospecting rights.
When Capt. Robert Scott of Great Britain set foot on Antarctica in 1912, he called it ''an awful place.'' It has little or no daylight for six months of the year. Winds sometimes exceed 200 miles-per-hour.