Treaty opens up world's last untouched continent to mining. Conservationists irate; others say treaty helps protect Antarctica

Only one continent in the world has never felt the bite of a miner's shovel. But its days of untouched soil may be numbered. After six years of arduous negotiations, 33 nations have hammered out an ``historic'' agreement to allow mining on the frozen continent of Antarctica.

This set of mining rules ``will go down in Antarctic history as the most important political development ... since the Antarctic Treaty itself was adopted in 1959,'' said New Zealand diplomat Christopher Beeby, who chaired the mineral-resource talks which ended last week.

But environmentalists are branding the agreement ``a sellout.'' The Antarctic Minerals Convention now faces at least a two-year ratification battle that will span the globe. The governments of 16 of the 20 Antarctic Treaty consultative parties (voting members) must ratify the document in order for it to go into effect.

(The Antartic Treaty made scientific research the continent's primary use, banned further land claims, and outlawed military operations. There are 37 Antarctic Treaty members. Only 33 of 37 attended the final mining negotiations. Since not all members attended the talks and not all negotiating diplomats were able to get exactly what they wanted, treaty ratification is expected to take at least two years.)

Conservation organizations such as Greenpeace International - which want Antarctica off limits to mining forever - say pro-mining countries (United States, West Germany, Japan, Britain, and France) have won this round. But they plan to lobby hard against the Convention, especially in countries such as Australia, Argentina, and Chile, which are known to have favored a more conservation-oriented agreement.

Most of the pro-mining countries have advanced technology and stand to profit from mining agreements. Many of the nations located closest to Antarctica, which would suffer most from any ecological imbalance, favor conservation.

Because of a voluntary moratorium on mining since 1977, no one knows exactly what mineral treasures lie beneath Antarctica's icy mantle. Some believe it could be the last El Dorado on earth. Circumstantial evidence points to deposits of oil, gold, platinum, iron, and coal.

But at current prices, mining is not economically feasible in Antarctica - the coldest, windiest, most remote continent on Earth. The polar landmass is almost entirely covered by colossal ice sheets averaging 1.5 miles thick, containing 70 percent of the world's store of fresh water. The movement (and melting) of the ice sheets profoundly influences climatic and ocean conditions worldwide.

Conservationists say the potential finite benefits of Antarctica's mineral resources are not worth the risk of polluting this fragile ecosystem - with its unique climatic and scientific value.

New Zealand's Mr. Beeby recognizes environmentalists' concerns. But in a Monitor interview, he argues this set of rules had to be drawn up now: ``If mineral deposits were ever discovered in commercially extractable quantities, an unregulated scramble for resources would have ensued.'' That scramble would jeopardize not only the environment but the Antarctic Treaty, Beeby says.

And he claims this agreement contains environmental standards ``much, much tougher than any international treaty.''

First, he notes, each treaty nation has the power of veto. All 20 voting nations must agree to open a region to mining. ``I know of no other national law, certainly not in New Zealand, that says you can't mine in area X or chop down trees in area Y unless all interested group say, `Yes.'''

Specific requests for exploration and mineral development must then be passed by a 10-nation regulatory committee, and must meet ``rigorous'' environmental standards set out in the convention.

And, if, for example, an oil spill should occur, the convention states the mining operator will be liable for all costs from cleaning up the Antarctic or associated ecosystems to pre-spill conditions. If the operator fails to do this, the nation sponsoring the operator bears liability.

But environmentalists find little comfort in such assurances. The effects of an oil spill could linger for 100 years. ``There should be unlimited and absolute liability,'' notes Catherine Wallace of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an organization comprising 175 environmental groups from 30 nations.

Miners are not liable if damages result from a ``natural disaster of an exceptional character,'' or an act of terrorism, or war occurs. But with icebergs the size of small countries and vicious storms, Ms. Wallace says, natural disasters are inevitable in Antarctica. And noting the Gulf war, Wallace says bringing in oil rigs simply invites conflict to the region.

Nor is Wallace impressed by Beeby's boast that no other international treaty has stiffer environmental standards. Compared with domestic environmental regulations, Wallace claims, the Antarctic convention would be unacceptable in most developed nations.

Environmentalists allow that each nation's initial veto power over opening a region to mining is a good first lock on Antarctica's gate. But once opened, they say, the commission relinquishes power to a 10-nation regulatory committee which can be subject to political horse-trading. One nation might say, ``I'll vote to approve your weak environmental plans, if you'll back me when I submit my mining plan with our domestic work-safety standards.'' The result, warns Greenpeace, could be that the same type of mining in various locations of Antarctica, could be governed by a potpourri of standards.

Despite six years of negotiations, conservationists insist that this minerals convention was rushed into prematurely. (Or at least before they could get the support to declare Antarctica a wilderness park.)

The convention isn't necessary from a conservation standpoint, says Wallace. The high costs and lack of legal framework for processing claims will prevent mining. ``No banker would back an Antarctic venture knowing that there was no protection from claim jumping. Rather than preventing mining, this convention is something mining companies desperately need as is a precondition to mineral activities. [It] provides them with the legal security to go ahead.''

Beeby argues that legal framework or not, if the prices of minerals rises high enough, an oil-starved nation such as Japan would find mining in Antarctica very tempting. Better to have the rules now than try to set them up after mining has begun, he says.

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