AUSTRALIAN officials believe they are getting closer to worldwide acceptance of a ban on mining in the Antarctic. Three years ago this contentious issue prevented the acceptance of a treaty that was negotiated over a six-year period. Starting April 22, the major participants in Antarctic negotiations will meet again in Madrid to discuss a different draft treaty on the frozen continent's environment.
At this point, the Australians believe 16 of 39 members of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties now back some form of mining prohibition. Officials, however, believe they are still 18 months away from getting a consensus for a final treaty.
The Antarctic discussions are a continuation of negotiations that began in 1982 on a treaty called the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities. Three years ago, 37 nations met in Wellington, New Zealand, for what they hoped would be the signing of the treaty. But Australia and France never signed the treaty and it was never ratified by any of the countries that did sign it.
The negotiations continued in Vina del Mar, Chile, last November, where Italy and Belgium joined the French and Australian position.
Australian officials say that since November another dozen countries have indicated they broadly support Australia's mining ban proposition.
A key reason for the shift in sentiment is the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Alaska.
"The ramifications of an oil spill or other environmental disaster were brought home to the world community," says an Australian official. In Canberra, for example, the prime minister's office was inundated with letters urging Parliament not to ratify the Wellington agreement.
Australian officials are watching to see how the United States position develops. President Bush signed into law last year legislation that declared it was US policy to pursue an indefinite prohibition on commercial mining or related developments.
However, 16 US senators recently wrote to Mr. Bush, complaining that US negotiators were trying to convince other nations to adopt a policy that would "ultimately facilitate and encourage mining activities in this area." In Chile, the US position was that there should be a 20-to-40-year moratorium on mining. The senators reminded the president, "A prohibition which ends after a certain time does not amount to an indefinite ban."
The Australians will also be watching the Japanese and British positions. The Japanese have in the past opposed any ban on mining. The British, who also opposed mining bans, are closer to accepting a moratorium.
The Australians oppose the concept of a moratorium. "It implies a delay that we didn't want to countenance," says an official. Instead, Australia prefers prohibition. At the end of 60 years, any country could ask for a review of the ban. Greenpeace Australia endorses this approach.
Although the mineral reserves in Antarctica are not known, it is assumed the potential is vast. The icy continent is the size of Australia, and scientists believe there are deposits of oil, platinum, nickel, copper, chromium, zinc, cobalt, gold, tin, and coal.