Chile eyes growth potential of Antarctic

Population growth is spurring several countries, like Chile, to search for more living space and masses of fresh water.

To Chileans, the Antarctic is more than just a cold, inhospitable place, says Edmundo Boudon. It is their cold, inhospitable place.

"Most Chileans assume Chile has a right to part of the Antarctic and see it as a future avenue of growth," says the tour guide and one-time Antarctic visitor.

That attitude, based in part on Chile's proximity to the icy place, located just a few hours by plane from the southern tip of the nation, isn't new. But amid steadily rising tourism, Chilean authorities are trying - with renewed vigor - to strengthen the nation's Antarctic ties.

"We want to have a presence," says Oscar Pinochet, head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (Inach), the government body that spearheads Chilean activity on the continent. Examining an Antarctic map and sweeping his hand over the slice claimed by Chile - between the 53rd and 90th western longitudinal lines where the white continent's peninsula juts toward the tip of South America - he continues: "We consider ourselves custodian of this sector."

Inach officials also point to more-tangible, if not futuristic, matters - the need for more living space, perhaps by 2100, to accommodate the globe's ever-expanding population and the masses of fresh water in the form of Antarctic snow and ice the larger populace will require.

Mr. Pinochet says Chile's proximity could convert it into an important player in any Antarctic development, strictly controlled under terms of the multilateral Antarctic Treaty, inked in 1959 and governing activity on the continent. But the country must be ready for the responsibility.

"Chile has to be well aware of where the planet will be 100 years from now," says Pinochet. "Chile is going to play a much more important role than it does today."

Chile is one of seven nations that claim a slice of Antarctica. The nation's claim, formalized in 1940, covers 1.25 million square kilometers, more than 1-1/2 times larger than Chile.

"Every Chilean knows it as Chile," says Steven Cuthbertson, a radio operator at Adventure Network International, a travel company in Punta Arenas that flies visitors to the Antarctic.

Inach is in the process of moving its headquarters from Santiago to Punta Arenas, and the landing strip is being expanded at Chile's Frei Montalva Air Force Base on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. The landing strip is one of two arrival points for airborne Antarctic tourists and the expansion - which could be completed by 2003 or 2004, Pinochet says - would foment increased tourist activity and strengthen Chile's link to the continent. An environmental impact study of the runway plans should be completed this year.

Argentina has a virtual monopoly on ship traffic to the Antarctic, accounting for the vast majority of tourists who visit each year. But two companies in Punta Arenas, Canada-based Adventure Network and Aerovias DAP, a regional airline, are the only firms providing commercial traffic for the handful of airline tourists who go to the continent each year.

Jaime Jelincic, governor of Magallanes province, where Punta Arenas is located, says that if the runway expansion at King George Island occurs, "thousands" of visitors will want to make the journey to the bottom of the world. Development of cruises out of a port near the base would be the next logical step.

But Chilean officials are also eyeing development closer to home. With the transfer of Inach to Punta Arenas and the corresponding influx of scientists - not to mention those who already pass through en route to the Antarctic - the city's status as Antarctic research center should prosper, says Gino Casassa, director of Antarctic programs at Punta Arenas's University of Magallanes. It should also help development of the university's fledgling Antarctic program.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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