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Antarctic Treaty Threatens Continent

There exists a vast, eternally white continent where life clings to the borders of death. There the icy air is light to the lungs and offers magical transparency to the sight. The hours of bewitching quietness and of total sun are swept away by raging blizzards that spare intruders only by chance.

This immense austral land is buried under mountains of snow, piled up and frozen over the course of tens of millions of years. Fossils, the vestiges of important chapters in our planet’s history, sleep under their immaculate shroud. All around circles a silent carrousel of giant icebergs that have been torn from the shores, and dwarf lichens sprinkle the coast ice with hesitant spots of color. A fringe of salty ice protrudes, then disappears with seasons, while on land soft ice melts only to better solidify.

The sea sometimes reddens with clouds of tiny shrimp--krill--on which penguins, whales and, indirectly, seals stuff themselves in order to survive. The seals move about under the pack ice while singing eerie melodies; a fish--the icefish--injects proteins as antifreeze into its colorless blood; the orcas, endowed with majestic fins, blend their breath with the morning mist.

Antarctica, continent at the bottom of the world, has shown us its fragile state, which is due to the extreme simplicity of its ecosystems. But the forbidding rigor of its environment did not discourage some territorial claims that the 1959 Antarctic treaty has thus far managed to include. The document, signed by 12 nations and now honored by 26 others, ensures the demilitarization of Antarctica and lays great stress on its use for scientific research.

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Already whales have been hunted, and more recent tentative agreements (particularly that of April 7, 1982) have begun opening the way to industrial fishing for krill. Such hypocritical infringements on the spirit that enthusiastically gave birth to the Antarctic treaty--namely the willingness to preserve the last wilderness zone on our planet--caused us to sound a first cry of alarm in 1984.

Alas, this time, masks have fallen. Representatives of 33 countries, assembled in Wellington, New Zealand, have, after six years of difficult negotiations, signed an agreement that opens the entire Antarctic continent to a so-called controlled exploitation of its mining resources: coal, uranium, gold and oil.

The document even specifies that prospecting by means of seismic explosion of a “reasonable magnitude” is permitted. The cold? The ice? It will be difficult? It will be costly? What does it matter!? Since it is possible, exult the technocrats, it will be done! What? Dust from coal and smoke from oil torches are going to alter the protective whiteness of the surface, the albedo of the entire continent? The ice may melt; the sea may rise several dozen feet and engulf most of our cities? Come, come now! More ecologists’ tales!

Hardly. We need only take the example of the Bahia Paraiso, the Argentine supply ship that ran aground in January off Palmer Station, a crucial U.S. scientific base. The diesel-fuel cargo leaked slowly, over a matter of days, but 20 years of scientific research was compromised before clean-up vessels could even reach the spill.

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Oil-coated seabirds and smothered plankton--microscopic sea creatures being studied in experiments to gauge how increased ultraviolet sunlight will effect the ocean surface. Accidental pollution had finally stained the laboratory of Antarctica. It was a “minor” oil spill, authorities said, but the local consequences to the fragile ecosystem will take years, if ever, to recoup.

If an innocent ship with an innocent purpose can cause potential catastrophe, what of mining operations? Are we naive enough to believe that miners will put on white coats and brush their feet before they unleash their industrial maelstrom?

Citizens of the entire world, be on the alert! The Wellington Agreement is nothing more than a holdup on a planetary scale. It involves the smashing open of the safe that contains the most fantastic treasure: the last water reserve that cannot be controlled if it is set free. The hostages: seals, birds, penguins, whales. Threatened is the whole of humankind whose conscience in managing the future of our planet risks being sacrificed to the cult of a meaningless golden calf.

The scrap of paper signed in Wellington will be applied when 16 of the 20 voting members of the 1959 treaty ratify it. We must at all costs oppose this ratification in the name of future generations.

In December, 1972, I disembarked from Calypso onto Antarctica for the first time. A serene sun shone upon the dusting of snow which had fallen during the night. With my heart beating excitedly, I took my first steps. The crackling of my boots in the soft powder made me look back. My footprints, soiled with a bit of grease, contrasted with the blinding whiteness of everything that surrounded me. Naively, I blushed with shame for not having cleaned the soles of my shoes.


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