In 1871 the cook of a survey party in Kimberley, South Africa stumbled upon the first exhumed diamond of what is now the world’s premier diamond mining region. Within a year of that discovery, 50,000 prospectors and miners had descended on the once pristine and uninhabited region. Today, Kimberley is known for two things - diamonds and the world's deepest man-made hole.
With the recent discovery of diamonds in Antarctica, it appears the southernmost continent is at risk of following the path of Kimberley. This is one of the more recent episodes in a series of valuable mineral discoveries in the Antarctic. We have also found evidence of petroleum stores, as well as several precious metals. However, mining these minerals is especially harrowing, expensive and would decimate the continent. Thankfully, we have the Antarctic Treaty system which expressly forbids the mining of Antarctic mineral resources. But is it enough?
What is the Antarctic Treaty?
Since it has no permanent or native human population, Antarctica is not singularly governed by any country. The Antarctic Treaty System and its related agreements govern and regulate activities related to Antarctica. The treaty, which came into force in 1961, sets Antarctica aside strictly as a demilitarized scientific preserve. There are now 50 parties to the Antarctic treaty, including the US, Australia and China.
In 1988, with the addition of the Madrid Protocol, the Antarctic Treaty expanded its reach to more widely protect the Antarctic Environment. Among other things the protocol states, “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited."
So what are we afraid of?
Currently, the Madrid Protocol is set to remain in effect until 2048, at which point it will go under review by the treaty’s consultative parties who may choose not to renew it. As our more convenient mineral stores continue to empty, we grow bolder, more innovative, and more desperate to find new sources for these highly valued commodities.
Some fear that countries are subtly working to position themselves for that moment in 2048, when the consultative parties may let go of the Madrid Protocol. One need only look to China, which has already built four Antarctic research stations and has scouted the construction site for its fifth. As China is in no way bashful about expanding their influence into Antarctica, they would have more stations there than Australia and Britain, and one fewer than the US.
Hopefully, the recent proceedings of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) are NOT an indication of future Antarctic (dis)agreements. There was some division at the most recent CCAMLR meeting over the establishment of a marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. This would have been one of the largest marine reserves in the world, and would protect one of the most ecologically valuable regions on the planet. However, parties with large fishing interests in the region – namely Russia and the Ukraine – put a stop to this. If this trend expands from CCAMLR to the Antarctic Treaty, and Antarctic parties continue to act on behalf of their singular short term economic gain over the longterm global benefit, then the Madrid Protocol’s days are most likely numbered. This would lead to eventual mining in the Antarctic and untold global environmental challenges.