Our Burning Planet


Science, silence, stalemate – Antarctic Treaty meeting in India opens with warning of advancing mining tech

Science, silence, stalemate – Antarctic Treaty meeting in India opens with warning of advancing mining tech
Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace volunteers and other protesters demonstrate against the arrival of the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, a Russian vessel that conducts seismic surveys in Antarctica, at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, 26 January 2023. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

Extracting mineral resources in the ice wilderness may be illegal and a tough physical task to boot. Yet, a top Indian scientist told 56 states — including Russia, thought to be ‘prospecting' in the sensitive region — that he was worried about the ‘rapid’ growth of exploration methods, and how these might be used by ‘nations outside’ the Antarctic Treaty.

Launching under a cloud of controversy in Kochi, India, on Tuesday, May 21, the opening ceremony of the 2024 Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting (ATCM46) largely managed to avoid rocking the geopolitical icebreaker. 

That is, the 30-minute streamed portion of an otherwise closed opening ceremony — scheduled to last 150 minutes — seemed to dodge most possible powder kegs, even though Russia’s “prospecting” activities in Antarctica have rocked world headlines in the past week.

The 1959 demilitarisation treaty devotes the vast, ice-covered frontier to peaceful pursuits such as science and tourism. More than 60 years later, it is still seen as a benchmark diplomatic achievement. 

Dr Shailesh Nayak, director of India’s National Institute of Advanced Studies, delivered a warning about “rapidly” advancing mining technologies.

“Resource demands are likely to increase in the next 50 years as the climate continues to change and the technology advances,” he said, highlighting the issue among his top three challenges including tackling climate change and tourism.

“Though the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty prohibits any activity related to mineral resources other than scientific research, nations outside the treaty are not bound by its exclusions,” Nayak said. “Technologies for oil, gas and mineral exploration in remote regions have been developed or are advancing rapidly.” 

New Indian Act’s ‘permit for mineral resource activities’

India also maintains strategic and scientific interests in the Arctic and the Himalayas and its commitment to protecting the southern frontier’s environment was enshrined by the enactment of the tripolar nation’s Antarctic Act in August last year.

The Protocol’s mining ban outlaws “mineral resource activities”, but allows “scientific research”. And while the new Indian Act explicitly prohibits drilling, dredging or excavating for “mineral resources” in Antarctica, it still establishes a framework to issue permits for “mineral resource activities” if the authority in question deems these activities to be “scientific research”.

A damning April 2022 editorial in The Telegraph India described the Bill of the time as a “tenuous balance between scientific objectives and prospecting”. 

It did praise this Act’s features, including permitted tourism and the extension of Indian court jurisdiction to Antarctica. However, it cautioned about possible resource desperation by 2048, when there is a legal possibility that the ban, which has no expiry date, can be renegotiated and even lifted after crossing tough hurdles. 

The silence of Antarctic Treaty governments on Russia’s extensive seismic surveys, brought to light by a Daily Maverick investigative series since October 2021, has been conspicuous.

Though we have repeatedly contacted the treaty secretariat and Committee for Environmental Protection since 2021 to comment on the surveys by the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, Rosgeo, we have yet to receive formal comment. 

Daily Maverick’s series has published several other documents by Russian state actors citing 70 billion-ton hydrocarbon estimates of possible reserves beneath the Southern Ocean — converted as about 500 billion barrels of oil and gas. In February 2020, a Rosgeo statement claimed to have found 70 billion tons of oil and gas in the Southern Ocean’s East Antarctic sedimentary basins.  

While Russian scientists have used seismic data for tectonic scientific research, third parties might wonder why such estimates are being published. The mineral explorer has also visited the Weddell Sea, under dormant claims by Argentina, Chile and the UK, six times since 2011 — though this particular sea’s potential reserves may not be vast.

The apparent reluctance to address the matter may stem from geopolitical considerations, economic interests and the complexities of international diplomacy. It remains to be seen whether these near-annual undertakings via South Africa and South America will get any further airtime at this year’s closed-door meeting, especially as India is Russia’s top client for seaborne oil, as Reuters reports. And the event is hosted on BRICS turf.  

We approached the Indian host secretariat for comment. Answers were not received by the deadline. 

Don’t ‘squander’ this: A cautious, UK-led coalition? 

Writing about Russia’s “troubling” activities in The Spectator at the weekend, the leading polar geopolitician Professor Klaus Dodds urged judicious diplomacy. Though BRICS is an intergovernmental forum entirely independent of the treaty system, alliance partners Brazil, China, South Africa and, indeed, Russia, have sent decision-making delegations to Kochi. Both Moscow and Pretoria have previously defended the Russian seismic surveys — which caused a spate of 2023 protests in Cape Town — as simple science. 

Here, Dodds suggested it was important to acknowledge Russia as a “major polar player” in the icy southern frontier. Like BRICS partner South Africa, it is a founding treaty signatory and decision-maker state. It viewed Antarctica as both a “scientific laboratory” and a “resource frontier in which the country must ensure its interests are not compromised by those who have greater capacity to exploit it”. 

East Antarctic sea ice during the summer of 2009/10, as seen from the SA Agulhas I, the South African polar research vessel. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

Moscow has also been hostile to an extension of marine protected areas because it worries that its access to future fishing opportunities will be disadvantaged. 

“Russia’s interest in the Antarctic isn’t going to go away any time soon. Britain has a real opportunity to lead a coalition that would preserve the continent’s place as neutral ground before raw geopolitics interferes further,” Dodds wrote, urging “it would be wise not to squander it.”

The elephant seals in the room

The Indian host panel was keen to stress environmental protection, the impacts of climate change and the primacy of science. It noted that the meeting would lead something quite historic: the first focused working group hoping to produce regulations for the roughly 220,000 tourists that have poured into the Antarctic since 2022. 

For the rest, it skipped over a rogue’s gallery of burning issues that presumably deserved some kind of diplomatic acknowledgement, including: 

‘Do we really need 20 years to implement one annex?’

“Very important building blocks to regulate Antarctic tourism” are still not in force, Professor Akiho Shibata, director of Kobe University’s Polar Cooperation Research Centre in Japan, noted at a Monday public seminar in Kochi ahead of the ATCM. 

“We have spent almost 20 years on how to implement them and I think it’s too long. And the same goes with environmental liability,” Shibata said. “Of course, there are several difficulties, depending on some of the countries. But do we really need 20 years to implement one annex?”

A prominent polar law expert and former head of the Japanese delegation, Shibata added: “So, therefore, it is very important that we show the regime is effective by agreeing to the new rules and making them legally enforceable.”

“Formal regulation of tourism has been delayed for too long,” added Claire Christian, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Asoc). The ATCM, Christian observed, “offers a crucial opportunity to finally adopt enforceable regulations and prevent impacts on Antarctica’s biodiversity”.

‘Unregulated’ grey water, microplastics: rein in stations, ships

Asoc, which is attending the meeting, has flagged other unregulated headaches. 

“The increasing numbers of tourists and research stations in the region also mean more microplastics and ‘grey water’ — the water used for bathing, laundry, et cetera — discharged into Antarctica’s waters. 

“Grey water discharges, which often include microplastic fibres from synthetic clothing fabrics, are currently unregulated,” the organisation said.  

“Microplastics have already been detected in Antarctic waters and species. To combat this emerging threat, Asoc and its members are calling on the ATCM to impose stricter requirements on vessels and research stations.” 

Would the real adults please stand up? 

Also speaking at the Monday public seminar, Brazilian PhD candidate Yousra Makanse cited the extreme floods in southern Brazil as a warning of “more frequent and intense” climate activity.  

“More than 500,000 people have been displaced from their homes and more than 150 have lost their lives,” said Makanse, an Antarctic tourism researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The PhD candidate had been invited as a “representative of the future generation and to speak about the responsibilities of the current generation towards the future of Antarctica”. 

“Remember that decisions here do not only impact the ATCM parties, but the whole world,” Makanse pointed out, citing the climate youth activist Helena Gualinga’s keynote speech at the Helsinki ATCM. “She said that we count on decision-makers to have the ambition ‘to leave us the legacy that we deserve and need for our survival’.” 

During the meeting held at the Port of Helsinki, South Africa had opted out of a resounding standing ovation for this very climate activist, staying seated next to the Russian delegation. The delegations were seated alphabetically. DM

Absa OBP

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