Rembembering the tradegy of the 1978 GREENPEACE ship, "THE RAINBOW WARRIOR"
Happy 50th Antarctic Treaty
November 13, 2009
On December 1, 2009, Greenpeace celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. From this treaty, an international landmark was created and a World Park was established to protect an entire continent.
As a sponsor of the Antarctic Treaty Summit, we'll be looking at what we can learn from 50 years of international cooperation to manage and protect Antarctica, and discussing what still needs to be done.
How it all began
The campaign to save Antarctica was one of our greatest lessons in the importance of impossible ambitions. The campaign began with little faith that we would ever achieve a complete protection of the Antarctic from looming oil and mineral interests. Yet with a combination of daring action, solid science, and political pressure, we achieved the goal of declaring the Antarctic a World Park.
In 1985 Greenpeace embarked on perhaps its most ambitious campaign to date. Antarctica has become a unique place in the modern world, the only continent that remains relatively untouched by human interference and therefore arguably the only pristine wilderness left on Earth. For Greenpeace it seemed imperative to keep it that way. Some ecologists have even argued that Antarctica could provide important information for future generations seeking to reverse the environmental degradation wrought by humanity.
Despite winds of up to 280 miles per hour and temperatures reaching -58 ºF, Antarctica has the most delicate ecosystem of any place on earth. Ever since humankind began to explore the continent, it had been noted that Antarctic ecosystems take years to recover from damage if they recover at all. A footprint in the moss can linger for decades before it disappears.
In 1958, the Antarctica Treaty was signed by eighteen countries, seven of which claimed a territorial stake in the region. The treaty recognized Antarctica as a unique scientific and planetary resource for the whole of mankind and protected it for 30 years. At a meeting of the Antarctica Treaty Nations in 1975, a delegation from New Zealand first put forward the idea that the continent should be given 'World Park' status and be governed by similar legislation that protects many National Parks around the globe. But the proposal met with an unfavorable reception from the other treaty nations in 1975. Later the World Park idea was adopted as the bedrock of the Greenpeace Antarctica campaign.
There's oil under that ice
In the early 1980's the threat of commercial exploitation of Antarctica loomed large for a number of reasons:
the continent, although today covered in ice, was thought to be rich in flora and fauna millions of years ago;
strong evidence for the existence of oil and mineral deposits under the rock and ice;
and technological advances have made it feasible to drill for oil in conditions of extreme cold.
It seemed to environmentalists that the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty were all but lining up to start prospecting, and the prospects of stopping them looked slim.
The idea to campaign to make Antarctica a "World Park" was first suggested by Greenpeace in 1979. At first, the plan was modest. But, as more research was done it became apparent that the organization would have to set up a permanent base on the ice if it was to have a voice at the Antarctica Treaty table.
Greenpeace World Park Base
The task was a daunting one. No non-governmental organization had ever set up a base in Antarctica and there were many practical as well as political obstacles to overcome. Officially they made it known that they didn't want to mount rescue missions should something go wrong.
In 1985 it seemed that everyone's skepticism was justified. After months of preparation the worst weather conditions for 30 years prevented Greenpeace's Antarctic supply ship, the Greenpeace, from reaching the continent. This failure sparked a major a debate within Greenpeace about whether it was justified to even continue the campaign. But in 1986 another attempt was mounted.
Once again the Greenpeace set out from New Zealand carrying in her hold a pre-fabricated base and supplies for the 4 volunteer over-winterers: a mechanic, a radio operator, a scientist and a doctor. For its second attempt the Greenpeace ship was equipped with a larger helicopter capable of a greater flying range in case they met with similar ice conditions that stymied the 1985 attempt. This time, however, the Greenpeace was able to moor just 218 yards from the shore of Ross Island, the chosen location for the organization's permanent base on the ice. Construction began in earnest in the summer of January 1987 and World Park Base was completed and fully operational just three weeks later.
The base featured individual sleeping quarters, a communal living room, bathroom and shower, a laboratory facility, communications equipment and a hydroponics greenhouse so that vegetables could be grown to supplement the diets of the over-winterers. One of the campaign objectives was to make World Park Base a model for good ecological practice in the region, so every effort was made to ensure that it met the high standards necessary to lessen the impact of human beings on the delicate ecosystem. The tasks of the over-winterers during their year on the ice included monitoring pollution from the neighboring bases of McMurdo owned by the USA (which was the size of a small town) and Scott Base owned by New Zealand.