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Keep clear of the penguins!

Sunday, August 12th 2007 - 21:00 UTC
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“Even during the Malvinas/Falklands war,  there was no conflict between Argentine and UK bases” said Mr Huber “Even during the Malvinas/Falklands war, there was no conflict between Argentine and UK bases” said Mr Huber

Dutchman Johannes Huber is the executive secretary of Antarctic Treaty System, which has its headquarters in Downtown Buenos Aires.

Fully expecting Johannes Huber to be a sort of Viceroy of the South Pole, the Herald had trouble hiding disappointment when the headquarters of the Antarctic Treaty System turned out to be half a floor along Leandro Alem, Buenos Aires, where the White Continent shares its offices with the United Nations' White Helmets. How could this be? "You share a very common misconception about the nature of this organization," a smiling Johannes Huber said, dispelling any myths as to his being something of a polar Governor-General. "Within the treaty system there has always been great resistance to any kind of institutionalization or some kind of supranational body. As a result the secretariat is an entity with very limited purposes and authority." The only real authority over the Antarctic is the annual meeting of the countries that have signed up to the treaty. The secretariat, which Huber heads, is nothing but a "service unit" to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), he insists. That doesn't mean its responsibilities are of little consequence. Created in September 2004 with a budget of a mere 700,000 dollars a year, it is the secretariat's job to organize and streamline the annual ATCM and also to collect and store the reports and minutes of all the previous meetings since the signing of the treaty in 1959. Apart from that, it must provide the public with information about the Antarctic and the treaty that regulates it. Treaty members chose Buenos Aires as the headquarters because of its strategic location ? around 90 percent of all visitors to the Antarctic pass through Argentina ? and because it was a candidate from the very first meeting (in 1992) which decided to create the office. Given that there are three basic approaches to Antarctic sovereignty; (the right of the explorer countries (e.g. Britain and Norway); the right of the adjacent countries (e.g. Australia and Argentina) and the right of us all (the Antarctic as the heritage of all mankind), how is the issue of sovereignty handled, the Herald asked Huber. "The treaty deals with sovereignty in its Article 4," he said, adding, not surprisingly, that it was "very complicated." Actually, he admitted, before taking this job he himself was hard-pressed to understand Article 4. "If you would have asked me at the time, is it legal according to the treaty to have a man in Ushuaia, who calls himself the governor of Argentine Antarctica (Tierra del Fuego Governor Hugo Cóccaro ed.), I would have said mmm..., that doesn't sound quite correct." But in fact Huber points out, it is completely legal provided that it is not used to cause conflict. "All the treaty does," he says, "is preserve the positions as they were in 1959. Nothing any country says or does while the treaty is in effect can alter its claim on the Antarctic." What that means is, as Huber explained, "the treaty allows Argentina to voice its claim, while at the same time allowing the other countries to ignore this." The great thing about the treaty is, according to its executive secretary, that although you might expect quarrels between countries that claim part of Antarctica (e.g. Argentina and Britain), countries that had the muscle to claim part of the pole but didn't do so, (US and Russia) and countries such as the Netherlands that don't recognize any claims at all to the uninhabited continent, is that "once the treaty was signed, it never came up again." Sovereignty, who should own what, just isn't an issue. "Even during the Falklands/Malvinas war (in 1982), there was no conflict between Argentine and UK bases," Huber explained, adding, "Therefore, although the treaty was originally intended to avoid conflict, nowadays we just take that for granted." What then is the main headache for those responsible for governing the ice-capped continent? The answer is clearly threats to the environment. Huber estimates that 80 percent of the agenda at treaty meetings is dominated by dealing with threats to the Antarctic's delicate eco-system. The main worry is global warming, Huber explains- "The Antarctic is one of the fastest-warming areas in the world. If you have an area covered in ice or snow it reflects the heat, keeping it cool. As soon as some of it starts to disappear, you get a self-reinforcing mechanism." Unfortunately, he admits, global warming is not something the Treaty can do anything about. As for other environmental issues, there is a ban on mineral exportations, "although we expect there is quite a bit of oil and gas beneath the ice." Nonetheless, Huber admits, pressure on the Antarctic is increasing as oil prices continue to rise. However, in comparison to the North Pole region, which currently is the object of a Russian, Danish and Canadian energy race, conditions in Antarctica are different. First of all, there is no treaty in place for the Arctic and secondly extracting oil or gas through a four-kilometre icecap, such as exists over the Antarctic, would prove a horrendous challenge for anyone intent on drilling there. Another concern, Huber says, is the enormous boom in tourism to the Antarctic. "From a few thousand, to around 30,000 in the last few years," according to the treaty secretary. Although the Antarctic is vast, tours overwhelmingly favour the Antarctic Peninsula. Huber insists the parties to the treaty are doing what they can to control and regulate tourism. "Regulations are very specific," he claims. For instance, you have to keep at least five metres from the penguins. There are tourist guidelines for every site, which also limit the number of people who can be there at any one time. That's all very well but, as Huber himself admitted; enforcing those regulations is a huge problem. The parties to the treaty lack the infrastructure in place "to act as park rangers or as a coast guard." Thankfully, self-regulation of the tourist industry is in its own interest, he says, because they have everything to gain from preserving the Antarctic. Virtually all trips to the White Continent are organized by companies belonging to the International Association of Antarctic Tourist Operators (IAATO), which makes co-ordination of the guidelines smoother. For example, there is a strict arrangement not to have more than one ship in any given place at a time because otherwise the whole nature experience is lost. Co-operation and understanding be they between tour operators or treaty signatories, are vital to the protection and preservation of the White Continent, Huber argued throughout the interview. The Executive Secretary to the Antarctic Treaty may not enjoy a vice royal status, but then his job, as he made clear, requires a democrat and not an autocrat. By Paul Scheltus and Michael Soltys Buenos Aires Herald

Categories: Antarctica, International.

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