Antarctic mission underlines Argentina's territorial claims
|Overlapping Antarctica claims...|
Surveying the landscape surrounding the desolate bay on King George Island, 75 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula, Argentina's foreign minister Susana Malcorra gestures towards jagged outcrops of rock protruding from the snowy expanse.
"As Antarctica becomes more relevant for the world, we have to strengthen our presence to protect our interests," she told accompanying journalists. "What happens to Antarctica happens to Argentina."
Argentina first established a permanently inhabited base in Antarctica in 1904, almost a decade before Captain Robert Scott's fateful South Pole expedition. Its main foothold today is the Carlini research station, which undertakes scientific work including the effects of climate change on the region.
Visiting Carlini, Ms Malcorra said the work of the base was vital to enforcing the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which enshrined the vast territory as a scientific preserve. Argentina was one of the founding signatories of the treaty, penned at the height of the cold war as a conflict prevention tool, suspending all territorial claims and banning military activity.
For now, commercial activity in the Antarctic is limited mainly to fishing and tourism - enforcement largely involves the use of satellites and naval patrols to keep poaching of the rich fishery stocks in check.This is the Financial Times, so of course, they only cite Russia and China. Says one diplomatic source, unnamed. But Russia and China aren't alone in looking for opportunities to exploit resources
But there are increasing concerns that nations such as Russia and China are looking at opportunities to exploit Antarctica's mineral riches, mirroring fears over the Arctic as melting sea ice opens up the historic Northern Sea Route between Europe and Asia and the possibility of oil exploration.
"Who is to say what countries like Russia and China will do in 30 years' time? They might say 'we need these resources' [that are] in the Antarctic," said one diplomatic source.
But Ms Malcorra's visit, the first to the Southern Ocean island by an Argentine foreign minister, was also aimed at assuring Argentines that the year-old government of Mauricio Macri, president, was serious about defending overseas territorial claims.
The Macri administration has come under fire - even from influential members of his own governing coalition - for seeking to mend relations with the UK which have suffered from a dispute over the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory invaded by Argentina in 1982.
Indeed, Argentina's claims in the Antarctic over a wedge-shaped chunk of land almost as large as Egypt fall, within a slightly larger area that is claimed by the UK. They also overlap with Chilean claims. King George Island is known to Argentines as Isla 25 de Mayo (May 25 Island), after their independence day. (see above image)
As a result of the Antarctic Treaty, the region has for decades been held up as a unique example in global co-operation. King George Island is home to a dozen international research stations, including China's Great Wall base and a Russian outpost with an ornate miniature Orthodox church, continually manned by a priest.
Many would like matters to stay the way they are and ensure the region's resources are protected. Last year, for instance, the Antarctic region's Ross Sea was declared the world's largest marine protected area.
Máximo Gowland, head of Antarctic affairs at Argentina's foreign ministry, says science is "the paramount issue" in Antarctica. "Everything that is going on in Antarctica has to have a scientific basis to it, so all countries are basically revamping their Antarctic science," he says, adding that Argentina is keen to boost scientific investment.
Susana Malcorra on her visit to the Carlini research station on King George Island
Nevertheless, the researchers working at the Carlini station are acutely aware of the geopolitical tensions that serve as a backdrop to their work.
"Antarctica brings [science and politics] together, so that we do scientific research thinking also about politics," says Lucas Ruberto, who leads the team. "They are two different paths that find their common point in what we do here."
Ms Malcorra insists her government is strengthening sovereignty in a "modern" way by defending the integrity of the polar region and of Argentine territory. She points out that while many Argentines think their country ends at Tierra del Fuego - which they call the "end of the world" - its southernmost province includes the Antarctic claims.
To emphasise this, the previous government decreed that official maps show Argentina's Antarctic claims on the same scale as the rest of the country, rather than in a smaller-sized inset.
"We have to preserve [Antarctic resources] and ensure they are managed in a way that does not affect the ecosystem," Ms Malcorra says, adding: "The wealth belongs to everyone, but an important part of it is ours."