Environment and Antarctic treaty

Email This Page

The 3rd International Polar Year, in 1957-1958, saw the establishment of unprecedented scientific cooperation in Antarctica which had political ramifications: the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in December by 12 countries, 7 of these termed ‘claimant’ states, that is claiming their sovereignty over a part of the Antarctic territory – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New-Zealand, Norway and Great Britain. Coming into force on 23rd June 1961, this treaty was based on the principle of a freezing of territorial claims and on a system of international co-operative management put in place to ensure the development of scientific research within the framework of cooperation between nations, maintenance of peace and the banning of all military activity. Its area of application extends over the whole region situated south of the 60th south parallel. In 2009, 47 States are members of the treaty, with twenty-eight having consultative party status and by that fact, due to their real involvement in Antarctica, having the right to vote at annual meetings.

The Antarctic treaty has been progressively enhanced by several agreements or instruments.

The Convention for the protection of Antarctic Seals ccas, adopted in London in 1972, prohibits the hunting of these animals. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources ccamlr, adopted in Canberra in 1980, is responsible for evaluating and managing halieutic resources in a geographic zone extending from north of the 60th parallel, south to the limit of the polar front of the Southern Ocean, up to 50° latitude south. Finally, the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty regarding protection of the environment was signed on 4 October 1991.

Also called the Madrid Protocol, it aims to ensure the overall protection of the environment in Antarctica and in the seas surrounding it, by creating a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. All the activities taking place there are subject to obligations regarding respect for the environment as they appear in the six annexes which cover respectively impact studies, protection of fauna and flora, elimination and management of waste, prevention of marine pollution, management of specially protected zones and responsibility for environmental damage. This protocol was inscribed in French legislation via Act No. 2003-347 of 15 April 2003 and its application decree (No. 2005-403 of 28th April 2005). Without going into the details of this regulation, it is interesting to focus upon some elements of these Annexes which have repercussions on activities at Dumont d’Urville:

  • Annex I specifies that every activity taking place in the treaty zone (logistical, scientific, cinematography etc) must firstly be subject to an environmental impact evaluation. If the estimated impact is real but considered “minor or transitory” that activity must be subject to an authorisation issued by the TAAF. If the expected impact is more significant, a detailed study is required and evaluated at an international level by the Committee for protection of the environment (CPE). This dual procedure of evaluating impacts and authorisation is fundamental as it constitutes practically the only tool for regulation of activities in the Antarctic Treaty zone
  • Annex II seeks to protect local fauna and flora via several measures such as the issuing of permits for scientists working on these organisms, and the prohibition of any voluntary introduction of vegetable or animal species. This regulation has several consequences: as, since 1994, expeditions in Antarctica cannot travel overland using dog sleds, nor contemplate greenhouse cultivation (of plants) to provide variety, as importation of non sterile soil is prohibited, nor raise animals, including domestic animals. Even ornamental plants are proscribed.
  • Annex III prohibits all storage of waste produced by human activity in Antarctica. Hence all waste must be repatriated or eliminated by methods which have a neutral impact on the environment. Thus incineration of some products is authorised on condition that it be done in closed facilities equipped with filters to prevent noxious exhaust going into the atmosphere. Even waste left by previous expeditions must be progressively removed.
    Finally, Annex V allows certain areas having an exceptional environmental, scientific, historic or aesthetic value to be classed as “specially protected Antarctic zones”.

Access to these zones from then on becomes regulated and subject to authorisation, and a management plan usually specifies certain precautions to be taken to respect the values at the origin of the classification. In Adelie land, the whole of the Jean Rostand, Le Mauguen, Lamarck and Claude Bernard islands, the Nunatak du Bon Docteur and the emperor penguins’ breeding ground were classified in 1995 as a Specially Protected Antarctic Zone. The zone is regulated by a management plan, which sets down particular conditions of access.