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CHILE: Antarctica Defended as Continent for Science

Monica Jaramillo

SANTIAGO, Mar 15 1996 (IPS) - Recognizing Antarctica’s importance as the world’s largest energy reserve and last major unpolluted region, Chile has put a freeze on its continental sovereignty claims in order to concentrate on scientific research there.

Chile’s Antarctic studies are improving understanding of the region’s ecosystems and confirming humanity’s interest in conserving the continent for peace and science.

But scientific progress would be greater if the Chilean government were to devote more resources to research, taking advantage of southern Chile’s proximity and similarity to the seventh continent.

Antarctica’s strategic importance as a world reserve of food, minerals and fresh water has encouraged the 1959 Antarctic Treaty signatory nations to study the Antarctic environment and learn how to preserve it.

Chile, an original treaty signatory, invests a modest amount of funds in scientific projects through its National Antarctic Institute (Inach), which has mounted a summer expedition to the continent every year since 1964.

But the Foreign Relations Ministry-affiliated Inach divides only 300,000 dollars among 50 researchers, who are now receiving additional support from the Chilean armed forces for the second year in a row.

Onelio Aguayo, leader of Chile’s last expedition, told IPS that it is critical that the Chilean government devote more resources to the scientific investigation of Antarctica’s natural resources and minerals.

“In order for Chile to have a strong presence in the international forums discussing the conservation and use of Antarctica’s resources, it is necessary for our representatives to have technical information derived from scientific research,” he said.

Aguayo says that all of Chile’s scientific efforts and those of other treaty signatories “still amount to little compared to what Antarctica will mean tomorrow for humanity.”

The food potential offered by the continent’s rich marine waters is one example of the area’s importance as a resource reserve.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world fish catch is less than 100 million tons. But some 300 million tons of krill, Antarctica’s principal crustacean, are thought to inhabit the continental waters.

Chile asserted its territorial claims early in the international competition for control over the seventh continent, declaring sovereignty in November 1940 over the area between the 53rd and 90th meridians west of Greenwich.

But the Antarctic Treaty won an important battle for international cooperation in the midst of the Cold War when it dedicated the seventh continent to peace and science, prohibited nuclear testing and militarization, and allowed the signatories to freely inspect each other’s activities.

The 1991 Madrid Protocol added new treaty signatories and extended its provisions for another 50 years before they can be amended.

The 48 signatories are drawn to the continent by its vital importance to the world’s climate and environment, its rich oceans (due to unusual water temperature characteristics), its still- unexplored energy and mineral reserves, and its potential as a tourist destination.

Aguayo says it’s necessary to learn about Antarctica’s animal and mineral resources before claiming sovereignty. To that end, Inach is pursuing 13 projects of strategic importance for Chile in collaboration with other national scientific institutions.

Two of these projects are Aguayo’s “Whale Feeding” study of population recovery among a species driven to the brink of extinction by man and “Ecology of the Fine Antarctic Seal,” which examines the survival strategy of one of the first mammals to inhabit the forbidding region.

“We discovered 50 seals, including 12 pups, in 1965. The species was in danger of extinction at that time, but there are now 15,000 seals in the area, a good example of the fruits of conservation and studying the life of that animal,” Aguayo says.

The Chilean National Museum of Natural History is sponsoring Ruben Steberg’s “Historial Archeology” laboratory project investigating human Antarctic settlements of the last century, especially those of the seal hunters of South America.

This research is also supported by Spain, which lost a warship, the San Telmo, in Antarctic waters during Chile’s war of independence.

The life cycle of krill is the subject of yet another study. This crustacean is the region’s principal marine resource and a key link in the food chain for whales, seals and the rest of Antarctica’s animals.

In addition, Chile recently conducted two studies of the archaic Antarctic ecosystem. Teresa Torres’s “Paleobotany” research has discovered impressions of 200-million-year-old leaves that appear similar to the conifers of southern Chile.

The other project studies Antarctic microcellular organisms that consume minerals on ocean floors. These provide a measure of the coal that formed 300 or 400 years ago when Antarctica was located in the southern tropics.

Aguayo also draws attention to Dr. Wanda Quilhot’s research on the chemicals Antarctic lichens produce for protection against ultraviolet radiation, which may also be of value in protecting human skin.

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