The Belgian presence in Antarctica dates back to the end of the 19th century, with the scientific expedition and wintering in Antarctica of the Belgica, led by Adrien de Gerlache. As part of the International Geophysical Year 1958-1959, it was decided to build the King Baudouin base. The Princess Elisabeth base, built as a CO2-neutral base, re-establishes the tradition of a Belgian presence in Antarctica. Given Belgium's historical links with Antarctica, it is not surprising that Belgium was one of the 12 original parties to the 1959 Washington Treaty on Antarctica.
The most important provisions of the Antarctic Treaty are:
- Antarctica will only be used for peaceful purposes
- freedom of scientific investigation;
- exchange and accessibility of scientific observations;
- the entire Antarctic region, including all bases and infrastructure, should be open to Inspections at all times
Some challenges for the future:
- Tourism: while tourism can contribute to wider support for environmental conservation in Antarctica, questions are being raised about the cumulative impact of repeated visits to some areas. A number of shipping accidents in recent years have increased the fear of disasters with loss of life and a severe environmental impact;
- Bioprospecting: organisms are present in Antarctica that are resistant to extreme external conditions and may be of use in medicine or industry in the future. The question is the extent to which the exploitation of results of scientific discoveries through e.g. patents is compatible with the exchange of scientific data;
- Global warming: global warming is also being felt in Antarctica and certainly affects living organisms in Antarctica. In addition, scientific research in Antarctica could provide elements for gaining a greater insight into the evolution of the climate over the centuries;
- The introduction of alien species: tourism and global warming increase the risk of introducing organisms that could disturb the ecological balance
In 1991, this was added to the Antarctic Treaty on the Protection of the Antarctic Environment by the Madrid Protocol. The Protocol declares Antarctica a nature reserve, dedicated to peace and science. Furthermore, any mineral resource activity, with the exception of scientific research, is prohibited. The Madrid Protocol also establishes a Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) which, inter alia, can provide advice and make recommendations to the Parties on how to put the Protocol into practice.
The environmental protocol is limited to the mainland and the foothills of the continental shelf in the sea. The conservation of fauna and flora in Antarctic waters is regulated by the 1982 Convention on the Protection of Antarctic Fauna and Flora and is monitored by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Belgium actively participates in the annual meetings. Since the Antarctic mainland and Antarctic waters form part of a single ecosystem, it is essential that ATCM, the CEP and CCAMLR cooperate closely.
CCAMLR is an organisation for sustainable fisheries as well as for the conservation of Antarctic marine fauna and flora. One of the problems within CCAMLR is that of sustainable fisheries and illegal fishing. Belgium advocates Marine Protected Areas.