Belgians first went to Antarctica at the end of the 19th century as part of the scientific overwintering expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache on the ship Belgica. More than 50 years later, in the context of the International Year 1958-1959, it was decided to build the King Baudouin station there. The Princess Elisabeth station, a CO2-neutral structure, signifies a resumption of the traditional Belgian presence in Antarctica. Also from a historical perspective, if one looks at the country’s past activities on that continent, it is no surprise that Belgium is one of the 12 original participants in the Antarctic Treaty signed in Washington in 1959.
The most significant provisions of the Antarctic Treaty are:
- Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only;
- freedom of scientific investigation;
- scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available;
- all areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas shall be open at all times to inspection.
A number of future challenges:
- Tourism: although tourism could provide broader support for environmental preservation in Antarctica, questions have been raised regarding the cumulative impact of repeated visits to certain areas. Over the past few years, a number of maritime accidents have led to increasing concerns about potential disasters resulting in loss of life and major environmental damage.
- Bioprospecting: in Antarctica, it is possible to find organisms resistant to extreme external conditions which may in the future be used in medical or industrial applications. The issue here, however, is the extent to which the commercial use of results from scientific discoveries, for example via patents, is compatible with the free exchange of scientific data.
- Climate change: global warming is clearly affecting Antarctica and it will certainly have an impact on its flora and fauna. In line with this, scientific research in Antarctica can contribute to gaining a broader insight into how the earth’s climate has evolved over the past centuries.
- Alien species: both tourism and global warming increase the risk of non-native organisms being brought to Antarctica and disturbing the ecological balance.
In 1991, the Madrid Protocol on environmental protection in Antarctica was added to the Antarctic Treaty. In the Protocol, Antarctica is designated as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science and any activities involving mineral resources are prohibited, except for scientific research purposes. There is also a provision for the establishment of a Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) intended to provide advice and issue recommendations to the parties regarding the Protocol’s implementation.
The scope of the environment protocol is limited to the mainland and the spurs of the continental shelf projecting out to sea, and the preservation of the flora and fauna living in Antarctic waters is governed by the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora which entered into force in 1982, followed up by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Belgium actively participates in the annual meetings held in the context of these treaties. Since the Antarctic mainland and waters are part of a single ecosystem, extensive collaboration is required between the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), CEP and CCAMLR.
In addition to the protection of flora and fauna in the seas around Antarctica, the CCAMLR also addresses sustainable fishing issues, and one of the problems within the Convention concerns fisheries and illegal catches. In this area, Belgium is a proponent of Marine Protected Areas.
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