World Park Antarctica

Standard Page - 24 February, 2010
The campaign to save Antarctica was one of our greatest lessons in the importance of impossible ambitions. The campaign began with little faith that we would ever achieve a complete protection of the Antarctic from looming oil and mineral interests. Yet with a combination of daring action, solid science, and political pressure, we achieved the goal of declaring the Antarctic a World Park. Here's the story of how it happened.

© Greenpeace/Steve Morgan

In 1985 Greenpeace embarked on perhaps its most ambitious campaign to date, a campaign that at its peak would swallow more than half of the organisation's total annual budget. Antarctica has become a unique place in the modern world, the only continent that remains relatively untouched by human interference and therefore arguably the only pristine wilderness left on Earth. For Greenpeace it seemed imperative to keep it that way. Some ecologists have even argued that Antarctica could provide important information for future generations seeking to reverse the environmental degradation wrought by humanity in the 20th century.

Paradoxically, despite winds of up to 450 kilometres per hour and temperatures reaching -50C Antarctica has the most delicate ecosystem of any place on earth. Ever since humankind began to explore the continent, from Amundsen and Scott's famous battle to the South Pole onwards, it had been noted that Antarctic ecosystems take years to recover from damage if they recover at all: a footprint in the moss can linger for decades before it disappears. For scientists the lack of any indigenous industry also make the region an ideal place to monitor the global effects of pollution.

In 1958 the Antarctica Treaty was signed by eighteen countries, seven of which claimed a territorial stake in the region. The treaty recognised Antarctica as a unique scientific and planetary resource for the whole of mankind and protected it for 30 years. At a meeting of the Antarctica Treaty Nations in 1975, a delegation from New Zealand first put forward the idea that the continent should be given 'World Park' status and be governed by similar legislation that protects many National Parks around the globe. But the proposal met with a unfavourable reception from the other treaty nations in 1975. Later the idea was adopted as the bedrock of the Greenpeace Antarctica campaign.

There's oil under that ice

In the early 80's the threat of commercial exploitation of Antarctica loomed large for a number of reasons:  the continent, although today covered in ice, was thought to be rich in flora and fauna millions of years ago, strong evidence for the existence of oil and mineral deposits under the rock and ice; and technological advances have made it feasible to drill for oil in conditions of extreme cold. It seemed to environmentalists that the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty were all but lining up to start prospecting, and the prospects of stopping them looked slim.

The idea to plough resources into a campaign to make Antarctica a "World Park" was first suggested by Greenpeace in 1979. At first the plan was modest; some sort of radio station along the lines of 'Radio Free Europe' was discussed, but as more research was done it became apparent that the organisation would have to set up a permanent base on the ice if it was to have a voice at the Antarctica Treaty table where the continent's fate would ultimately be decided - and to challenge national territorial claims with an argument that Antarctica should be preserved as a global commons, belonging to none.


Greenpeace World Park Base

The task was a daunting one. No non-governmental organisation had ever set up a base in Antarctica and there were many practical as well as political obstacles to overcome. Not least because countries that already had bases in the region were unanimously hostile to the idea of being Greenpeace's neighbour on the ice. Officially they made it known that they didn't want to mount rescue missions should something go wrong, but their antagonism also masked their reluctance to encourage outside scrutiny.

In 1985 it seemed that everyone's scepticism was justified. After months of preparation the worst weather conditions for 30 years prevented Greenpeace's Antarctic supply ship, the "Greenpeace", from reaching the continent. This failure sparked a major a debate within Greenpeace about whether it was justified to even continue the campaign. But in 1986 another attempt was mounted.

Once again the "Greenpeace" set out from New Zealand carrying in her hold a pre-fabricated base and supplies for the 4 volunteer over-winterers: a mechanic, a radio operator, a scientist and a doctor. For its second attempt the Greenpeace ship was equipped with a larger helicopter capable of a greater flying range in case they met with similar ice conditions that stymied the 1985 attempt. This time however the "Greenpeace" was able to moor just 200 metres from the shore of Ross Island, the chosen location for the organisation's permanent base on the ice. Construction began in earnest in the summer of January 1987 and 'World Park Base' was completed and fully operational just three weeks later.

The base featured individual sleeping quarters, a communal living room, bath room and shower, a laboratory facility, communications equipment and a hydroponics greenhouse so that vegetables could be grown to supplement the diets of the over-winterers. One of the campaign objectives was to make 'World Park Base' a model for good ecological practice in the region, so every effort was made to ensure that it met the high standards necessary to lessen the impact of human beings on the delicate ecosystem. The tasks of the over-winterers during their year on the ice included monitoring pollution from the neighbouring bases of McMurdo owned by the USA (which was the size of a small town) and Scott Base owned by New Zealand.


Watchdogs on the ice

Greenpeace had a permanent base in Antarctica for a total of 5 years from 1987 to 1991, the professionalism of its operation gradually earning the respect of other Antarctica Treaty Nations. With each annual re-supply, World Park Base's facilities were gradually improved, better satellite communication was installed and a wind power generator lessened reliance on nonrenewable resources. In 1987 A new ship was purchased, a former icebreaker christened "Gondwana" by the campaign, it replaced the "Greenpeace" as the supply vessel.

But the re-supply of World Park Base was only part of the Antarctica campaign. In its annual trips to the ice the Gondwana toured bases in the region to monitor how closely they adhered to Antarctic Treaty regulations concerning the environmental impact of such facilities. Many scandals came to light forcing the treaty nations to clean up their act. In the 1987/88 season Greenpeace made headlines around the world when 15 protesters blocked the building site for a French airstrip at Dumont D'Urville. The construction work was controversial because it involved dynamiting the habitats of nesting penguins and even French scientists admitted an airstrip violated the terms of the Antarctica Treaty. On the day of the protest French construction workers reacted angrily to a Greenpeace demonstration staged on the site of the airstrip, the workers forcibly evicted the protesters and smashed up a hut Greenpeace had erected, but despite continuing threats of violence, the protesters returned to occupy the landing strip for a second day. The French later abandoned plans to build the airstrip.

Lobbyists in the halls

In the seven years of the campaign Greenpeace went from being perceived as almost a despised outsider in the affairs of the Antarctica Treaty Nations to a respected player in negotiations for the future of the continent. In 1989 the "Exxon Valdez" oil spill in Alaska severely undermined the oil company's argument that drilling in ecologically sensitive areas could be conducted in a safe environmentally friendly manner. Greenpeace offices worldwide lobbied their governments to take a responsible position on protecting the Antarctic, joining forces with other non-governmental organisations and eliciting support from global personalities including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Jacques Cousteau, and Ted Turner.

World Park Antarctica declared!

Gradually more and more of the Treaty signatories were persuaded of the merits of making Antarctica a World Park. In 1991 the members of the Antarctic Treaty agreed to adopt a new Environmental Protocol, including a 50-year minimum prohibition on all mineral exploitation.

Antarctica had been saved from a deadly threat.