Prior Group - Russia - New Zealand - Новая Зеландия - Россия

NZIIA Symposium - the Arctic and Antarctica: Differing Currents of Change PDF Print E-mail

FRIDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2015, SESSION 1: COMMERCIALISATION VERSUS CONSERVATION

Focus: With the melting of the polar ice cap, the Arctic is beginning to be opened up to commercial shipping. Oil rigs exist already on the landscape. By contrast, a number of countries would like to see Antarctica as a nature reserve without any commercial exploitation. Are the two polar regions headed in different directions?

From the Cold War to Icy Politics, Stuart Prior

I had the privilege of heading New Zealand’s Antarctic policy unit for seven years and working closely with different New Zealand governments and with international colleagues in regular and irregular Antarctic Treaty processes between 1992 and 1999. I was also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to lead a review of New Zealand’s Antarctic structure and activities in 1995-1996 and to be an invited member of a small international team which reviewed the purpose and directions of the South African national Antarctic programme in 2000.

Also in my background is the Cold War. For many years I was involved in the specialist work of a largely hidden (that is in those antedeluvian pre-facebook, -twitter, and other social media times) international community of public servants  directed at keeping strategic competition between the USSR and the West within safe bounds.

This work brought home to me the huge significance of the Antarctic Treaty as the first global anti-nuclear treaty, and its role as a confidence building measure focusing attention on the needs of humanity through the scientific investigation and, later, the conservation of, an entire continent and its surrounding ocean: peace, science, the environment, international collaboration in the interests of mankind – immensely valuable and also noble goals.

Because of the Cold War work I was also in a position to take a keen and comparative interest in what was happening in the Arctic, and comparing and contrasting developments there to what was happening in the Antarctic. I found it helpful in my own Antarctic work to look into the background of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty (NZ ratified the Svalbard Treaty via the United Kingdom on 29 December 1923) and also to follow the development and evolution of the Arctic Council from 1996.

What impressed me then, and now, was the role diplomacy in the polar regions could play in resolving problems and finding solutions to difficult and potentially dangerous situations, as well as providing opportunities for nations and peoples to work together constructively and in ways which benefited mankind rather than served narrow national interests.

Also, in the context of the Antarctic Treaty and the management system around it, I experienced at first hand the encouraging power of consensus when used to find the highest common denominator of agreement, the classical “golden mean”, as opposed to the lowest common denominator of agreement which I found too often to be the case.

Commercialisation

These were years in which the problem of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing for toothfish were causing real strains within the Antarctic Treaty System and posing problems to do with actual and potential resource exploitation in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean which exist today.

What is commercialisation? I have always had problems with narrow definitions. Is it about mining, about mineral fuel extraction, about fishing? Is it about private profiting from the support and supply of expeditions by officials and others on public payrolls? Or is it about profiting, through the development of new processes and technologies developed from Antarctic and Southern Ocean bioresources and natural processes; or about profiting from other forms of intellectual property created by non-invasive means, such as “eco-tourism”, the creation and distribution of creative products, such as films, and so on. As I argued in a strategy paper in 1996 commenting on an opportunity for New Zealand to build its role as a polar power (Stuart Prior, Antarctica: view from a gateway (Wellington, NZ: CSS, 1997)), the attraction  of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean depended on work to conserve the region so that New Zealand and other southern hemisphere countries were “gateways to something of intrinsic worth?

Or – if conservation, broadly defined, of Polar regions is deemed to be of inestimable importance on a planetary scale then WHO PAYS to ensure this?

Related to this is the question of WHO should have access. If we are talking about human impact, why should public servants (i.e. national Antarctic expeditions) be advantaged over individuals and those from the non-public sector? Or why should individuals, because they have come into great wealth, be given opportunities to see and do things in the polar regions which are denied to mere mortals?  If the polar regions belong to nobody and everybody how can they be managed, and to whose benefit?

My view formed over the years is that more and different public engagement is needed to answer these questions. I think that we should trust the wisdom of the crowd – the more open, the more transparent, the more wide-reaching and encompassing the extraction and sharing of knowledge, the more likely mankind as a whole will take the right, and wise, decisions about Polar conservation, broadly defined.

Response to Global Political Change

We are living in revolutionary times. Whether we like it or not, the turbulence of globalisation and the communications, technological, technical and other revolutions accompanying it are turning things upside down and inside out.

The polar regions focus our attention on the Public Good – but in the broadest sense possible: the good of mankind.

In the present era when it is fashionable to distrust governments and downplay the significance of the work of officials, the Antarctic treaty experience demonstrates that people can work together, as human beings, sharing a nobility of purpose in the interests of mankind.

So, as a former policy-maker, working for nearly four decades on public good work, I would say that capitalism and the free market have roles to play here, but they cannot replace the work of elected governments nor deliberate and focused efforts to draw the widest range of people into the study of global processes and the debate which follows about the limits to exploitation.

Today we can see that polar science and the education associated with it have a crucial role to play in understanding the natural forces which have shaped and are shaping our planet.  Forces which also bear on the very survival of mankind: climate change, sustainable resource exploitation, protection of traditional rights and freedoms – such as high seas freedoms – are among some of the critical questions which simply cannot be answered without the polar component.

And this is relevant to everybody. You would not think that what has happened in the polar regions in the past, and what is happening now, would have much relevance for a landlocked country such as Belarus. Yet it does. My Belarusian scientific colleagues tell me that atmospheric studies from the Arctic and Antarctic, and studies of the sedimentary history and biology of Antarctic lakes are deepening their understanding of the climatic forces at play in their country: and given that one of the principal drivers of the Belarus economy is agriculture, this knowledge is valuable from the point of view of trend forecasting and resilience building.

The Arctic and Antarctica have always been going in different directions. Sovereignty is one reason. But the main issue is closeness to population centres.

Different legal regimes and different drivers for activity will continue.

But what I have seen shows that the interests of mankind, of humanity, in what happens in the Polar regions are today much more clearly understood by the global public-at-large.

Growing international awareness of the importance of scientific study and environmental protection as evidenced by a great thirst for knowledge by an informed and active younger generation, allied to the potential of the communications and technological revolutions offers great encouragement.

There are new opportunities for nations to work together on crucial polar questions. To realise the potential of such an exciting and prospective collaborative international endeavour, there must be a focus on young scientists and educationalists, with the aim of building a committed corps of people who will take polar studies to new levels in the present and future generations;

A Southern Polar Helping Hand to the North?

Here, the South can give the North a helping hand. What I have seen suggests that prioritising science in the Arctic is harder than in the Antarctic, given the immediate sovereignty, strategic, commercial and other policy considerations at play in the northern hemisphere: there are ways in which the cause of northern polar scientific and educational studies can be assisted through clever partnerships with southern polar work.

Such partnerships must be based on principles of genuine partnership. It is critically important to design, implement and encourage effective ways of genuine international cooperation. My own experience of working in the Antarctic Treaty System with colleagues and states parties for whom English language and culture were not native, proved to me that it is not enough to say “here is our club, here are the rules, you are welcome to join us”. Having worked in the corridors of the ATCMs and of CCAMLR I can tell you that it was difficult even for a practising English-speaking official sometimes to make sense of what people were saying and doing.

Inclusiveness is also critical to the integrity and authenticity of scientific findings. People want to hear their own people conveying information and impressions. And each society has its own structure, its own way of conveying information – whether it is through senior people of mana, or particular structures. There is of course one feature common to all nations and peoples: nobody – in my long experience – likes being told what and how to think by an outsider!

The power of virtual access

We have, as never before, new opportunities to bring the wider world middle classes into the know, into the science, and into the debate about the future of the polar regions and, thereby, the future of mankind. The study of the polar regions and of the oceans is an accessible “space programme” for New Zealand and for other countries. There is an immediate opportunity and an immediate need – but to respond adequately to the opportunity we will need to find ways of bringing Antarctica and the Southern Ocean “alive”.

Virtual access is an extraordinary new tool for informing and engaging people at large – today’s most trusted intermediaries may not be diplomats but the creative tellers of stories, such as New Zealand’s Weta Workshops and Weta Digital who could fulfil the roles of Jules Verne and Jacques Cousteau in bringing our own inner space – the Southern Ocean – alive.

Science coupled with story-telling can give us one crucial missing link: personality.

Today’s available technologies give us the opportunity to create a genuine, authentic picture of animals (including human animals) and their ecosystemic roles and interactions in the Polar regions.

If we could see and understand the life cycles and roles of whales and seals and toothfish and black corals – debates about whether or not to create a Ross Sea Region marine protected reserve would become hugely easier.  Indeed, it would be an international “no brainer”.

And that is our challenge. It is our responsibility to prove the case that understanding the Arctic and the Antarctic is a necessity for mankind, and that it can only be a global, inclusive endeavour.  Public engagement is critical. I accept that this is a challenge for policy makers and governments used to hiding their lights under various bushels and having to balance and juggle competing urgent and human resource-hungry priorities.  And not the least because northern hemisphere policy makers have such a burden of priorities that benign neglect is their most likely approach to things Southern Polar – until something happens and then they, most likely, end up taking regrettable short-term decisions in ignorance.

As always in my experience, understanding the political economy is critical to developing strategies for dealing with polar matters. Taking account of political realities does not, however, mean being resigned to inadequate, reactive, ad hoc, or lowest-common-denominator decisions. It challenges us to develop and create arguments which resonate politically and create the conditions whereby human and financial resources are available for strategic investment in long-term Polar study. My belief is that this is best done through active engagement of the global middle class in what can be thought of as the Polar Planetary Challenge.

To illustrate some of the political factors which need to be taken into account, but which do not actually distract from international collaboration in this Polar Planetary Challenge, I’d like to finish with some quick comments about a northern hemisphere view from two countries with which I have been working: the Russian Federation, for many years, and Belarus, for the past three years. Both are “non-claimants” with respect to Antarctica. The reasoning behind the engagement of both in the polar regions is valid not only for them.

Today’s Russia is a great Polar Power, with positions and interests in the Arctic and the Antarctic which mean that it is a key partner in resolving all the major policy issues and challenges of the polar regions. Its contribution is in all aspects of human engagement with the Poles. The Soviet intellectual, policy and practical Antarctic and Southern Ocean heritage underpins Moscow’s approach today. Russia’s regional policy towards the Southern Polar region has been developed in parallel to, but is distinct from, its policy towards its Northern Polar interests.

Simply put, Moscow’s aim is to demonstrate Russia’s status as a global power with a right to be intimately involved in addressing the most important challenges faced by the global community. Russia’s Antarctic policy programme is seen as one of a trio of programmes – the others are nuclear and space – which demonstrate to the global community Russia’s ability, and right, to address matters of global importance which cannot be limited by territorial boundaries.

From the time of the signature of the Antarctic Treaty and the subsequent formation of the Antarctic Treaty System, the USSR and then Russia have been integral to the successful functioning of the system. It is in all our interests that Russia continues to play its constructive role as a principal polar power.

The Republic of Belarus is a newcomer to the Antarctic Treaty as a participant in its own right, as an independent nation. Past generations of Belarusian scientists and support personnel were familiar with Antarctica through their inclusion in the personnel of successive Soviet Antarctic Expeditions. Today, the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences sees participation in the international collaborative scientific undertaken within the Treaty System as a means of broadening and enhancing its links with the wider international science community on scientific questions of planetary importance.

Conclusion

International collaboration in Polar science, education, and public engagement, not the least via virtual access done with integrity and authenticity, will allow the polar regions to serve as guides to how humankind can understand and survive on Planet Earth.     That is surely as noble a goal as it is far-reaching and challenging.

 

 

Stuart Prior, Honorary Consul for Belarus in New Zealand

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