Anti-colonialism & Antarctic research: The insidious nature of the Antarctic Treaty

When we think about being anti-colonial in Polar research, we often defer immediately to the Arctic, owing to its presence of Indigenous peoples. While the colonial origins of Antarctic exploration (of which science was a key part) are reasonably well-known, the ongoing nature of colonialism in Antarctic politics and research is not. Here, I build on the works of some inspiring Antarctic researchers to highlight these lesser-known issues, which we should all be concerned with.

Science has never been separate from colonialism. When explorers in the 1750s from Great Britain and France travelled to Antarctica in the name of science, they were simultaneously working towards goals in which they could lay claim to land. Today, with the signing and celebration of the Antarctic Treaty, colonialism is better hidden but still persistent. As Alejandra Mancilla excellently writes, Antarctica is the one continent where colonial powers are still preserved, a continent that is still largely run by colonial and wishing-to-be colonial powers that claimed wedges of it, or reserved their rights to make a claim in the future under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty. Today, it is an accepted trope in Antarctic humanities and social sciences that Antarctica is a fundamental part of the colonial project at the global level.

Although Antarctica is often thought of as a global commons, the reality is that most countries are not signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. Although the Antarctic Treaty’s membership has grown, amongst signatories 53 signatories only 29 states have the power to vote and therefore shape Antarctica’s legal framework. This led Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mohammed bin Mahathir, to denounce the Antarctic Treaty as, “an agreement between a select group of countries [which failed to] reflect the true feelings of the members of the United Nations or their just claims”.  Indeed, the Antarctic Treaty is largely composed of “who was there first,” thus rewarding prior attempts at occupation. Similarly, new members are forced to replicate colonising behaviours of earlier parties through the establishing scientific bases to prove that scientific research activity is being conducted.

As researchers, particularly those outside of the social sciences, we like to view research and science as objective practices when they are in fact deeply political. While membership of the Antarctic Treaty is theoretically open to all, having decision-making power is predicated on the ability to conduct substantial research activity. This position was not negotiated amongst states, but rather imposed by original, self-appointed signatories. As such, a huge group of states are left voteless when it comes to Antarctic affairs. It is therefore no surprise that many have viewed the rhetoric of universal science as a cover-up to ensure that only some (“developed”) states are the only ones to actively partake in Antarctic politics. By no means do I suggest that science is ‘bad’ in Antarctica, but, following arguments made by Mancilla, having it as the basis for privileged decision-making rights is problematic.

This is a substantial body of Antarctic research, and perhaps one of the key concerns amongst social scientists and humanities researchers in Antarctica, yet this perspective is seldom represented. One thing we can do is engage with alternative narratives and viewpoints  about Antarctica and its seas, something that Charne Lavery and Meg Samuelson discuss here. However, it is an important first step to acknowledge these power structures as an issue, to acknowledge that we are embedded in them (whether we like it or not!), before we can know how to contest them.

Resources

Batten, R. 2014. How the Antarctic reframes the context of class and Empire. Imperial and Global Forum < https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2014/08/20/how-the-antarctic-reframes-the-context-of-class-and-empire/>

Hemmings, A. D. ‘Security beyond Claims’, in Alan D. Hemmings, Donald R. Rothwell and Karen N. Scott (eds), Antarctic Security in the Twenty-First Century: Legal and Policy Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 70–94, at 77

Lavery, C., 2019. Antarctica and Africa: Narrating alternate futures. Polar Record.

Mancilla, A. (2020). Decolonising Antarctica. In: Philosophies of Polar Law. < https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9780429461149/chapters/10.4324/9780429461149-3>

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