Antarctica is uninhabited. Nowadays there are only about 5,000 people –mostly scientists– who go there during the summer and about 1,000 who winter over, spread out among the many research stations located on the vast continent. The lack of people is simplys because Antarctica is incredibly inhospitable. Antarctica is much colder than the Artic because not only it contains the South Pole but unbeknownst to people is the fact that Antarctica is the highest continent in the world. While ice floats in the Arctic, in Antarctica it is supported by the continent, which causes it to reach unexpected heights.

Most of the countries of the world accept that Antarctica belongs to all mankind, and many treaties to keep it untouched have been signed, with some being supported by NGOs like Greenpeace. But a few countries, among them Argentina, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand and Australia, seem to believe that a piece of Antarctica belongs to them. As an Argentinean, I’ve experienced this confusion. They didn’t teach me at school that Antarctica was a continent that the majority of the planet –-except for a few countries, including my own-– believes belongs to them. What’s more, when I was a kid they told me that there was a part of Antarctica that belongs to Argentina, as if it were a fact, and not that the United Kingdom and Chile also argued that part of that same territory was theirs, while the majority of humanity said that it was everyone’s. And it looks like that feeling, associating Antarctica as part of the Argentinean homeland, continues to this day. Case in point: Today I was surprised to see that a former collaborator of Fon, Juan Kestemboin, is about to head to Antarctica with a friend, Mariano Rabinstein, and to read how the Argentinean media is covering what will have to be told as an adventure as if it were an act of patriotism. It looks like Juan and Mariano are saying that they are going to visit the Argentines who are spending the winter “serving their country” in Antarctica. Fortunately, I later saw that they have a sense of humor about it in their blog. I assume that John and Mariano also realize that, since Argentina already has so much territory –-with which it has done relatively little-– finding more land at the pole is not on the list of priorities to help the country move forward. Argentina is almost a third of the size of the United States, but it only has about 13% the number of inhabitants, and its GDP is a mere 2% of the USA’s. In turn, the USA, which doesn’t generally shy away from sticking its nose out beyond its own borders, hasn’t actually laid any claims to large swaths of the polar continent. Rather, it has directed its resources to its successful Antarctic Program, which has been crucial to the fruitful scientific research carried out on the frozen continent, whether it be near the coast at McMurdo Station, or at the true bottom of the Earth: the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

To me, what the Argentineans have to do is help manage Antarctica, and the easy access that Tierra del Fuego offers to the only part of the continent that is sometimes not so cold. As it stands, Christchurch, New Zealand serves as the USA’s gateway to the Antarctic, even though the city is a long, five hour flight away from McMurdo. In other words, Argentina has to lead by example: work together with the rest of humanity. I believe that the other countries who say that they own part of Antarctica should do the same. The best thing would be for everyone to withdraw their claims, and for Antarctica to be run by the United Nations, in the process becoming a source of revenue for Argentina, as it has a strategic location for conducting expeditions and promoting sustainable tourism. Yet the word “sustainable” is crucial, since Antarctica’s near-pristine state, in addition to its extreme cold and thin atmosphere (as a result of its high elevation), is what makes it such an ideal location for scientific research. Then again, this is exactly why everyone should withdraw their claims, so a greed-driven and environmentally-damaging free-for-all does not ensue.

I will finish by telling the absurd story of the Argentinean soldiers who sent a woman who was seven months pregnant to Antarctica in order to ensure that Argentina had the first baby born on the mainland, and of the Chileans who did not want to be shown up, and some years later had their own polar baby.

Emilio Marcos Palma was the first person born on the Antarctic mainland, at Base Esperanza in 1978, his parents were sent there along with seven other families by the Argentine government to determine if family life was suitable on the continent. In 1984, Juan Pablo Camacho was born at the Frei Montalva Station, becoming the first Chilean born in Antarctica. Several bases are now home to families with children attending schools at the station (all from the same “Antarctica” article on Wikipedia).

What I’m wondering now is, since granting citizenship to the grandchildren of Spaniards (depending on which side they were on during the civil war) is currently in style in Spain, if it is possible that Spain will end up also having a polar baby, whether it be due to Palma or Camacho’s lineage.

To me, it’s clear that Argentina and Chile have a great opportunity – not to compete, but to work together to develop a type of Antarctic tourism which, if well organized, could come to be a good extension of Patagonian tourism.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Krikor Ohannessian on January 16, 2009  · 

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