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Antarctica talk from visiting Cambridge fellow hears of new alliance to protect continent

A talk at St Philip’s Church Centre on a new alliance to safeguard Antarctica revealed a possible blueprint for the survival of “the last place on Earth where humans have shown restraint” - which is increasingly under threat from territorial and commercial interests.

The audience at the event, hosted by Friends of the Cam, heard Prof Alejandra Mancilla present possible ways to define the rights of the vast ice sheet that covers 10 per cent of the Earth’s surface and has no permanent residents.

Prof Mancilla grew up in Punta Arenas, the capital southernmost city (of 120,000 people) in Chile - a city which is also a vital Antarctica gateway port.

Paradise Bay, Antarctica Peninsula. Picture: iStock
Paradise Bay, Antarctica Peninsula. Picture: iStock

“My mother still lives there,” she says in conversation after the event. “I called her two days ago on her 92nd birthday.”

Prof Mancilla is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo’s Faculty of Humanities, and currently a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Institute. She is also writing a book provisionally titled From sovereignty to guardianship: governing Antarctica, governing the world.

She is one of 25 dedicated experts who have formed a progressive new alliance to establish legal personhood status for Antarctica in a bid to safeguard its future because, she says: “We’re pinning our last hopes on the law.”

Prof Alejandra Mancilla speaking at St Philip's Church Centre on the rights of Antarctica
Prof Alejandra Mancilla speaking at St Philip's Church Centre on the rights of Antarctica

This new initiative, the Antarctic Rights working group, formally introduced itself today, December 1, 2023 - World Antarctica Day - at COP28 in Dubai during the event ‘A Global Movement Advancing Systemic Change for Real Climate Solutions’ in the Blue Zone.

The group is calling on organisations and individuals to join the Antarctic Alliance, which will finalise and adopt its draft Antarctica Declaration before establishing a means of implementing it.

So how did all this start?

Emperor penguins with their chicks, Antarctica. Photographer: Frederique Olivier
Emperor penguins with their chicks, Antarctica. Photographer: Frederique Olivier

“There was a treaty signed by 12 countries in 1959 - the Antarctic Treaty,” Alejandra says to guests. “The main objectives of the treaty were peace and scientific cooperation.

“Then, in 1991, an environmental protocol was added.”

The protocol - Article 7 of which prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except for scientific research - came into force in 1998, but a quarter of a century later the stakes have been raised. Mineral rights are much-contested - using diplomatic rather than military means, and 100k tourists visit the region every year, threatening the continent’s ability to help regulate the global climate by pumping out black carbon, accelerating the melt, and disrupting the social and reproductive habits of the penguins. In addition, commercial fishing risks disrupting the sea’s ecosystem which is as much part of our life support as the Amazon.

“The most important thing is to have a mining ban for 50 years,” Alejandra says of the current situation.

However, there has been progress: the framework for a declaration of rights for this uninhabited continent has been adapted from other legal frameworks in Bolivia (Mother Earth Laws) and New Zealand, which has acknowledged the inherent rights of nature by granting legal personhood to selected lands and rivers.

Prof Alejandra Mancilla speaking at St Philip's Church Centre on the rights of Antarctica
Prof Alejandra Mancilla speaking at St Philip's Church Centre on the rights of Antarctica

“In New Zealand a river is a legal entity and a national park also has legal standing, plus a group of guardians of the river to make sure the rights are respected,” the Mill Road audience heard. “The 1991 protocol does say that Antarctica has intrinsic value - including its wilderness and aesthetic value, plus its use as a place of research. They didn’t define intrinsic value, it was all very vague - but the expression was included and signed by I think 29 countries.

“It’s a start but the fundamental problem is that Antarctica is not represented - it hasn’t been given its own standing as a legal entity.”

Alejandra says she has “lots of problems as a philosopher giving rights to something like Antarctica”, including a definition of what it is - “is it the icebergs, or the ice sheet?” - but “she’s happy that “in philosophy the rights of nature is being discussed a lot”.

What makes it easier to form a blueprint for future protection of the Earth’s habitats based on the Antarctic is “the fact that it doesn’t have people removes the variable that clouds thinking in other places”.

In the Q&A the gloves come off.

“What happens in Antarctica is crucial to what happens to the rest of the world because of glacial collapse,” Alejandra tells one questioner.

Male sea elephants in Antarctica
Male sea elephants in Antarctica

The member of the audience asks nervously: “So if the ice melts we’re all destroyed?”

“Not all,” replies Prof Mancilla, “but Cambridge yes. Everything low-lying is in trouble.”

And what can people do, ask another?

“Get involved!” is the reply. “Check the website. If the Antarctic has rights then maybe people would be changing their practices at home.”

The Antarctic Alliance launch statement says: “Recognising that Antarctica has fundamental legal rights establishes a standard for holding states, corporations and individuals legally accountable if they act in ways that infringe those rights (as is done with human rights). Once final, the Declaration will define those rights and the corresponding human duties to ensure they are upheld. This will guide the development of laws, policies and institutions necessary to ensure that the Declaration is given effect to, and help ensure that people worldwide do not act in ways that harm Antarctica.

“We are inviting all interested parties to visit our new website, join the Antarctic Alliance, and participate in the development of the draft Antarctica Declaration discussion document.”

But there’s more.

Prof Alejandra Mancilla speaking at St Philip's Church Centre on the rights of Antarctica
Prof Alejandra Mancilla speaking at St Philip's Church Centre on the rights of Antarctica

“We hope that, in time, this will evolve into an inspiring prototype for an international, eco-centric governance system.”

The Antarctic Alliance launched today (December 1, 2023) is the blueprint of a whole new way of looking at the world: instead of being simply life-long consumers, we all become life-long custodians – and the great institutions of state will shift to make way for inclusion of Earth rights as well as human rights.

- Friends of the Cam has started a petition “to get Cambridge City Council to protect the rights of the Cam”: to find out more email tonybooth46@gmail.com.

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