The Antarctica Project

Protecting the last unspoiled continent
has called for persistence, passion, and a very creative effort
to influence international politics

One of the articles in Making It Happen (IC#28)
Originally published in Spring 1991 on page 35
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Governments are continually making decisions – often internationally, and behind closed doors – that have the potential to undermine the best grassroots efforts. Is it possible for people outside of government to affect those decisions? What does it take?

The Antarctica Project, a highly successful effort to influence the Antarctic Treaty System – and thereby protect the Antarctic environment – is an inspiring case study. Founder Jim Barnes, a lawyer and advocate for a variety of human rights and environmental causes, explains here how the Project evolved and what lessons have been learned from it. He is currently director of international programs for Friends of the Earth in Washington, DC. Contact the Antarctica Project at 801 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20003, Tel. 202/544-0236

Alan: How did you get involved with an issue like Antarctica?

Jim: Well, when I was a kid my grandmother would read me stories about the great polar explorers. So in the 1970s, when people first started thinking about harvesting krill in the Antarctic and also possibly drilling for oil, I took notice. I was working at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a public interest law firm that was representing "unrepresented interests." Antarctica, not having any population, was a classic unrepresented entity. There were a lot of closed-door international meetings going on about it – so we at the Center began using legal means to try to open those doors up.

By around 1978, I was in contact with Sir Peter Scott, the son of Sir Robert Falcon Scott who died coming back from the South Pole in 1912, when his son was only a year old. Sir Peter was a famous naturalist in his own right, and he was really a mentor to me. He got me very interested in Antarctica – after I met him I put a huge sign on my wall that said "Think Big About Antarctica." I started The Antarctica Project a few years later in 1982.

Alan: What’s the history behind the project?

Jim: In 1978 The Antarctic Treaty governments were beginning to negotiate what became the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources – a fishing convention, so to speak. I decided then, along with a number of colleagues in England, Australia and New Zealand as well as the United States, to start a coalition. Because of the closed nature of the Antarctic Treaty System, and given the international character of the region, it was clearly essential to have a coalition that could maintain a political presence, as well as a moral presence, at those negotiations.

In those years there was literally no information coming out of the Antarctic Treaty System. There were no observers, reports were not made public, and so forth. So we started the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition [ASOC] in 1978 with about 25 member organizations, and now it’s grown to around 200 members in over 40 countries. At the heart of it are still the big groups: Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Audubon, and so on. And there are key groups in most other countries, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation. So it’s a broadly representative coalition which has continued to adapt as we’ve moved along and as the Treaty System has opened up.

Alan: What does the coalition do?

Jim: At every meeting of the Antarctic Treaty Parties for the last 12 years, we have had a team – often as many as 15 people from eight or ten countries – working together to lobby the governments. We put forward our ideas in various ways, including the publication of formal information papers as well as the publication of a little informal newspaper called ECO. We do lots of press work, and hold a lot of private meetings with delegations off to the side. We employ many tools to try to influence what the governments eventually do.

But our major jobs are, first, to tell the public and the press what is going on; and second, to try to influence events to be more protective of the environment.

Alan: I understand that ECO has become the de facto newsletter for the negotiating process, read avidly by the negotiators themselves. How did that happen?

Jim: That’s an interesting phenomenon. ECO was started in 1972 at the first big UN conference on the environment (the so-called Stockholm Conference). Friends of the Earth holds the original copyright, but it’s published ad hoc by whatever group of non-governmental organizations [NGOs] happens to gather at any particular international negotiation. So it looks different from place to place. It’s a very interesting idea which has gained wide acclaim in many realms. For example, at the climate negotiations that took place in early February of this year outside Washington, DC, ECO was once again the most popular piece of reading material by the delegates.

ECO does two things: First, it’s a tool for lobbying. It tells the delegates – many of whom are bored, frankly – what we want them to hear. But second, ECO tells the larger world community what was going on at the meeting. It reports the news together with our comments about what the delegates are doing – and what we think they ought to be doing. It’s had a lot of influence, not just in the Antarctic, but in other contexts as well.

Alan: So it’s become a tradition – the newspaper of record for the treaty negotiations.

Jim: In effect, yes. One of the things that happens in these meetings is that a few big countries will meet informally, shutting out the little countries. So what we report in ECO often is news to these other delegations. That encourages them to find out what’s really going on, why they’re being excluded, and so forth.

Alan: So the Antarctica Project grew out of that broader coalition?

Jim: Yes. In 1982 I was concerned that without one group focused on Antarctica – to raise money for ASOC, maintain continuity, and so forth – it wasn’t going to work very well. So I gave up my job at the Center for Law and Social Policy and started the Antarctica Project. I focused 100% of my time on Antarctica for several years. I published posters, educational packets, videotapes, slide shows, calendars – all the usual tools. I was also able to do a lot more political work and to serve the coalition better.

After four years, things had changed. Major organizations like Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund had decided to adopt major international campaigns, so I wasn’t needed full time, though I still serve ASOC as counsel and I’m still executive director of the Project. Evelyn M. Hurwich now serves full-time as associate director and counsel.

Alan: How much can you credit The Antarctica Project for having contributed to that growth in interest and commitment?

Jim: I think we helped encourage other groups to play a major role by helping them with their political work, their documents and so forth. That’s still a role we play. For example, at the last treaty negotiation meeting down in Chile, The Antarctica Project – together with the cooperation of all the members of the coalition – produced a model convention to protect the Antarctic environment. It was a significant piece of legal drafting work. We knew it wouldn’t be adopted by any government, but it was actually used in many ways – whole elements of it were extracted and used by various government delegations. They’re still using it, in fact, as they get ready for the next round of negotiations.

Alan: What other ways can you measure the Project’s success?

Jim: Well, ASOC now has official observer status at the negotiations, as of this last Antarctic Treat Special Consultative Meeting [SCM] in Chile. I just talked to the State Department today, and they are virtually certain we will be invited back for the next SCM in Madrid starting on April 22. They’re also very optimistic that we’ll be given full Observer status at the next full meeting of the Treaty Parties that takes place every two years (this year it’s in Bonn, in October).

We’ve been petitioning for this for a decade. That gives you some idea of the glacial pace at which these things move. Even when we were on the outside, of course, it didn’t stop us from having a lot of influence. But being on the inside is the mature way to be working. It’s like being treated as an adult.

But I don’t really know whether that means we will have any greater impact on these governments. We have impact primarily because we exist, because we lobby the governments one by one and as a group, and because we continually confront them with their limited vision. We hold up a different vision, and we spell it out in concrete terms. The fact is, without The Antarctica Project and other NGOs working together, we wouldn’t have gotten the Antarctic Protection Act of 1990 through the US Congress – and that had a major impact on the perceptions of the US position in other capitals, as well as on the US position itself. That kind of impact is similarly carried out by coalition partners in other countries, regardless of observer status.

Alan: How has Antarctica itself, in concrete terms, been affected by your work?

Jim: When we started the Project in 1982, the minerals negotiations were beginning, and we saw that the nations were trying seriously to open up the Antarctic to minerals development – mining and so forth.

We fought that every step of the way. And it paid off, because the governments agreed not to open Antarctica to minerals activities – beyond prospecting – without a consensus vote. That created a de facto moratorium. Nonetheless, we weren’t satisfied, so we redoubled our efforts. In 1988 we convinced two governments, France and Australia, to reject the minerals convention. I want to give Jacques Cousteau credit here, too, for his lobbying of the French government. That shows what groups working together can do.

Then in 1989, when it was clear that the Antarctic minerals convention was in serious jeopardy, we continued to provide alternative visions to governments behind the scenes, and to make very prominent public statements. I was keynote speaker at several major conferences in Europe, for example, that set the stage for the meeting in Chile, and I did a lot of lobbying on the side with the government people who were to attend it. That helped make this issue public so that the United States, for example, simply couldn’t get the minerals convention ratified. Today, the minerals convention is dead.

At the same time we were trying to bring back a vision we had held up for more than a decade, which was to have an "environmental protection regime," as we called it. We used to be nipping at the delegates’ heels on this – but now they are debating our agenda. The major topic of the meeting in Chile and the one in Madrid will be, "What’s the best environmental protection regime we can negotiate?"

So, I think we’ve had a major impact in turning around the conceptual mind-set, you could say, of the Treaty System on a number of grounds, including opening it up to the participation of other governments and organizations, opening it up in terms of its document practices, and changing its fundamental thinking about what’s important.

Alan: What lessons from your effort can be applied to other international negotiations, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade?

Jim: One lesson is that people who are serious about influencing the policy decisions made by such relatively closed-door bodies have to be very sophisticated in their coverage. That means getting some NGOs onto the national delegations, working on the inside as "private sector advisers," as they’re called. We started doing that 10 years ago – and at the Chile meeting, we had something like seven NGOs on national delegations. That alone influences the process – it means we can keep those delegations honest, and see what’s actually going on behind the scenes.

Secondly, you’ve got to have an international approach, so that you’ve got coverage of the key countries. You can’t just pick on one or two countries and imagine you’re going to have an impact. You don’t have to cover every country, but you’ve got to have a sophisticated cross-section of countries – and you’ve got to be working in those countries at high levels. That means getting ministers and members of parliament on your side.

There are many other ways this project could be used as a model, and in fact, we’ve drawn upon it for other campaigns such as our efforts to influence the World Bank, even though that’s a very different context. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve begun to apply that learning in other areas.

Alan: Have you been to Antarctica?

Jim: Yes, once.

Alan: How was it to be there, after all your work on this project?

Jim: It was beautiful, and spiritual, and poetic. It was wonderful.

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