Wednesday, October 31, 2007


The recent announcement by the British Foreign Office that it will make a formal claim to the United Nations to demand sovereignty over all Antarctic territory between the longitudes of 80°West and 20°West has alarmed the Chilean government.

On Oct. 24 a Chilean Congressional committee traveled to the Antarctic to make an inspection of Chile´s bases in the continent with the planet's largest reserves of oil (estimated at 60 billion barrels), natural gas, coal and fresh water.

The most important bases are the General Bernardo O´Higgins Base that is administered by the Army and the Lieutenant Marsh Air Force base (that has the most important landing strip in the area). There are two scientific bases, the President Eduardo Frei meteorological base and the Professor Julio Escudero Base, which is run by the Chilean Antarctic Institute, where important experiments regarding the ozone layer are carried out.

The Arturo Prat Naval base that had been closed in 2004 will be reopened and the Chilean government has granted the Navy a total of US$150 million to continue activity at that installation until 2024. Based on the work of Professor Julio Escudero, on Nov. 6, 1940 the Chilean Congress approved Law Decree N°1.747.

This decree states that "Chile has sovereignty over all Antarctic territory, including islands, reefs, glaciers and others to be discovered and its corresponding territorial waters between the limit formed by the meridian of longitude 53°West of Greenwich and longitude 90°West of Greenwich."

Until now Chile´s most serious conflict was with neighboring Argentina, that has claimed territory between longitude 25°West and 74°West, but now the situation is more complex due to the British claim that must be presented to the United Nations by May 2009.

According to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, all the before mentioned natural resources can only be exploited as from 2048, so this seems to be the main reason why the British government has shown such sudden interest in the area. According to the Chilean version the South American country has most rights to the area due to the legal concept of "Uti Possedetis", whereby the country had won its independence from the Kingdom of Spain in 1818, after 300 years of colonial rule.

A Chilean naval mission was sent in 1820 to hunt for seals, and ironically was captained by a Scotsman called Andrew MacFarlane. Along with his crew of Chilean sailors MacFarlane was the first to land in the Antartica as proven by the captain's log kept by Robert Fildes of the "Cora of Liverpool."

In November of 1820 Fildes wrote that his ship came into contact with the "Dragon of Valparaiso" and was told by Captain Macfarlane said that the Chilean ship had been in the area for the past seven weeks and had even landed at Deception Island.

Another important episode that proves Chilean presence in the Antarctica occurred in 1916 as a British expedition commanded by Ernest Shackleton became stranded in the ice aboard its ship, the "Endurance" that finally sank in November of that year.

With five other crew members Shackleton set off in a safety boat to the South Georgia Islands, the Falkland Islands and Uruguay, but failed to get help to rescue his remaining 17 comrades. Shackleton then traveled to the port of Punta Arenas, where the Chilean navy organized an expedition headed by Pilot Luis Pardo that rescued the men on Aug. 30, 1916 under temperatures of minus 24° Celsius.

Pardo's ship returned to Punta Arenas five days later and was given a heroes welcome by the population and by many foreign press reporters that had traveled to cover the event due to the international interest of the story.

The British government offered to pay Pardo a reward of 25,000 pounds for saving Shackleton and his crew but the Chilean officer did not accept the sum and that stated that he had only "carried out his duty." Pilot Luis Pardo was promoted by the Chilean navy and in 1919 was appointed Consul in Liverpool, England.

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