Climate activists in South Africa are protesting a refueling stop by a Russian ship that they say is ignoring a ban on exploring oil and gas in Antarctica.
Protest organizers Greenpeace Africa and Extinction Rebellion say the seismic tests the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky has been conducting in Antarctica for the past 25 years are harmful to marine life like dolphins and whales.
They also say that fossil fuels should stay in the ground if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming.
The ship’s operator, Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned mineral explorer RosGeo, insists it is not exploring for oil and gas in Antarctica but simply conducting research.
South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan isn’t convinced and says it’s vital everyone sees the importance of fighting global warming.
“It’s incredibly Important from a climate change perspective because the oceans there absorb a lot of the Co2 from the atmosphere but it’s also part of regulating the world’s climate and, also the currents and the weather system. But it’s also very much affected by climate change because the ice is melting,” he said.
Cormac says it’s problematic that there isn’t a government for Antarctica but instead an agreement signed in the 1950s, called the Antarctic Treaty System, where 29 countries have decision-making powers.
“Decisions are made by consensus and over the last years, when they tried to declare more marine protected areas, countries like Russia and China block them so it’s not really going anywhere,” he said.
He says terms of the treaty are only binding on the people who’ve signed up to them. And he says policing compliance is almost impossible because there’s no international police force dedicated to this task.
“If there is a big enough dispute, it could be referred to the International Court of Justice. But you know in a situation like this, often countries won’t take on another country like Russia because they think Russia may retaliate in other ways,” he said.
Cullinan is working on a Declaration for the Rights of Antarctica which environmentalists hope will be launched towards the end of this year or early in 2024. He says among other things, they hope it will make it possible for lawyers to represent Antarctica in courts of law.
“Certainly, if you think how important human rights are in the world. Even though you know governments violate rights all the time, just the fact that we’ve got agreed standards of behavior.”
He says a similar rights-of-nature declaration is being worked out for the Amazon rain forest which spreads across several countries.
Meanwhile, in Cape Town, Greenpeace Africa volunteer Elaine Mills says her organization is working on a letter of demand to send to the government.
“The one is that Alexander Karpinsky and other vessels like it are not allowed into South Africa. The second is that the Alexander Karpinsky and vessels like it have to prove that they are engaged in genuine scientific research before they are allowed entry into our ports. The third one is that we want the parties to adopt a treaty that no hydrocarbon extraction will ever be allowed within the Antarctic region,” said Mills.
Contacted by VOA, the South African Ministry and Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment did not provide comment.
South Africa announced Tuesday that it will host representatives of its partners in the BRICS bloc, namely Russia, China, India and Brazil, in Limpopo province on Wednesday and Thursday.
Naval exercises with Russia and China are also planned in February, a few days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.