Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is considered as the world's last remaining great wilderness areas. The region is unique in that it has remained largely free of and unscathed by human presence due to its inhospitable environment. It is also a demilitarized and nuclear-free zone of international peace and cooperation. Though the only presence of human civilization has been in the form of science, tourism and fishing, their activities as well as an increased interest in the natural resources of the region have and may increasingly undermine its environment. There is consensus that the unspoilt virgin nature of Antarctica should be conserved from potentially harmful human exploitation by designating the entire Antarctic region as a conservation zone.
The legal status of the Antarctic is quite unlike that of the Arctic. Seven states assert claims on the continent (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) – three of which overlap (those of Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom). The United States and the Russian Federation do not recognize these claims but reserve the right to make their own claims, and the majority of other states do not recognize any claims.
The Antarctic Treaty was established in 1959, on signature of 12 countries, and came into force in 1961. The Treaty recognizes that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica, prohibit, inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapon. Nuclear explosions and the disposal thereof of radioactive waste material are also prohibited. A Protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1992. The Protocol is an effort to strengthen, make comprehensive and binding, the rules for environmental protection that already exist. The central provision of the Protocol is a moratorium on mining prohibiting all activities related to oil and mineral resource exploitation for a minimum of 50 years. The Protocol also includes rules on waste disposal, environmental impact assessment procedures, marine pollution, and the conservation of Antarctic wildlife and a system of protected areas. Related treaties include the: Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS), (1972); Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) (1988), (not in force); Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) (1980); its 26 member nations haggle over conserving or exploiting the abundant fishery surrounding the frozen continent; Arrangements for the regulation of Antarctic pelagic whaling (1962); Supplementary arrangements for the regulation of Antarctic pelagic whaling (1962).
Greenpeace established the World Park Base in Antarctica in 1987, primarily to highlight environmental violations in the Antarctic, and was dismantled and completely removed when Antarctic Treaty nations agreed to the Protocol. Greenpeace also conducted annual voyages to the region to inspect government operations, fishing methods and tourist activities, and during which, expedition staff carried out environmental inspections of over 40 bases and stations, documented evidence of environmental damage and flagrant violations of the Antarctic Treaty's environmental regulations by countries operating there. Greenpeace will continue to have a presence on the continent through the deployment of mobile inspection teams.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was established 7 Apr 1982 by CCAMLR, and aims to conserve the Antarctic marine ecosystem while allowing for rational use of resources. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), founded 1978, aims to raise public awareness of threats to the Antarctic environment; provide information on Antarctic minerals and living resources; protect the region in its development, by monitoring governments and holding them accountable for their actions; propose initiatives consistent with maintenance of the region as an international science reserve, wildlife sanctuary and wilderness area; assess government proposals and articulate environmentally sound alternatives based on policy research and legal analyses.
Independent bodies such as the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes (COMNAP) have developed year-round cooperation, with specialist working groups and groups of experts addressing different environmental issues. Specialized workshops are increasingly used to address particular issues, such as by SCAR and COMNAP on Monitoring of Environmental Impacts (SCAR/COMNAP 1996), by IUCN on Cumulative Impacts (IUCN 1996), by the United Kingdom (Norway/UK 1998) and by Peru (Peru 1999) on Protected Areas, by Chile during the combined XXV SCAR/X COMNAP meetings on the concept of 'dependent and associated ecosystems' in 1998, and by Australia on Diseases of Antarctic Wildlife (Australia 1999). In each case, these specialist meetings and their reports feed back into policy discussions at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM).
The environmental policy situation in the Antarctic is unique in two ways: it is the only continent that is primarily managed cooperatively by interested countries on the basis of international agreements; policies are mainly proactive, seeking to address potential problems before they arise, in contrast to other parts of the world where they tend to be reactive and remedial.