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Belgium and Antarctica

A strong link exists between Belgium and Antarctica. Adrien de Gerlache organised between 1897 and 1899 the first Antarctic scientific overwintering expedition. The scientific crew represented many nations: the zoologist, Emile Racovitza, was Romanian; the geologist, Henryk Arctowski, was Polish; navigating officer and astronomer, George Lecointe, was Belgian; Amundsen and a number of others were Norwegian; the laboratory assistant was Russian; the ship's surgeon, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, was a 32-year-old native of Sullivan County, New York.

It was his son, Gaston de Gerlache, who constructed the first Belgian research station in Antarctica, King Baudouin, within the network of 55 Antarctic research stations set up by 12 countries at the occasion of the International Geophysical Year (1957 to 1958) (and of which the secretariat was situated in Brussels). It was this coordination of scientific work and logistic operations that eventually led to the signing by these 12 countries of a unique international agreement, the Antarctic Treaty.

Belgium was amongst the first to support during the 1980’s the negotiation of a specific protocol, which resulted in the signing in 1991 of the Madrid protocol which designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. It benefits from a full protection. However it is subject to a series of threats and pressures amongst which tourism development, climate change, the presence of non-indigenous species, pollution, and bio-prospection.

By the 7 April 2005 law, the federal public service health, food chain, safety and environment has implemented in Belgian law the Madrid protocol on the environmental protection ratified by Belgium in 1996 and entered into force in 1998. That protocol prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources except for scientific research and defines the conditions for any scientific or touristic activity in the region. It also defines the rules for the establishment and management of protected zones by the members as well as the responsibility regime for damages caused to the environment.

The Antarctic Treaty applies to the whole continent and its «dependent and associated ecosystems», and consequently to the Antarctic waters as well. However another legally-binding instrument, the CCAMLR (the commission for the conservation of Antarctic Living Resources), is part of the «Antarctic treaty System». It provides for the conservation and rational use of krill, fin fish and other marine living resources in the Convention area. An important feature of CCAMLR is the ecosystem approach to conservation, requiring that the effects on the ecosystem must be taken into account in managing the harvesting of marine resources.

Belgium has a continuous Antarctic research program since 1985, managed by the Belgian Science Policy. Within this program, the Belgian Science Policy finances the small but internationally known Belgian Antarctic research community in a diverse range of research domains: biodiversity, ecosystem, climate, atmosphere, glaciology, geophysics, geology, data management. Since the King Baudouin station was closed in 1967, Belgian researchers depended on the hospitality of other Treaty nations. This resulted in sustainable international research and management collaborations with other Treaty Parties.

The construction of the first zero emission research station in Antarctica - Princess Elisabeth - strengthens Belgium’s commitment to the Antarctic. Easy accessible from Cape Town by plane, this operational platform creates new research possibilities for international collaboration.

The Departments of Foreign Affairs, Health, Food Chain Safety & Environment, and Science Policy actively cooperate in defining and implementing the Belgian Antarctic policy.

© 2013 Science Policy PPS