On January 12, 1982, the Brazilian Antarctic Program (PROANTAR, in Portuguese) was formally created by Decree No. 86.830. The first official Brazilian expedition left for Antarctica later that year, on December 20. Forty years following PROANTAR’s inception seems to be the opportune time to remember the history of Antarctic interests and how Brazil ended up on the frozen continent.
Antarctica is a continent of extremes. The average temperature in summer is -22°F, and -76°F in winter. Some 98 percent of the continent is covered with ice throughout the year. The continent is also the driest and highest, with an average altitude of 7,086 feet. The total area is 13,661,000 square kilometers, greater than Canada. The flora consists of bryophytes and algae; and the fauna of marine birds and mammals, some mollusk species, and terrestrial insects, in addition to one of the most abundant and biologically diverse communities on the planet: the zooplankton and its keystone species, the krill. Krill are shrimp-like crustaceans measuring up to 7 centimeters, rich in protein. They are considered very important to the Antarctic ecosystem, a key food source for various animals, including seals, whales, and penguins.
There is an abundance of mineral reserves in Antarctica, such as oil, gas, copper, uranium, among other minerals of great commercial value. Not to mention that Antarctica accounts for 70 percent of Earth’s fresh water. Due to severe weather conditions, Antarctica is the only continent that lacks a native population and for this reason was the last to be effectively exploited. During the winter, about 1,000 people occupy stations, and during summer the number barely exceeds 5,000.
There is some consensus that the first explorer to sight the Antarctic continent on January 28, 1820, was Russian Navy Officer Fabian Gotlieb von Bellinghausen (1778-1852), whose expedition consisted of the ships Vostok and Mirny. The predatory exploitation of marine mammals — whale oil and seal skin — attracted explorers to the continent for most of the 19th century.
Argentine and Chilean interests
In 1908, the United Kingdom made the first formal territorial claim in Antarctica. Other countries, such as New Zealand (1923), France (1924), Australia (1933), and Norway (1939) also claimed territories.
World War II (1939-1945) greatly reduced expeditions to Antarctica, but did not prevent Argentina and Chile, which were neutral in the conflict, from formalizing their interests in the continent in 1940. The areas claimed by both countries overlapped with each other and, in part, with the territory claimed by the United Kingdom.
From that moment on, tensions arose between these three countries concerning the disputed areas on the white continent. In February 1952, an Argentine Navy detachment opened fire on the crew of the British ship John Biscoe to prevent it from approaching its position on shore, on the Antarctic Peninsula. This incident was resolved, but the resulting tension accelerated discussions on the need for a treaty.
Argentina and Chile, the two countries geographically closest to Antarctica, have always expressed great interest in the continent. The Argentines installed a permanent weather station on Laurie Island, part of the South Orkney Islands, as early as 1904. Chile established its first station in Antarctica in 1947. In 1948, Chilean President Gabriel González Videla inaugurated the General Bernardo O’Higgins Station, on the first official visit by a head of state to Antarctica.
From August 1946 to February 1947, the United States carried out the largest expedition ever recorded in the region, Operation Highjump, which involved 13 ships and some 4,500 service members. Documents later revealed that the main intent was to increase naval operation training in polar areas, due to the great concern of possible Soviet incursions into the United States through the Arctic.
After World War II, in 1946, the USSR carried out another expedition to Antarctica, the Slava Flotilla, allegedly focused on whaling. The country’s position regarding the continent was to ensure its participation in any forum on the future of Antarctica.
In 1950, scientists discussing a Third International Polar Year, focusing on polar research, planted the seed for the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a project carried out from July 1957 to December 1958. In 1953, the countries in charge of organizing the event decided to expand the scope of research beyond the poles, to include other parts of the world, leading to its current name, the International Geophysical Year. The IGY included 67 countries and thousands of scientists worldwide, who also conducted research beyond the polar regions, as was the case in Brazil.
On May 2, 1958, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower invited 11 countries, including the USSR, to attend a conference in Washington, D.C., to establish a single legal framework, fearing the advance of Antarctic internationalization initiatives. On December 1, 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, which entered into force on June 23, 1961.
Vote and veto
The Antarctic Treaty has 14 articles, including the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes; the prohibition of weapons testing, installation of military bases, or execution of military exercises (the presence of service members and military materiel was permitted only to enable scientific research or for other peaceful purposes); freedom of scientific research in the region; international cooperation in Antarctica; and the suspension of territorial claims prior to the treaty, which were not recognized but didn’t cease to exist.
The Treaty, as set out in Article 8, was open to new members, but with a clear distinction between countries. The 12 countries that signed in 1959 were considered “original members,” while those that joined and proved to have carried out “substantial scientific research” were considered “consultative parties,” with voting and veto power in the process. In theory, the difference was that they could lose their status if they stopped conducting substantial research, which never really occurred. The third category of countries referred to those that had joined but hadn’t been formally recognized by the others as having conducted “substantial scientific research.” As such, they could participate in the meetings, but had no voting rights.
The first meeting for members of the treaty, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), took place in 1961. From then on, the meetings were carried out biennially until 1994, and yearly after that.
Discussions on mineral exploration continued during the first years following the entry into force of the treaty, while concerns about environmental preservation appeared in the 1970s. Discussions on mineral exploration led to the beginning of a new race for Antarctica in the 1980s, with assumptions of a possible revision of the treaty in 1991, which never occurred. Instead, the Environmental Protocol or the Madrid Protocol was created as an important milestone, regulating the prohibition of mineral exploration on the continent, effective in 1998. The protocol prohibited any mineral exploration for commercial purposes on the Antarctic continent until 2048, when the matter could be discussed again within the ATCM, when a simple majority could change the status. Until then, unanimous agreement by the consultative parties is required.
Since the first explorers, from seal hunters to scientists, nations slowly discovered and partially occupied Antarctica throughout the 19th and 20th centuries until a legal agreement established the rules of governance of that continent. How about Brazil? Brazil is the seventh country closest to Antarctica, and therefore, highly influenced by its cold weather fronts and sea currents. Was Brazil interested?
Brazil and Antarctica
There are no records of any official or commercial Brazilian interest in the Antarctic continent in the 19th century. However, according to authors such as Professor Therezinha de Castro, the 1882 scientific expedition to Punta Arenas, Chile, is relevant because it occurred in the sub-Antarctic region (Punta Arenas, Chile). The expedition was headed by then Commander Saldanha da Gama, commander of the frigate Parnahyba, and by the director of the Imperial Observatory (in Rio de Janeiro) Dr. Luiz Cruls. Since the Parnahyba expedition there are no records of Brazilian interest until the 1950s.
The first Brazilian to reach Antarctica was physician and journalist Durval Sarmento da Rosa Borges, who, upon his initiative, was invited to join a U.S. crossing. Between February and March 1958, he visited the scientific stations Little America (U.S., abandoned), McMurdo (U.S.) and Scott (New Zealand). Upon his return, Borges wrote the book A Brazilian in Antarctica, published in 1959.
Brazilian science arrived in Antarctica with the 1961 U.S. Operation Deep Freeze, with meteorologist Rubens Junqueira Villela. Professor Villela visited the scientific stations McMurdo (U.S.) and Scott (New Zealand) from January to April 1961. He then participated in Operation Deep Freeze II the following year, becoming the first Brazilian in the South Pole, on November 17, 1962, where the Amundsen-Scott station (U.S.) is located.
The 1973 oil crisis, pressure from scholars and politicians, the possible revision of the Antarctic Treaty in 1991, and, consequently, the potential for mineral exploration on the continent without the presence of Brazil led President Ernesto Geisel to sign a term of agreement to the treaty, which was forwarded to the U.S. government, the depositary country for the treaty.
Brazilian Navy (MB, in Portuguese) Lieutenant Commander Luiz Antônio de Carvalho Ferraz embarked on the British expedition to Antarctica, from December 1975 to March 1976, aboard the HMS Bransfield. Lt. Cmdr. Ferraz was the first Brazilian to set foot in Antarctica on an official mission after Brazil joined the treaty. He died suddenly, at the age of 42, while attending the 5th Joint Oceanographic Assembly and the General Meeting of the Scientific Committee for Oceanographic Research in Halifax, Canada, four months before the departure of the first Brazilian expedition to Antarctica.
Brazilian Antarctic Program
The Secretariat of the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Marine Resources (SECIRM, in Portuguese) was created on December 19, 1979, as part of MB’s administrative structuring process to conduct the Antarctic Program, under then Navy Minister Admiral Maximiano da Fonseca. On January 12, 1982, PROANTAR was created, which CIRM still manages. On September 28, 1982, the MB incorporated the ship Thala Dan, suitable for polar operations, which was named Barão de Teffé.
Months later, on December 20, the first Brazilian scientific expedition to Antarctica began, with the oceanographic vessel (NapOc, in Portuguese) Barão de Teffé and the survey vessel Professor W. Besnard, from the University of São Paulo. The Barão de Teffé arrived at the Polish scientific station Arctowski, on King George Island, on January 5, 1983 — the date is considered the official arrival of the first Brazilian expedition to the sixth continent. One of the objectives of this first expedition was reconnaissance in order to select a location to build the Brazilian scientific station.
The Brazilian Air Force (FAB, in Portuguese) made its first landing in Antarctica with a Hercules C-130 aircraft, on August 23, 1983, at the Chilean Base Presidente Eduardo Frei. Since then, the FAB has played a key role in PROANTAR, managing an average of 10 annual flights with the C-130 aircraft, transporting personnel and program equipment.
The Antarctic Treaty and Latin American countries
On September 12, 1983, Brazil and India were accepted as consultative members of the Antarctic Treaty during the 5th Special Consultative Assembly, in Canberra, Australia. Until then, only Poland and Germany had achieved consultative member status. In South America, the countries that were granted consultative member status were Uruguay (1985), Peru (1989), and Ecuador (1990). Colombia and Venezuela are still observers, having joined the treaty in 1989 and 1999 respectively.
On January 3, 1984, the NApOc Barão de Teffé left Rio de Janeiro for the second Brazilian expedition to Antarctica, this time with the important mission of building the Brazilian scientific research station. The area selected was within Admiralty Bay, on King George Island. On February 6, 1984, Brazil inaugurated its scientific research station in Antarctica, the Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station (EACF, in Portuguese), a posthumous tribute to Cmdr. Ferraz. The station was first only occupied in the summer and became permanently occupied in March 1986. The history of Brazil in Antarctica began!
*Captain Leonardo Faria de Mattos is a Geopolitics professor and coordinator of the Naval War College Center for Risk Assessment. He has a Master in Naval Sciences from the Naval War College and a Master in Strategic Studies from Fluminense Federal University (Rio de Janeiro).