Antarctica is the world’s only remaining stateless continent. It’s a commons that we all share – A reminder that a world without borders is possible, but only if we aspire to keep it that way.
Antarctica has not been completely spared from imperialist geopolitics. The race to claim sovereignty over Antarctica began a little over a century ago, but was limited in 1959, when the Antarctic Treaty set the continent aside as a scientific preserve and banned military activity. At the time, 12 countries had political ambitions in Antarctica: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Today, 7 countries claim territorial control in Antarctica (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom), and another 4 have research facilities but no territorial claims (India, Italy, Russia and the United States).
Rather than being divided by an arrangement of European and settler colonial states, this map calls attention to the parties that were never invited to the table – Indigenous people. Antarctica has no Indigenous population. With just 200 years of human history, it was the last major landmass to be discovered, and not just in the colonial sense of “discovery.” Depending where you are in Antarctica, the nearest Indigenous peoples might be the Yaghan or Selk’nam of South America, the Khoekoe or Xhosa of Southern Africa, the Noongar of mainland Australia, the palawa of lutruwita (Tasmania), or the Māori of Aotearoa (New Zealand). According to this voronoi diagram, the largest sector of Antarctica, including the South Pole, is closest to traditional Yaghan territory, which is logical considering they’re the world’s southernmost people.
It’s not just mere proximity that ties Antarctica to these Indigenous peoples. In 1985, a skull was found on an Antarctic beach which belonged to an Indigenous woman from Patagonia in her early 20s, thought to have died between 1819 and 1825. It was the oldest known human remains ever found in Antarctica. Not only that, but many southern Indigenous peoples fish and hunt animals whose migrations in the Antarctic are a critical component of their survival. How might these species, and the people who depend on them, fare if the treaties that protect them disappear?
In 2048, an international treaty which prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources is set to expire. As we move into the third century of Antarctic history, one that will surely see renewed determination for conquest as the climate crisis radically changes the continent’s landscape, let us continue to preserve the Antarctic commons, especially from state powers that would open it for exploitation. In that objective, Indigenous participation has proven to be key.
As always, Decolonial Atlas maps can be reused under the Decolonial Media License 0.1.