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The Patagonia seas are home to much more than animal species.
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Argentina Aims to Expand Its Maritime Frontier
By Marcela Valente* - IPS/IFEJ

The sea floor of the South American continental platform holds vast energy, mineral and genetic wealth. Argentina wants to claim its share.

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 30 (Tierramérica).- Argentina is hoping to push its national boundary to the east and incorporate a vast territory with energy and other natural resources of strategic value under the Atlantic Ocean. To do this, the country must demonstrate that its continental platform goes beyond the established international limit of 200 nautical miles.

An area off the Argentine coast of at least 700,000 square kilometers -- equal to one-third of Argentina's land surface -- holds petroleum, natural gas, minerals and genetic resources of high value for industry, an expert who is following the technical studies closely said in an interview, and who requested anonymity.

To draw up a definitive proposal for its maritime border, in 1997 Argentina created the National Commission of the Continental Platform Exterior Limit (COPLA), an inter-ministerial technical team that reportedly has already gathered 90 percent of the information necessary to demonstrate exactly where its territory covered by the ocean comes to an end.

Countries with ocean coasts have sovereign rights over the sea bed and subsoil to 200 nautical miles from land, which is known as the exclusive economic zone, or to where its continental platform ends, including the slope, up to a maximum of 350 miles. That includes the platform's natural resources, but not the water that covers it.

The data obtained in laboratories and sea missions will have to be presented before May 2009 to the Commission on Continental Platform Boundaries, a technical body of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which will decide whether to authorize the new border demarcation.

Argentina is one of the 119 countries that in 1982 signed the Convention, considered a constitutional charter for the world's oceans, and which so far has been joined by 155 countries. The signatories agreed to a 10-year period in which nations could present their proposals for continental platform boundaries, counting from 1999.

According to the preliminary studies in Argentina, the country's continental border extends to 350 nautical miles in some areas, and in others even farther. "The proposal is going to approved without prejudice that it may be debated whether the limit is set five miles more here or five miles less there," said the source.

Interviewed for this article, marine geologist Salvador Aliotta, with the Argentine Institute of Oceanography, explained that countries' sovereignty over 200 miles off their coasts "constitutes a geographical limit, not geological."

"The fact there is a layer of water over the land marks just an instant in the geological history, but the continent extends under the sea and all that there is in the soil and subsoil on dry land can also be found under the sea soil," added Aliotta.

The expert noted that several companies are already exploiting oil fields in Argentine waters, extracting petroleum and natural gas, and he suggested that the possibility is also being explored to extract frozen methane, a fuel found at more than 1,000 meters underground.

But in the sea depths there are also minerals: iron, zinc and others of strategic industrial use, like polymetallic nodules of manganese, and cobalt or sulfur crusts, whose exploitation is being made increasingly possible as technology develops, he said.

The new jurisdiction would not include the water above the sea bed and, as such, does not include the area's fishery resources. However, there are living resources that form part of the sea floor.

In some not-so-deep areas there are species that live in contact with the sea bed, like mussels (Mytilidae) or scallops (Pectinidae). But there are also areas with genetic resources that have great potential for use in the pharmaceutical industry, said the source with ties to the report.

It is essential to be very cautious with these little-known species, said doctor Claudio Campagna, of the National Patagonia Center and executive director of the Sea Modeling project, for sustainable conservation of the Patagonian waters.

"The bentonic environments -- over the sea bed -- beyond the 200-mile mark are unknown as far as their biodiversity, but it is hoped precisely because of this that they have great value for biology," said Campagna, a biologist with a doctorate from the University of California.

"In the slope are transversal canyons that unite the platform with the ocean basin, which need to be evaluated from the perspective of diversity and conservation," he said.

Campagna believes that placing those resources under Argentine jurisdiction would put them in an administrative framework that is stricter than the one existing as part of international waters.

"The current state of things does not facilitate monitoring. In contrast, in the context of sovereign interests there would be advances that are more difficult to achieve in the diffuse scenario of international waters," he said.

This could be beneficial only if the resources' biological relevance is the priority, but "as this has not been the case worldwide so far, the result would continue to be uncertain," commented Campagna.

Like Argentina, there are other maritime countries that are preparing their presentations for the Law of the Sea commission. One is Great Britain, which not only will propose the extension of borders of the platform surrounding its islands in the North Atlantic, but also around the Falkland/Malvinas in the South Atlantic, which involves Argentina in a sovereignty dispute.

The islands that Argentina claims as its own have been occupied by Britain since the 19th century. According to technical studies, the Falkland/Malvinas are inside Argentina's continental platform. The COPLA report does not comment on this matter.

The Argentine commission, made up of officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Naval Hydrography Service, is limited to technical work, but its reports and the international response will not be able to avoid the sovereignty dispute.

* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service, and IFEJ - the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

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