Protecting Polar Wilderness: Just a Western Philosophical Idea or a Useful Concept for Regulating Human Activities in the Polar Regions?

Yearbook of Polar Law, 2008

18 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2008

Date Written: November 4, 2008


Governments involved in Arctic and Antarctic governance have been well aware of the increasing human pressure on the Polar Regions and particularly the last two decades many initiatives have been taken to protect the Arctic and Antarctic environment. But what values are to be protected? This paper studies two central questions:

a) To what extent does wilderness protection receive attention in the international governance systems for the Polar Regions?

b) Should wilderness protection be acknowledged as an emerging issue for international law and policy development for the Polar Regions?

First, on the basis of a definition of the term 'wilderness', the role of law in protecting wilderness is debated. This includes a discussion on the relationship between wilderness protection on the one hand and sustainable development and the protection of biological diversity on the other. Next, attention is focused on the Arctic and Antarctic. It is concluded that the international governance systems of both the Arctic and the Antarctic pay very little attention to the preservation of the Polar Regions as the last relatively untouched wildernesses on earth. The applicability of various multilateral environmental agreements to the Polar Regions (particularly the Arctic) is not very helpful in this respect as wilderness protection does not receive substantial attention in these legal instruments either.

The broad acknowledgement of the wilderness values of these regions, the current lack of attention for wilderness protection at the international level and the fast increase of commercial activities in both Polar Regions are strong arguments for a positive answer to the second question and for urging the states involved in the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty System to open the debate on relevant questions: What are wilderness values in the context of the Polar Regions more precisely and when would these values be adversely affected? What are the consequences of wilderness protection for human activities? And for the Arctic, how could wilderness protection be integrated in the efforts regarding sustainable development to ensure the right balance between wilderness protection and the protection of indigenous peoples rights?

The good news is that there are various opportunities to discuss these questions in the near future. For the Antarctic the issue of wilderness protection is included in the five years work plan of the Committee for Environmental Protection and - in parallel - the issue may receive attention during the debate on the development of a common strategic view on the future of Antarctic tourism. For the Arctic one of the opportunities to discuss wilderness protection would be the 'restart' of the work on the Circumpolar Protected Areas Network. In trying to find answers to the relevant questions it is worthwhile to study and identify the lessons learnt (including best practices) of the present domestic systems of wilderness protection. The questions are certainly complex; however, excluding these questions from the international governance debate and simply denying relevance of wilderness protection with the argument that the concept is too vague and subjective will most certainly result in a continuing loss of untouched nature, both in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Keywords: wilderness, Antarctic, Arctic, sustainable development, biodiversity, indigenous people, wilderness protection, wilderness values, protected areas, intrinsic values

JEL Classification: K32, K33, N50, Q26

Suggested Citation

Bastmeijer, Kees, Protecting Polar Wilderness: Just a Western Philosophical Idea or a Useful Concept for Regulating Human Activities in the Polar Regions? (November 4, 2008). Yearbook of Polar Law, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Kees Bastmeijer (Contact Author)

Tilburg University ( email )

P.O.Box 90153
Tilburg, 5000 LE


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