SANTIAGO, Chile, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Chile is going ahead with a multibillion-dollar plan that includes building up its Antarctic defense capability, opening tourist corridors to the frozen continent and consolidating its presence in an integrated single entity.
Chilean plans for increasing a defense and scientific presence in the Antarctic region gained momentum in 2007 in response to reports of lucrative mineral deposits.
As a country with relatively easy strategic access to the Antarctic, Chile has been planning for many years to expand its footprint on the continent. More recently Chile has responded to mineral prospecting and research by Britain and other international powers.
Chile's Capitan Arturo Prat military base at Iquique Cove, Greenwich Island in the South Shetlands, was earmarked for major redevelopment to upgrade its airstrip, already good for C-130 Hercules landing and takeoff.
In January, President Sebastian Pinera unveiled a "four-pillar" program that called for early construction of new bases on the Antarctic, so far described as scientific research stations. In some cases, however, territories to be earmarked for new bases will be chosen by the Chilean Ministry of Defense.
As the second part of the new Antarctic expansion policy, Chile will invest more into developing the Magallanes and the Antartica Chilena region's status as the gateway to Antarctica, Pinera said.
The southern city of Punta Arenas is already a hub of increasing business and industrial activity, though not without angry rejoinders from local protesters, who want more direct benefits for the region and less involvement of business and industrial concerns from the north.
Pinera is facing endemic domestic protests from a range of critics who say the development plans aren't reaching out to the impoverished inhabitants of the south and enriching privileged elites from the capital Santiago and other northern cities.
Analysts said Pinera's third "pillar" -- a planned consolidation of more than 60 different Antarctica-related entities into a single institution -- was a response to local demands to create more jobs and hasten a more equitable distribution of income. Critics warn the consolidation, if not done properly, will have the reverse effect and lead to job losses.
The fourth part of the strategy is to develop high-value tourism in the whole Antarctica-Magallanes region and to develop southern Chile as an intermediate destination for Antarctic-bounded scientific and mineral research traffic.
Heightened interest in the region's mineral wealth has spawned contesting territorial claims, several registered with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Military facilities of competing powers are also being developed in various parts of the region, and some claims already overlap each other, fueling future conflict.