NM’s Dr. Smith insists deep sea mining would take pressure off land-use conflicts and that going to the sea makes sense. “Our planet is known as the Blue Planet, because 70% of its surface is covered in water. Does it make sense to continue to look to the rarer part of our planet to meet our minerals and metal demands? Or does it make sense to look to the more abundant part?“
In addition to the precautionary principle, activists want to see the principle of “Free Prior and Informed Consent” upheld, which means local communities should be involved in any decision-making process that could affect the areas they customarily own or occupy.
This gets more complicated when it comes to matters of the sea.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) framework advises that “coastal stakeholders” should be identified during the application process, their consent sought and compensation agreed to if mining activities are likely to impinge on fishing and other customary rights.
However, ocean borders are fluid and its resources for common use, making the definition of “coastal stakeholders” slippery. This definition is also complicated by the fact that PNG laws favor state control of the sea and ignore indigenous maritime tenure. This has proved a source of contention for the West Coast Central Seabed Mining Land Owners Association, which asserts its rights over the sea’s resources in its region.
The Pacific Deep Sea Minerals Project, an independent advisory body established by the SPC, is working to address the concerns surrounding deep sea mining by running public workshops and creating information resources. It also circulated a video. In the video, SPC director general, Jimmie Rodgers candidly says “Is it urgent? Is it important now? Yes! Because multinationals are not going to wait to give Pacific Island countries time to look at all the studies, environmental analysis, before they come in—they push in.” He continues that some countries have the technical knowledge to withstand that pressure but many do not.
Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific
It recently emerged that the government of Vanuatu had issued 145 licenses for offshore mining exploration in the past five years, without any community consultation.
Vanuatu Minister for Land and Natural Resources, Hon. Ralph Regenvanu, said at a workshop on social impacts, that the licenses were issued without any “proper national regulatory framework for seabed mining or for scientific research,” adding that he was overseeing reform efforts to have the principle of “Free Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in law.
He used Australia, where a three-year moratorium on underwater mining activities off the Northern Territory was enacted, as an example of the precautionary principle being correctly applied and advised Pacific Island states that have not yet issued licenses to follow suit.
Nautilus Minerals are far from the only group with seabed mining interests in the Asia-Pacific. There is also Australia-based Bluewater Metals prospecting in the Solomon Islands, U.S. company Neptune Minerals with a handful of licenses in the Pacific region, Chatham Rock Phosphate interested in phosphate mining in New Zealand, Japan with a license to explore for cobalt and nickel off the Okinawa Islands, South Korea surveying the seabed off Tonga and Fiji, and China filing the first application to search for mineral deposits in the deep seas of the Indian Ocean, to name just a few.
The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention designates the mineral resources in the high seas as the “common heritage of mankind.” It is not yet clear how this concept will work in effect. What is clear, however, is that our lack of understanding about deep sea ecosystems is as vast as the ocean. In the words of CSIRO’s Dr. Chris Yeats: “We know more about the surface of Mars and Venus than we know about the deep ocean floor, broadly speaking it is a great unknown.”
So what will be next? Mining in space? Don’t be surprised. It’s already in the pipeline.