Pacific deep sea mining framework under fire

16/02/2012 15:08

NGOs warn deep sea mining could impact on Pacific's marine resources.


The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has come under fire over a proposal to establish a regional legislative and regulatory framework for deep sea mineral exploration and mining in the Pacific Islands.

An international alliance of NGOs from Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia and Canada have criticized the regional organization over the proposal, saying elements of the framework lacked the “precautionary principle” which would act as a safeguard for Pacific Island communities that could be affected by deep sea mining.

The Applied Geoscience and Technology Commission (SOPAC), an SPC subsidiary, has secured funding from the EU to draft a framework that would enable Pacific Island nations to mine the deep sea for minerals.

Canadian-registered company Nautilus Minerals currently holds approximately 600,000 square kms of highly prospective exploration acreage and tenements under application in the western Pacific, specifically in PNG, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga as well as in international waters in the eastern Pacific. The mining lease for its Solwara 1 Project in PNG was granted in January last year by the PNG government after its environmental permit was awarded in December 2009.

However, PNG-based NGOs Mas Kagin Tapani, Bismarck Ramu Group and ACT NOW PNG have warned that the SPC-authored framework would disenfranchise Pacific Island communities and deep sea mining, when underway, would impact on the livelihoods of Pacific Islanders.

“The drafting of laws to facilitate experimental deep seabed mining disenfranchises Pacific peoples who have not yet made an informed decision on whether they want to be the guinea pigs for this industry. SOPAC has not consulted or gained consent from local communities in PNG, some of which have been resisting against Nautilus Minerals Solwara 1 project since 2008. Landowners under their customary rights do take claim to resources not just on land but also the sea,” said ACT NOW PNG program manager Effrey Dademo.

Wences Magun, the Mas Kagin Tapani national coordinator, said coastal villagers and islanders relied on the ocean and its resources to sustain their livelihoods.

“It is our supermarket.  Any negative impact caused to the marine environment will have detrimental negative impact on our lives and the lives of our descendants. Destroy it and you destroyed us,” he said as he appealed for the Nautilus Minerals’ Solwara 1 project to be abandoned.

Selling smoked fish at the Kokopo market in PNG is a form of income.

Their concerns were echoed by Dr Helen Rosenbaum, author of Out of Our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor in Papua New Guinea and the Australian-based coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and Catherine Coumans, one of the editors of the report.

“The precautionary principle is notably absent in some of the policy documents we are seeing. We are concerned that SOPAC is not truly independent enough to be guided by the principle, even though scientists and regulators have called for this to be the underlying principle behind any discussion and framing of regulation and legislation,” said Dr Rosenbaum.

Ms Coumans added: “The precautionary principle states that if a development has a risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on the developers. In the case of the Solwara 1 project case it would be Nautilus and the PNG government. It is clear that Nautilus cannot meet the precautionary principle. The company has admitted, for example, not being able to conduct basic toxicity testing on the deep sea species that will be directly and indirectly affected.”

PNG, a nation of about 7 million people, is one of the world’s top mining investment destinations with mineral exports accounting for more than 63 per cent of the country’s total export revenue in the third quarter of 2009. Despite its increasing wealth, rehabilitation of state infrastructure and institutions remain poor, leaving enforcement to the various industries including mining, and placing both the investor and the government in a conflict of interest situation.

The lack of enforcement worries John Chitoa of the Bismarck Ramu Group:  “Even if good laws are in place for deep sea mining in the Pacific do we even have the human resources or the capacity in managing it. Without enforcement we end up with indigenous communities suffering like they have in PNG at the hands of the world’s largest mining companies like BHP Billiton (Ok Tedi and the destruction of the Fly River) and Rio Tinto (Panguna and the war in Bougainville).”

Nevertheless it is not the first time for the SOPAC to come under scrutiny over the framework, various criticisms by NGOs forcing the commission to go public last December to defend its work and to point out that it was Pacific Island governments that requested its help.

“Since the project was conceived as a result of a number of Pacific Islands countries requesting the SOPAC division for advisory assistance and technical support relating to seabed minerals, it is difficult to understand who is being disenfranchised",  Akuila Tawake, the SOPAC Deep Sea Minerals Project team leader reportedly said.