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‘The sea means everything’: Q&A with deep-sea mining opponent Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Debbie Ngawera-Packer.

New Zealand parliamentarian and Māori activist Debbie Ngawera-Packer. Image courtesy of Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

  • New Zealand parliamentarian and Māori activist Debbie Ngarewa-Packer has spent more than two decades serving in leadership roles, using her positions to advance social justice issues and to campaign for the protection of the marine environment.
  • A key issue that Ngarewa-Packer is currently working on is a push to ban deep-sea mining in the global ocean, a proposed activity that would extract large amounts of minerals from the seabed.
  • Ngarewa-Packer previously worked with other Māori activists, NGOs and community members to block consent for a deep-sea mining operation in her home district of South Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Ngarewa-Packer talks about why it’s critical to protect the deep sea from mining, what ancestral teachings say about protecting the ocean, and why she feels hopeful about the future.

In late June, New Zealand parliamentarian and Māori activist Debbie Ngarewa-Packer boarded an international flight to begin a 40-hour journey to Lisbon to attend the U.N. Ocean Conference. At various side events taking place during the week of the conference, including a youth-led march, Ngarewa-Packer spoke ardently about her deep-rooted beliefs that deep-sea mining — a proposed activity that seeks to extract large quantities of minerals from the seabed — should not take place in any part of the ocean. According to her, there’s little possibility of mining not causing irreparable damage to the marine environment.

“[H]ow could you live with yourself if you had to go to your children and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve wrecked your ocean. I’m not quite sure how we’re going to cure it.’ I just couldn’t do it,” Ngarewa-Packer told Mongabay in Lisbon.

Ngarewa-Packer, who hails from Pātea, a small town in South Taranaki on the North Island, has spent more than two decades in leadership roles, including serving for more than 11 years as the kaiarataki, or leader, of the Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanui Trust, a governing body of the Ngāti Ruanui iwi, or people, of South Taranaki. She also served a three-year term as deputy mayor of South Taranaki, and now acts as co-leader of the Māori Party, with which she won a seat in the national parliament in 2020.

Throughout her political career, Ngarewa-Packer has worked to advance social justice issues, including better access to health care and poverty alleviation, and has mobilized the wider community to take a stand against deep-sea mining.

At various side events taking place during the U.N. Ocean Conference, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer spoke ardently about her deep-rooted beliefs that deep-sea mining should not take place in any part of the ocean. Image courtesy of Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

In 2019, Ngarewa-Packer also decided to get a moko kauae, a traditional Māori chin tattoo, as part of a process she calls “reindigenization.”

“It’s a reminder of our cultural obligations,” Ngarewa-Packer said at a side event at the U.N. Ocean Conference, one that launched an alliance of nations calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. “For us, it’s about kaitiakitanga [being the guardian of an area]. For us … it’s about us exercising our rights and interests as tangata whenua, as Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa opposing seabed mining of our coast. It’s also recognition of the last decade that we have been exercising our kaitiakitanga, our protection of our ocean as a coastal people.”

Ngarewa-Packer is the second member of the New Zealand Parliament to wear the moko kauae. In 2016, Nanaia Mahuta also got one; Mahuta has since 2020 been the country’s foreign minister.

Ngarewa-Packer brings her vast store of ancestral knowledge to her fight against deep-sea mining. Working alongside her iwi, local community members and NGOs, she campaigned to put a stop to a deep-sea mining operation set to take place off the Taranaki coast, in New Zealand’s own territorial waters. New Zealand-based mining company Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR) was proposing to annually extract about 50 million tons of iron-rich sand from a 66-square-kilometer (25-square-mile) area of the seafloor for a 35-year period, dumping 45 million tons of sand back into the ocean once the iron-ore had been taken out. In 2021, the Supreme Court of New Zealand, the nation’s highest, ruled that TTR was unable to prove that it would not cause “material harm” to the ocean, which led the court to block the operation.

“It’s very much a David and Goliath story because you’re up against companies that have billions of dollars and deep pockets,” Ngarewa-Packer said. “We’re really reliant on our tribe and community support, but I just think we just wouldn’t give up.”

Deep-sea corals and creatures. Image by NOAA Photo Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Now Ngarewa-Packer is taking a stand against deep-sea mining in international waters, which could begin in as little as a year. In June 2021, the small Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered a two-year rule in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that requests the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-associated body tasked to protect the ocean and to promote seabed mining, to fast-track exploitation within two years, using whatever rules are currently in place. Since then, the ISA has been working to come up with a final set of regulations, referred to as the mining code, so that deep-sea mining can proceed, despite growing concerns about the risks associated with this activity. This month, the ISA council is meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to push forward with these negotiations.

While mining advocates argue that it’s necessary to mine the seabed to support the development of green technologies that will help society fight climate change, critics say the mining would cause many negative impacts, including the destruction of deep-sea ecosystems and vital fisheries.

While Ngarewa-Packer and other figures in New Zealand support a moratorium on deep-sea mining, New Zealand, which is a member state of the ISA, has not formally taken a stand against deep-sea mining. Experts have previously accused New Zealand of giving deep-sea mining in international waters the “green light” by not taking a clear stand on the issue.

“New Zealand has taken down our reputation in the green climate space and in the blue space,” Ngarewa-Packer said. “It’s going to be challenged and there’s an election next year, so I think public opinion is going to kick back the more that people understand how detrimental this type of activity is not just to us, but to the world.”

Plans to begin deep-sea mining have yet to be halted, but Ngarewa-Packer said she feels hope when she sees how determined young people have become in trying to put a stop to it.

“They are the generation that is going to absolutely hold governments to account,” she said.

Now, Ngarewa-Packer is taking a stand against deep-sea mining in international waters. Image courtesy of Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke with Ngarewa-Packer in Lisbon. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What does the sea mean to you and your people?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: It is culturally where we come from. We’re as much the sea as the sea is us. Genetically, it’s been passed down to us. It is the most significant start of our being, and we continue to celebrate the ocean in how we procreate and how we live. If I can go to a contemporary example, today, Māori are some of the worst socioeconomically [in terms of] poverty and homelessness, and the sea is where we return to get a lot of our food. It’s been a major part of our food supply, and it’s one of the last things that doesn’t have tax on it. There has been an intergenerational transfer of experience and lessons on how to hunt and get our kaimoana, which is seafood off the coast. So when the world’s hitting us really hard and the cost of living is extreme, that’s where we go — the sea still looks after us when times are really tough. So the sea means everything.

Mongabay: What does it mean to be a guardian of the sea?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: I think it’s a huge honor, it’s a huge privilege, and I don’t think the obligation of it has been as tough as it is now for this generation. Previously, we’ve always learnt that you’ve got to remember to keep the stories and pass it on, and keep the experience and pass it on, and show how to get your pāua, your shellfish off the coast, and to make sure that if someone who has passed away in the sea or if something bad has happened in the sea that you can put a tapu on it — a rāhui — which is what we call a sacred hold. That’s always been our teachings. Now it is almost like the last bastion for capitalism. We’ve never had it like this other than when we had colonization, and our land was taken from us, and we were horrifically displaced. As protectors, we need to reach out to other protectors, and we need to help those who perhaps aren’t aware of the trouble and seriousness of it. That’s why we’re all here [at the U.N. Ocean Conference] together. I think there’s more of that [awareness building] going on away from the main forum. The marches are all about us reaching out to say, ‘We’re worried, we’re in trouble.’ In our ancestral learnings, there are no lessons on how to bring a deep ocean back to life.

Ngarewa-Packer taking part in a youth-led march. Image courtesy of Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Mongabay: At the U.N. Ocean Conference, you’ve spoken about ‘reindigenization.’ What is the importance of this process?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: Reindigenization is about flipping upside down the model that we see now, which is this belief that there’s this endless supply of natural resources and the planet will naturally replenish itself. The Indigenous story has always been about sustainability, and decolonization is about sustainable living, and that’s proven across the world. We’re really promoting the emphasis of starting on solutions now. It brings about a consciousness of how we are all reliant on each other, and it also brings better consciousness of our obligation to the future. The other side — the exploiting and greedy side — worries about the profit margins until the profit supply goes.

Mongabay: Do you think the world fully understands the potential impacts of deep-sea mining?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: No. Where I live in Taranaki, in New Zealand Aotearoa, we have the largest amount of oil companies extracting on our land and extracting in our sea. We have seen the perils of what it has done for water supplies, and what fracking does to the land. And we don’t know a lot about our seabed … it’s out of sight, out of mind. And as we heard Ralph [Regenvanu, a parliamentarian from Vanuatu] say, 95% of the seabed is not mapped — we’ve mapped the moon and Mars more. And that’s frightening.

Where I come from, our diving club has put down cameras [on the seabed] and we can see the native species, we can see the microorganisms. It has been the best experience. Whereas when we look at some of the permit requests [for deep-sea mining], the extractors are saying, ‘Well, it’s barren land.’ But no, it’s not. I think there needs to be more of a consciousness of what a [mining] plume can do, once the minerals have been extracted, and the damage that that does to marine life — the dolphins and the whales — and the sludge it will create on shore.

But I do think there is better awareness. Ten years ago, people’s eyes would glaze over. I don’t know if it’s because of the COVID experience where we’ve seen the planet come to its knees. Or maybe there’s just better discussions about it and the veil has been lifted. But there’s definitely a much bigger appreciation from the younger generation about the perils of it.

A sperm whale off the coast of New Zealand. Ngarewa-Packer said there needs to be more of a consciousness of what a mining plume can do once the minerals have been extracted, and the damage that it does to marine life — the dolphins and the whales — and the sludge it will create on shore. Image by Roberto Saltori via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Mongabay: There has been some success in New Zealand in stopping deep-sea mining from happening within the country’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ). What do you think was the key to this success?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: I think the key to that success was largely driven by our tangata whenua, our Indigenous peoples, in collaboration with community and NGOs. And that’s effectively a micro model of the macro model that we’re proposing here in a global sense. I think there was just absolute stamina from our iwi, our tribesmen, that we just couldn’t stand by and see the last of what’s left of us [taken away]. We lost our language, we lost our land, we lost our right to be able to practice a lot of our own culture. This is the absolute last bastion for us, and I think for us as humankind. So there was this absolute conviction that we must look after the ocean, because it’s as [important] as looking after our own grandchildren.

We were probably really naive when we started and thought that one [court] case would be enough [to stop deep-sea mining in New Zealand]. It’s very much a David and Goliath story because you’re up against companies that have billions of dollars and deep pockets. We’re really reliant on our tribe and community support, but I just think we just wouldn’t give up.

Mongabay: With New Zealand being a member state of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), would you like to see your country join the alliance of countries calling for a moratorium?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: I think it’s disgraceful that New Zealand left [the U.N. Ocean Conference] without making an announcement. There’s all these excuses — that we need to get certain things aligned and there needs to be certain negotiations — but I’m not buying it right now. What they should have done is joined their sisters in the Pacific and said, ‘We support the moratorium.’ New Zealand has taken down our reputation in the green climate space and in the blue space. It’s going to be challenged and there’s an election next year, so I think public opinion is going to kick back the more that people understand how detrimental this type of activity is not just to us, but to the world.

Ngarewa-Packer has been using her leadership positions to advance social justice issues and to campaign for the protection of the marine environment. Image courtesy of Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Mongabay: Why have you personally chosen to take a stand on deep-sea mining?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: There are many things about being Indigenous that are strengths. My father is 80 next year, and he, along with many in our communities, were freezing workers. And when the freezing workers were not working, we seasonally lived off the sea. My dad and a lot of my older relations, uncles and aunties, are all part and parcel — they did it, we carry it as I know my children will. It’s in our DNA and it is the right thing to do. And I guess, how could you live with yourself if you had to go to your children and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve wrecked your ocean. I’m not quite sure how we’re going to cure it.’ I just couldn’t do it. We just got to do everything that we possibly can to protect our oceans and, at the same time, work alongside other countries that have got the same [drive]. So it’s about sharing our experiences, sharing our Indigenous experience, sharing our legal experiences. It’s in my DNA. We have no other option.

Mongabay: This isn’t the first time there’s been a call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille last year, there was a motion approved that also called for a moratorium. And yet, nothing has changed within the ISA. What do you think it’s going to take for it to actually happen?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: I can see some changes in leadership at the moment. We’ve seen more emphasis on little parties holding the big parties to account. The party that I belong to, the Māori Party, it’s our role to hold the big parties to account. One of the things that we’re going to have to see is more ground pressure, because politicians bow and bend to public pressure. I think that the world is demanding our politicians and our leaders to be more enduring and more future focused, so I think that’s what’s going to do it at the end of the day. These politicians come and go — three years, four years, their cycles aren’t forever. There might be a couple of dictators that would dispute that, but generally, that’s the world. I don’t think that countries and certainly leaders with values want to be on that wrong side of history.

Mongabay: Do you think we could actually repair the damage done to the oceans, even if the countries that inflicted the damage were forced to pay for it?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: It’s not even about who’s going to pay for the damage — just stop before we even get there. Who’s going to monitor the damage? If somebody pollutes a river down the road, there’s an officer of some sort who will drive down and issue them some sort of penalty, and notice of infringement. Who is going to go [to the deep sea] and monitor that activity for 35 years? How will they monitor the effect and the depth of mammals in the sea and the effect on food in the fishing industry? They will monitor it after it’s happened. By then, sectors and livelihoods and communities will be depleted. There’s just no logic. There’s no business case that supports this; there’s absolutely nothing but high-risk speculators who can walk away from it after and aren’t locally from those particular areas.

Ngarewa-Packer taking part in a youth-led march at the UN Ocean Conference. Image by Pierre Sadorge.

Mongabay: With mining set to possibly begin in about a year, what do you think is the most critical thing that needs to happen at this point?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: The most critical thing is that governments do [one of] two things — ban it straight out because it’s just such a destructive, primitive activity. Or at least apply precaution and wait for science and prove beyond doubt that you can do this in a precautionary way, and that there’ll be no materialistic damage. And most importantly, you can monitor and hold those companies to account.

In New Zealand, when companies have bought oil rigs and have set up all the machinery and the pipes, there’s a decommissioning law that they have to then take it all out, move it, and then make sure there’s no damage. We’ve had it happen that companies have gone bust and they’ve left the damage there, so I’m not sure how they’re going to make sure that a seabed mining company leaves the place how it was when it got there. No one has provided the evidence. And the reason we won three times in court — in the High Court, our Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which are the highest courts — is they could never get sound evidence from this particular company that they could provide how they would decommission, how they could prove that it would be left in the same state that they’re out there. You just can’t. So there just needs to be a ban, or at least a moratorium. There are better ways to get things, and to be honest, there’s tons of research and tons of activity going out already for things that are going to replace this. I think that’s a red herring.

Mongabay: What gives you hope right now?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: I think what gives me hope is looking at those who tuned up to the march. What gives me hope is my very first post that I did, about our very first speech, we hit 16,000 within an hour and a bit. My hope is that when we turned up here to speak, there were probably about 100 [people] who couldn’t get in the room and wanted to listen. My hope was that there are some amazing futuristic politicians … who are coming out and saying, ‘This is what we should be doing.’ But most importantly, and I’ve said this before, 10 years ago, eyes would glaze over when we were talking about the subject. Now, the youth are talking about it like they understand it and own it. They are the generation that has had to inherit pandemics and climate change, but they are the generation that is going to absolutely hold governments to account.

Banner image: New Zealand parliamentarian and Māori activist Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Image courtesy of Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Correction 07/23/2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Ngarewa-Packer’s name. This has been amended.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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