- An embattled deep-sea mining project appears to be moving ahead in Papua New Guinea, according to officials in the Pacific Island nation, despite more than a decade of opposition from local communities on the grounds that it could harm the fisheries on which they rely as well as the broader ecosystem.
- Backers of deep-sea mining say it could help provide the gold, copper and other minerals necessary for the transition to electric vehicles and away from fossil fuels.
- But deep-sea mining has not yet happened anywhere in the world, and scientists, human rights groups and Indigenous communities highlight the lack of evidence demonstrating its safety.
- The Alliance of Solwara Warriors is a group of Indigenous communities and church organizations that have been fighting the Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea, which received the world’s first deep-sea mining license from PNG in 2011.
KAVIENG, Papua New Guinea — Papua New Guinea’s minister for mining confirmed in early August that a deep-sea mining company would once again be looking to mine the seafloor under the country’s waters, leading to a fresh round of questions about the potential impacts of the project.
“It is now clear from my discussions with this company that the company is planning to return to PNG,” Minister Ano Pala told parliament on Aug. 1, according to an article in the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier newspaper. He said the three licenses held by Nautilus Minerals were in the process of renewal. The minister’s office did not respond to Mongabay’s request for an interview.
Gary Juffa, governor of Oro province, had questioned Pala in parliament, and he called the revelations “disturbing” in an Aug. 17 interview with The National newspaper.
“In fact, developed nations have banned seabed mining or have spoken against it because experts and scientists have stated that the unknowns are too great to ignore,” Juffa said, according to the article. “Leaders of coastal communities, if you do not stop this and do not watch this with concern, then you are failing your people.”
Vancouver, Canada-based Nautilus was granted its initial exploration license in 2011, the first deep-sea mining lease in the world (though the practice still has not started anywhere). From the outset, local communities began protesting the group’s Solwara 1 project, which targeted an area 25 kilometers (16 miles) off the west coast of PNG’s New Ireland province. Among their concerns was that mining would disturb local ecosystems and affect the fisheries on which these communities rely.
Deep-sea mining occurs in waters 200 meters (660 feet) deep and beyond. In the case of Solwara 1, the aim is to find and harvest copper and gold in the rocks found at 1,500-1,600 m (4,900-5,250 feet) below sea level. Proponents of the practice say these minerals, along with others such as silver and zinc, are vital to the transition toward electrification, especially in vehicles, and away from fossil fuels. But the potential impacts to the environment are not well understood, and international safeguards haven’t yet been agreed upon.
A number of countries — including Canada, the home of Nautilus Minerals — have called for an international moratorium on deep-sea mining until the environmental, social and economic risks are better understood.
Amid these questions and the specific concerns about Solwara 1, Nautilus went bankrupt and was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2019. Since then, Isle of Man-based Deep Sea Mining Finance Ltd. has acquired Nautilus Minerals, breathing new life into Nautilus and the Solwara 1 project.
By 2016, the initial wave of resistance to the Solwara 1 project had coalesced into a multiprovince coalition calling for the cancelation of the license. The Alliance of Solwara Warriors, comprising NGOs, Indigenous communities and religious groups across several island provinces in PNG, have worked to build awareness around the project and raise concerns about the potentially dangerous environmental impacts of mining the seafloor. Research has revealed that these ecosystems are fragile and contain many species still unknown to science. A recent study has shown that more than 90% of nearly 5,600 species are new to science in one deep-sea area of the eastern Pacific known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone that’s thought to contain minerals such as nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese needed for green technology. What’s more, the effects of disturbing these spots could ripple through shallower ecosystems such as the coral reefs that ring the islands of the South Pacific, like the ones that support fishing communities along New Ireland’s west coast.
“No one knows what the environmental impact will [be] on the coastal communities, even the scientists,” Jonathan Mesulam, the alliance’s coordinator and spokesperson, told Mongabay.
In 2019, PNG Prime Minister James Marape announced a 10-year, countrywide moratorium on deep-sea mining at the Pacific Islands Forum. But now, opponents of the Solwara 1 project are concerned that it won’t be held to this policy and could start before the moratorium expires in 2029. The alliance wants a permanent ban on deep-sea mining within PNG waters. Mesulam called the deep-sea environment the “common heritage of mankind,” a phrased used by other opponents of deep-sea mining. He implored the world to “not even think about mining those areas.”
“The life in the oceans has taken millions of years … to be what [it is] today,” Mesulam added. “What will happen if this ecosystem is disturbed? It will take millions of years to recover.”
Mesulam recently returned from a meeting of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston, Jamaica, where talks extended the deadline to finalize rules around seabed mining meant to address possible environmental impacts until 2025. Like the ISA, Mesulam said, the PNG government has no safeguards in place.
“There is no law on seabed mining in PNG. There is no offshore act, nothing,” he said. Instead, the Ministry for Mining and the Mineral Resources Authority, a government body charged with regulating mining in PNG, are relying on laws intended to govern mining on land — laws that Mesulam said don’t adequately address the possible consequences of mining at sea.
The Alliance of Solwara Warriors has sued the government for the release of documents that should be public but are not currently available. These would provide more details about the contract between the company and the government.
Mesulam is listed as the primary plaintiff in the case. Anthony Walep of the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), a PNG-based nonprofit organization, told Mongabay these documents should be accessible under the country’s mining and environment laws. After a dismissal of their initial case by a lower court, CELCOR and the alliance are appealing the decision and will argue their case before the Supreme Court, likely in October.
Key officials in PNG have emphasized that the country had a 15% stake in Nautilus Minerals prior to its bankruptcy. Now, the implication, they say, is that the government stands to lose all of that reported $120 million investment in the company.
“If we terminate the license, the state’s 15% interest in the project would naturally cease to exist,” Jerry Garry, the CEO of the country’s Mineral Resources Authority, told NBC News PNG on Aug. 9. Neither Garry nor his executive secretary responded to Mongabay’s requests for an interview.
And whether PNG still holds claim to that stake after Nautilus’s bankruptcy filing remains unclear. Deep Sea Mining Finance did not respond to requests for comment.
But in Mesulam’s view, communities in PNG stand to lose a lot more if the mining begins. In a recent visit to New Ireland’s west coast, where he was born, he met with communities worried about the threats they face as a result of mining the seabed just offshore.
The area in question is quite literally the foundation of the sustenance and cultures of ocean-dependent communities in the region, Mesulam said. In his view, PNG’s leaders are not listening to the communities’ full-throated rejection of the Solwara 1 project.
“The government has been turning a blind eye, and they focused on the [return on] investment they will get from this project. They’re not concerned about people’s livelihoods,” he said. “We should be the guardian of the resources that creation has offered us. And not everything that we have is for monetary value.”
Banner image: Kono village chief Chris Malgan speaks to his community members about the Solwara 1 project in New Ireland province. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
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Rabone, M., Wiethase, J. H., Simon-Lledó, E., Emery, A. M., Jones, D. O., Dahlgren, T. G., … Glover, A. G. (2023). How many metazoan species live in the world’s largest mineral exploration region? Current Biology, 33(12), 2383-2396. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2023.04.052
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