- In November, France took a strong position on deep-sea mining by declaring that this future activity should be banned in international waters. The nation has also banned it from its national waters.
- Berville also said he wants to make sure there is a “coalition in favor of a principle of precaution or moratorium.”
- Member states of the International Seabed Authority, the UN-associated mining regulator, recently agreed to push back its timeline for finalizing rules that would enable deep-sea mining to start.
- Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts interviewed Berville at the French Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, during the meeting of the ISA assembly in July.
KINGSTON, Jamaica — In November, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France was calling for an international ban on deep-sea mining, a proposed activity that has received much attention due to its controversial nature. Proponents argue that deep-sea mining is necessary to obtain critical metals for renewable technologies essential to fight climate change. But critics say deep-sea mining would do more harm than good, irrevocably damaging marine ecosystems that took millions of years to form.
Some countries have called for a “moratorium” or “precautionary pause” on deep-sea mining, but France is the only nation to have called for an outright ban. In January, the French Parliament also voted to ban deep-sea mining in the nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which spans more than 10,186,624 square kilometers (3,933,078 square miles) around France itself and numerous archipelagic countries in the Pacific under French control. France has the second largest EEZ in the world.
Among marine conservationists, France’s state secretary for the sea, Hervé Berville, is often viewed as a champion for the oceans, speaking out against deep-sea mining and supporting efforts to protect the international waters of the high seas through the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Agreement, also known as the High Seas Treaty, which 160 states and other parties agreed upon in March. However, during his one year in office, he has also drawn controversy for opposing a ban on mobile bottom fishing, which includes destructive practices such as bottom trawling, inside European marine protected areas.
At the recent meetings of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-affiliated mining regulator, Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke with Berville to ask him about his country’s position and its current efforts to stop deep-sea mining.
While Macron, Berville and other representatives of France have previously spoken of a “ban” on deep-sea mining, Berville also now used the terms “precautionary pause” and “moratorium” when describing what he says he believes needs to happen to stop deep-sea mining. And in the past, Macron has stated that he wanted to find a legal framework to stop deep-sea mining. When questioned about this, Berville implied that this legal avenue was a “diplomatic avenue, which is also the political avenue.” His comments may suggest a shift of France’s position for the sake of unity among nations opposed to deep-sea mining.
“What we’re trying to reach is to make sure that there is a consensus and this is what we’ve been doing over the last few days and few months to make sure that there is a coalition in favor of a principle of precaution or moratorium,” Berville told Mongabay.
France will be on the ISA council in 2024, 2025 and 2026, and Berville previously stated that he believes Macron would want to find ways to refuse the approval of any license for exploitation.
Berville assumed the position of France’s state secretary of the sea in July 2022. Originally from Rwanda, Berville was adopted by a French family after surviving the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Alberts spoke with Berville at the French Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 27, the day before the close of the meeting of the ISA assembly. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: What does the ocean personally mean to you?
Hervé Berville: To me, it means childhood, it means a new country. I was adopted. I was born in Rwanda, a country where there is no ocean — it’s a landlocked country. So one of the first things I remember when I was 4 when I arrived in Brittany, which is a coastal region, is to see the sea. And for me it was really a new adventure. I was coming from a country that experienced a genocide, so for me, the ocean is related to a new life. When you hear the sound of the waves, it’s one of the best feelings you can ever have. Also for me, the ocean is literature, it’s imagination, it’s pushing yourself to do things beyond what you thought was possible.
Mongabay: Why is France taking such a strong position in calling for a ban on deep-sea mining in international waters rather than a moratorium or a precautionary pause?
Hervé Berville: We’re taking this position because we strongly believe that we can’t face the threats of our time — climate change and biodiversity loss — without taking a strong position for the future generation right now. We have the second-largest marine space in the world, so we bear a really strong responsibility. If France starts deep-sea mining [in its own waters], it could affect a lot of countries. Our responsibility is to make sure that we put the protection of the environment at the core of our public policies. And if we want to protect the environment and tackle climate change, we need to make sure that we protect the ocean, and to protect the ocean we need to protect [against] deep-sea mining. So long story short, for us, it’s vital to protect the deep sea because the deep sea is vital to protect the ocean, and the ocean is vital to tackle climate change.
Mongabay: France previously stated that it intends to find a legal way to stop deep sea mining. Are you still intending to pursue some kind of legal avenue?
Hervé Berville: We’re going to try to find the political, the diplomatic and the legal avenue. Our objective, and it’s a shared objective, is to protect marine biodiversity. To do so, we need to make sure that we can have the precautionary pause, meaning we [ISA member states] should be able to reach the consensus together that it’s too soon to start this industrial activity. We need to do more research so we don’t start an activity that will have [impacts] forever on our marine ecosystem. So it’s the legal avenue, it’s the diplomatic avenue, which is also the political avenue. What we’re trying to reach is to make sure that there is a consensus and this is what we’ve been doing over the last few days and few months to make sure that there is a coalition in favor of a principle of precaution or moratorium.
Mongabay: France is currently a sponsoring state for exploration of polymetallic sulfides on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Is that contract still being utilized?
Hervé Berville: Of course. To explore, to better understand. Because it’s through research and exploration that we’ll be able to show that [the deep sea] is a fragile ecosystem that we need to protect. So what we need to do right now is not to start exploitation; it’s to foster excellent exploration, research and knowledge to make sure that we have all the evidence we need for some countries to make a decision. For France, we will not change our decision because we already have some research that shows that deep-sea mining [would damage] the ecosystem in a really strong way. So we’re going to continue having the license because we need to make sure that we have more research, more science, more data.
Mongabay: Are you satisfied with the agreement that the ISA council reached July 21, which indicates the aim to finalize the regulations for deep-sea mining by July 2025?
Hervé Berville: We progress. Last year, at the same period, there was almost a consensus that deep-sea mining would start this year and that we would allow companies or states to start all the processes of deep-sea mining. But because of countries such as Palau and Vanuatu, and because France took a strong position at the COP27, a growing number of countries realized that it was too soon to start these industrial activities. First of all, we need to invest in science. Second of all, we need to put in place stronger regulations and to work for a form of consensus diplomatically and legally to make sure there is no deep-sea mining starting [in the future]. Yes, I’m satisfied with the fact that we’re not experiencing the beginning of deep-sea mining, but I’m remaining vigilant, and the idea is to make sure that we really make this coalition grow for the next few months and few years.
Mongabay: Do you think it is a realistic goal to stop deep-sea mining, especially when you look at all the investments made by companies and the support for deep-sea mining from some countries?
Hervé Berville: Look at what happened in the council. The people who were advocating for a precautionary pause managed to convince other countries that we should all together focus on regulation and on science rather than start deep-sea mining right now. What is realistic is to look at the state of our ocean, the state of our biodiversity. And what is realistic is really to not have rhetorical arguments about the ban or moratorium or precautionary pause, but have concrete action that prevents us from starting something that we don’t have enough evidence to make sure that we do not harm the marine ecosystem.
I want to add something. Right now, Macron is in Vanuatu where he launched an appeal with the prime minister of Vanuatu, saying we have to reconcile people and the planet. We’re financing developing and vulnerable countries. At the same time, [we want] emphasis on the well-being of people, but we need to be much stronger on financing and on protecting the ocean because now we know that the ocean is a really key ally in our fight against climate change. If we want to tackle the loss of biodiversity on the land, on the Earth, we need to make sure that we tackle the biodiversity in the ocean because it’s all related. So that’s why for us, for France, there is new momentum to better protect the ocean. Over the last few months, the BBNJ treaty. I was the only minister that went three times in New York to negotiate. And we truly believe that it’s going to be through this treaty that we’ll be able to protect 45% of the global surface. Also, the COP15 to put as an objective, the 30% protection of the water and ocean. And if we want to be coherent, if we want to concretize those two big new frameworks, then we need to be really careful with deep-sea mining and really putting [effort into] research and regulations. There will be no real and sustainable ecological energetical transition if it’s at the price of the destruction of the ocean.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Banner image: Hervé Berville, France’s state secretary for the sea. Image courtesy of Hervé Berville.