Government of Tonga: Don’t open up Tongan waters to deepsea mineral exploitation

By ‘Eseta Schaaf, Salt Lake City, UT

Government of Tonga: Don’t open up Tongan waters to deepsea mineral exploitation. Environmental damage far outweighs unsustainable economic benefits. Science should lead the way for the purposes of furthering our knowledge of Earth and its origin of life.

“Humans treat the planet as if there’s another one to move to after we completely destroy this one.”

On March 11th-15th, Tonga will host a regional workshop on Law and Contract Negotiations for Deep Sea Minerals in the Pacific on behalf of the SPC-EU Pacific Deep Sea Minerals Project. The EU-funded and SOPAC-managed DSM Project focuses on 15 Pacific Island countries including Tonga, and the workshop purpose is to “provide Tongan government officials with the knowledge, skills and confidence to negotiate effectively with well-resourced deep sea mining compannies.” Hannah Lily, Legal Adviser for the DSM Project said seabed mineral resources is an “exciting new economic opportunity for Pacific Island States.” However, Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, campaign coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining campaing stressed there is concern that SOPAC is not truly independent enough. “How can the EU fund a regulatory system in the Pacific underpinned by the reckless approach advocated by SOPAC?” said Phil McCabe of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) said. “It’s entirely at odds with the European Union’s Precautionary Principle’s thorough risk analysis process.” he continued.

As land resources are becoming depleted, mining corporations are turning their interest to deep seafloor mining. Dubbed as the new frontier of mining, there are still many unknowns about this new unsustainable practice, including long-term consequences. Deep sea mining (DSM) focuses on the deposits laid down over thousands of years around underwater hot springs, or hydrothermal vents. These deposits of gold, copper, zinc and other valuable minerals can yield as much as ten times the desirable minerals as a seam mined on land. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), there are nine pounds of mineable gold in the deep seafloors for every person on Earth. In today’s gold price, that’s worth about $150 trillion.

A transnational mining company of interest is Canadian-based Nautilus Minerals. It has secured or is in the process of applying for the exploration rights to 534,000 km2 of seafloor in Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Zealand. Nautilus Mineral’s Solwara 1 Project to extract from the Bismarck Sea in PNG will be the world’s first deep sea mining project, however plans to commence this year is on hold indefinitely pending a dispute with the PNG Government. In 2007, Nautilus Minerals Tonga was incorporated in Nuku’alofa after 16 Prospecting Licenses were granted by the Tongan Government. A Prospecting License provides the right to explore for mineral deposits. In late 2012, Nautilus announced the discovery of two high grade Seafloor Massive Sulfide (SMS) systems containing gold, silver, copper, and zinc.

Should the Tongan people be concerned? Very much so! All stakeholders in Tonga must be made aware of and educated on Deep Sea Mineral Mining, and its environmental and social effects over the longterm. There are four points of concern I’d like to highlight: Commercial Greed, Environmental Degradation, Social Implications, and Science.

Commercial Greed:  Like land mining, deep sea minerals are also a non-renewable resource. Corporations prioritize money over long term sustainability. Furthermore, there are insufficient regulations and laws in place to safeguard against the irresponsible harvesting of deep sea minerals. Mining companies will take advantage of this weakness and exploit the vulnerable democracies and economies of developing Pacific Island nations.

Environmental Degradation:  Is there such a thing as ecologically sustainable mining? I think not. Nautilus mentioned it would like to take environmental factors into account before going ahead with mining operations but oftentimes businesses don’t start making profit until after 5-10 years. That’s a lot of mining! It’s no question sea mineral mining will disrupt and threaten marine life and environment. Many species at depths of 4,000-6,000 meters have not been identified, so mining could spell their extinction before they’re even discovered. Removing of parts of the sea floor will result in disturbances to the benthic layer, increased toxicity of the water column and sediment plumes from tailings. Furthermore, environmental activists have cited concerns about leakage, spills, and corrosion that could alter the mining area’s chemical makeup.

Social Implications: SOPAC’s Deep Sea Minerals Project is selling the idea that mining will be a viable economic alternative for Pacific Island nations, but in reality, deep sea mineral mining is not a sustainable development option for indigenous peoples.  Mining involves the transporting, stockpiling, trans-shipment and processing of mineral ores which will produce millions of tons of toxic wastes, all of which will occur close to remote coastal communities relying on a healthy sea for their diet and income.

Science: When it comes to deep sea mineral exploration, Science should lead the way over commercial exploitation. This will enhance our knowledge of Earth and the origin of life on this planet. Scientists have known for decades about hypothermal vents, and some think this is where some of life’s earliest life forms evolved.

When will we learn? It’s not hard to see that we’re destroying the planet – polluting land, air and now sea. We have a social and ethical obligation to act. Envrionmental sustainability and advancing scientific knowledge should take precendence over unsustainable economics. All ecosystems on Earth are interdependent –  if the ocean is destroyed, everything else will die. We need the planet – the planet does not need us.


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