When they start mining the seabed, they’ll start mining part of me.
These are the words of a clan chief of the Duke of York Islands – a small archipelago in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea which lies 30km from the world’s first commercial deep sea mine site, known as “Solwara 1”. The project, which has been delayed due to funding difficulties, is operated by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals and is poised to extract copper from the seabed, 1600m below the surface.
Valuable minerals are created as rapidly cooling gases emerge from volcanic vents on the seafloor. Mining the seabed for these minerals could supply the metals and rare earth elements essential to building electric vehicles, solar panels and other green energy infrastructure. But deep sea mining could also damage and contaminate these unique environments, where researchers have only begun to explore.
The industry’s environmental impact isn’t the only concern. It’s been assumed by the corporate sector that there is limited human impact from mining in the deep sea. It is a notion that is persuasive especially when compared with the socio-ecological impacts of land-based mining.
But such thinking is a fallacy – insights from my research with communities in Papua New Guinea over the past three years highlight that the deep sea and its seabed should be thought of as intimately connected to humanity, despite the geographical distances involved. For the people of the Duke of York Islands, deep sea mining disturbs a sense of who they are, including the spirits that inhabit their culture and beliefs.
Out of sight, out of mined
In Western thought, the sea has not only been considered to be marginal to politics, but also as entirely distinct from the land. Separating nature from humanity has proved useful in enabling exploitation of the natural world for human means. Deep sea mining, with all its material connections between a dynamic seabed and sites of consumption on land, provokes new questions.
If humanity can’t physically encounter the deep seabed, then how are we to treat it ethically?. By conceptually “distancing” the deep ocean, who is being marginalised?
For the people who live close to Solwara 1, the answer is pointed. These communities have long understood the world as a connection between “nature”, “spirits” and “beings”. Central within this cosmology are the spirits – masalai – some of which are understood as guardians of the seabed and its resources.
Masalai are a fundamental part of the islanders’ world. Thus, the prospect of deep sea mining means not just social and economic disruption, but spiritual turmoil. The digging up of the seabed and the extraction of its resources cuts through the very fabric of their spiritual world and its sacred links to the sea and land.
As the historian Neil Macgregor put it in the Radio 4 series “Living with the Gods”, masalai are not
out there… [like] tourists in the human realm, from somewhere else … but in a world in which we co-inhabit.
The political implication for island communities here is clear. The copper which might be mined from the seabed is effectively constituted by these spirits. Thus, as copper “resurfaces” in the objects and technologies of the future – in batteries and wiring – it also carries a spirituality from the region where it originated.
Spirits infuse the traditions and everyday practises of the people on the Duke of York Islands. “Shark calling” is one such example which is practised along parts of the west coast of New Ireland Province – the closest point on land to Solwara 1.
Every few weeks, when the sea conditions allow, “shark callers” attempt to attract sharks to their hand-carved wooden canoes by rattling a mesh of coconut shells in the water, before capturing them by hand. Shark meat is a key part of local diets that generally lack protein.
Shark callers communicate with spirits which are “resident” in stones found on local beaches prior to their expeditions. It’s no surprise then, that these communities fear noise pollution generated by deep sea mining and the physical disturbance of the seabed which could sever the cultural connections they have with the ocean.
Deep sea mining companies should consider the spirituality of the people their work affects and other kinds of environmental knowledge as important in their own right. As this new industry collides with cultural belief systems in different parts of the world, it will be essential to understand the complex ways in which deep sea mining does have “human” impacts after all. Culture is a key part of any understanding of environmental politics, no matter how extreme the environment in question.
Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABL) are being used by foreign companies to unlawfully occupy community-owned land in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
This is despite the leases being declared unlawful and universally discredited. This is happening with the connivance and support of PNG’s politicians and public servants. The foreign companies have been able to abus the law to illegally lease land and grab forest resources from customary landowners — without their legally required consent, and often without any prior warning. As a result of this state-sanctioned land grab, hundreds of thousands of people, most living in remote rural communities, have seen their traditional subsistence lifestyles and environment destroyed and are suffering a wide-range of serious and on-going human rights abuses.
The PNG Council of Churches has called for a total ban on seabed mining in the country. The Council of Churches representatives from the United, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, Evangelical Alliance Church of Manus, Baptist and Body of Christ made their stance known after considering the seriousness of the activity on the seabed.
As African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Countries prepare to re-negotiate their relationship with the European Union (EU), we civil society organisations and people from the Pacific are calling for any future relationship to support our nations to determine and define our own development.
Stop the Exploitation of the Deep Sea! Position Paper Of German Civil Society Organizations On Deep Sea Mining
The German government supports a number of industry and research initiatives, both politically
and financially that massively promote deep sea mining. In the face of these trends,
environmental, development and human rights organisations associated in the German NGO
Working Group on Deep Sea Mining are calling for a rethinking and consequently a change
in policy-making. The total raw materials consumption in Germany and Europe must be drastically
reduced. The deep sea has to be protected as humanity’s common heritage. Deep
sea mining is incompatible with the preservation and conservation of this heritage, but is
on the contrary linked to severe disturbances of marine ecosystems, biodiversity loss and
incalculable consequences for the marine world and the people living in coastal areas.
Deep Sea Mining is the opposite of a sustainable raw materials policy!
Harvard Environmental Law Review details deep sea mining’s threats to climate, biodiversity, and indigenous peoples; calls for precautionary new legal standards
The Harvard Environmental Law Review published an article entitled, “Broadening Common Heritage: Addressing Gaps in the Deep Sea Mining Regulatory Regime.” The article provides a new perspective on the incipient global industry of seabed mining, heralded as the next extractive frontier despite growing concerns and opposition from civil society, scientific experts, and indigenous groups worldwide.
The article provides a brief overview of the so-called ‘gold-rush’ for seabed minerals, in which countries and companies have scrambled to buy up licenses for seabed exploration covering millions of square kilometers of ocean, before environmental and regulatory standards have even been drafted.
“Pacific Islanders have already suffered negative consequences as a result of mere exploratory mining in the region,” says author Julian Aguon, attorney and founder of Blue Ocean Law—a law firm that works throughout the Pacific region to defend and advance the rights of colonized and indigenous peoples. “Our work has documented impacts to fisheries and traditional customs in coastal communities in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and elsewhere, and the disconcerting absence of true and meaningful consultation with affected groups.
The Last Frontier, a documentary series focusing on experimental seabed mining, an imminent venture in the Pacific.
This documentary presents the situation in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Despite the experimental nature and a dearth of knowledge about hydrothermal vents and deep sea ecosystems, Nautilus Minerals Inc. is already prospecting PNG’s Bismarck Sea with an aim to begin mining as early as 2019.
This film highlights a general failure by authorities to incorporate sufficient environmental protections, as well as the norm of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) for indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Sea.
These are the voices of the guardians protecting the Last Frontier.
A video documentary by the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG)