Tamara McLean, AAP
The glint of gold under the ocean floor has many poor Pacific nations lining up to grant the world’s first deep sea mining licences to dredge the depths of their waters.
But protest groups in the region have warned the industry is experimental, economically risky and potentially disastrous for delicate marine eco-systems.
A two-day meeting on the future of deep sea mineral mining wrapped up in Fiji this week, leaving representatives from 15 Pacific nations excited at the potential for this lucrative but as yet unexplored industry.
Papua New Guinea’s government granted the world’s first commercial lease for deep sea mining in January to Canadian-based Nautilus Minerals, which will extract gold and copper from the sea floor 50 kilometres off PNG’s north coast.
At least eight other Pacific nations have also granted exploration licences for the new industry, despite there being few policy and regulation guidelines to manage it.
The Deep Sea Minerals Project, funded by the European Union and administered by the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission, held the meeting to start mapping out the future of the field.
Representatives from tiny nations left the meeting excited at the prospect of big contracts that could help boost their country’s debt-heavy balance sheets.
East Timor government representative Vincent da Costa Pinto said his nation, independent since 2002, had no exports beyond coffee beans and coconut oil, and no mining activity on land or sea.
“To come here and hear the huge untapped potential for gold, copper and manganese in our oceans is exciting,” Mr da Costa Pinto told AAP.
“We’re just a developing nation without a lot of industry so the benefits of projects of this scale that brings in money and economic activity are really huge.”
The meeting was East Timor’s first step towards developing mining laws, he said.
Lameko Talia, from Samoa’s Ministry for Natural Resourcesand Environment, was similarly impressed by the industry’s potential.
“Surveys have been carried out in our waters showing we have both copper and manganese inside our exclusive economic zone,” Mr Talia siad.
“Now it’s about getting on, and working how we do this and taking it to our people.”
Both men acknowledged the need to examine the environmental impacts and accepted that little was understood about scale of the economic rewards.
“There are certainly a lot of unknowns,” Mr Talia said.
Nations are looking to PNG, where the world-first Nautilus project has been signed off and is due to begin in 2013.
Lyndah Brown-Kola, a senior technical assessment engineer with the country’s Mineral Resources Authority, said PNG was well placed to advise its neighbours on how to regulate and legislate deep sea mining nationally.
She acknowledged the government had made mistakes in the past with land-based mining projects but said the deep sea industry promised greater returns “with considerably less negative impact”.
Projected earnings of $US142 million ($A133.46 million) and mining company grants would provide significant economic gains for the country, she said.
“I’m very proud. This is very exciting for us, and for the whole region,” Ms Brown-Kola said.
Environmental groups are more cautious, however, especially PNG-based Act Now, which fought unsuccessfully to stop the Nautilus project.
“As far as we can see, there was little consultation and it was essentially forced on us, even though we have no idea what it will bring, both good and bad,” said the organisation’s program manager, Effrey Dademo.
“We are a guinea pig for the rest of the world to watch.”
Both the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have warned of the potentially dangerous effects trawling the ocean floor will have on sensitive marine eco-systems.
Duncan Williams, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific, warned against rushing the process, saying countries needed to ensure that marine reserves and strict regulations were in place before signing off any deals.
“There is a lot of room here for mismanagement of resources and environmental degradation,” he told AAP from Suva.
“Our concern is that these countries will see the money and jump for quick gains without thinking it through.”
Maureen Penjueli, co-ordinator of Fiji-based Pacific Network on Globalisation, said she was “deeply concerned” by the economic model being used to promote the industry.
“Putting aside the considerable environmental concerns for a moment, economically this may not be smart either,” Ms Penjueli said.
“For instance, mining the ocean could severely compromise our fisheries industries, so we need to think very, very carefully about what is intrinsically good for our nations.
“Do we even want this?”