SPC project on seabed mining seriously compromised by EU funding

ocean life

Reinventing the wheel once more

Giff Johnson* | Pacific Institute of Public Policy

How many times shall we reinvent the wheel? This is the question that needs to be asked as most islands in the region get set to adopt domestic legislation and policy governing deep-sea mining provided by donors. Over the past 18 months or so, a ‘Deep-Sea Minerals Project’ run by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and funded by the European Union, has dispatched experts to all independent Pacific islands to bring them up to speed for future mining in 200-mile exclusive economic zones. The SPC-EU teams promote template legislation that is domestically driven by trade and resources and development ministries and agencies who are already, in some islands, engaged in promoting donor-driven development initiatives.

The SPC-EU project states on its website that it is ‘helping Pacific Island countries to improve the governance and management of their deep-sea minerals resources in accordance with international law, with particular attention to the protection of the marine environment and securing equitable financial arrangements for Pacific island countries and their people.’

The goal is laudable. The question is, can a donor that represents countries with mining interests protect and advocate for the rights of Pacific islands? It sounds like a serious conflict of interest, much as the PACER (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations) negotiations are, with Australian funding providing training to Forum island officials, paying for island officials to attend PACER negotiations, and financing an Office of the Chief Trade Advisor. All of this creates its own industry, a legion of trade officials who have a vested interest in promoting trade negotiations, whether or not they are, in fact, in the interests of the different island nations.

Face the facts: Deep-sea mining potentially offers a serious economic opportunity for the islands, but one that by its nature is not sustainable for the long-term and comes with possibly serious environmental consequences. In addition, experience with onshore mining is limited to a few Melanesian countries, while deep-sea mining experience and legislation is embryonic, at best.

Why keep reinventing the wheel when we have experience and examples of regional cooperation that works? The best of these are in fisheries. The Forum Fisheries Agency is a good example of a regional body that has provided solid management, monitoring and surveillance for the Pacific tuna fishery that has worked for the interests of the islands. But the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) is probably the body that is the most relevant for deep-sea mining.

Instead of going it alone, with each country establishing its own legislation and negotiating deals with mining companies individually, why not use the PNA formula that shows how rights can be managed and, through a unified effort, maximized for all parties.

What should be happening at the regional level is discussion aimed at establishing regional or sub-regional agreements so that island nations can agree to minimum terms and conditions for deep-sea mining. Drawing on the experience with the Pacific tuna fishery, the region could be working to set minimum terms and conditions that could be enacted through implementing arrangements to ensure national legislation is not undermined and small island economies are not played off against each other and exploited inequitably. This is exactly what PNA is now doing with the tuna industry.

Given that the International Seabed Authority, which was established by the United Nations to regulate these activities and develop a mining code for management and monitoring of deep-sea mining, is already reported to be issuing licenses for the Pacific, the islands need to get a better grip on what is potentially a multi-billion dollar industry, with significant side effects. Do the islands get a decent return and find ways to successfully manage environmental problems?

It seems so obvious that what is needed is a Forum Leaders declaration to address deep-sea mining at the regional level, where agreed-to regional strategies can ensure fair returns for the islands.

The ability of PNA’s eight members to maintain unity in setting minimum prices for fishing days and enforce management measures for the tuna fishery has resulted in the PNA skipjack fishery holding the highest global certification for sustainability through the Marine Stewardship Council, setting a minimum price for access to fish, controlling fishing effort, establishing compulsory satellite-based surveillance, enforcing 100 percent observer coverage of purse seiners, and implementing other requirements. Of even more relevance to deep-sea mining is PNA’s restriction limiting the transshipment of catch to export carrier vessels in designated ports, where species composition and harvest tonnage are checked and verified. This also provides significant additional direct and indirect economic benefits to the island ports. Similar transshipment requirements should apply to deep-sea mining ore carriers so independent inspectors can monitor and verify volumes and types of ores being exported.

This is unlikely to happen in the absence of a regional approach to mining. Instead of continuing down the path of individual islands negotiating their own separate deep-sea mining arrangements with all the poor governance opportunities this presents, what does the Forum region have to lose by convening a meeting with the goal of establishing a regional deep-sea mining agreement? Member countries through PNA have experience in developing successful regional agreements that establish rules and minimum standards for resource management and exploitation — to the great benefit of their members. Let’s use this experience for the benefit of all the islands in the area of deep-sea mining.

With the Forum summit in Papua New Guinea just six weeks away, this is an initiative that needs the leaders attention and action.

* Giff Johnson is editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, the independent weekly newspaper published in Majuro, and a contributor to several news media in the Pacific. He is the author of Don’t Ever Whisper — Darlene Keju: Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors, published in 2013, and Nuclear Past, Unclear Future, a history of the U.S. nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands, published in 2009.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Financial returns, Human rights, Pacific region

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