Despite uncertainty over the environmental impact, some Pacific countries are pushing ahead with plans to mine their seabeds for minerals – and New Zealand has offered a helping hand.
Sam Sachdeva | Newsroom | 8 October 2019
The New Zealand Government will help Pacific countries carry out seabed mining within their marine territories if asked, despite calls for a 10-year moratorium on the controversial practice.
The Government has refused to reveal which countries it has already assisted, with one environmental group urging New Zealand to reverse its policy and protect the marine environment in the Pacific.
Advocates of the extraction activity have argued it can provide a sustainable and replenishing supply of minerals, while critics have expressed fears about the impact of mining on aquatic habitats and the destruction of the ocean floor.
In New Zealand, a company planning to dredge the ocean floor for minerals off the coast of New Plymouth has headed to the Court of Appeal to win back a mining consent.
But the topic is of concern in the wider Pacific region, with some countries calling for a moratorium on the practice until the environmental impacts are better understood.
In a May briefing to Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade set out New Zealand’s approach to any requests for support from Pacific nations planning to mine the seabed in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
The countries’ sovereign rights to utilise the natural resources within their EEZs had to be balanced with protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as the needs of future generations.
With early indications that the technology and investment from seabed mining in the Pacific would come from “external actors” – a potential reference to China,which has developed a growing interest in seabed mining– officials said countries would need robust legal frameworks, governance structures and environmental protections in place before entering into any agreements.
It was also important than any deals protected the country’s sovereignty and provided a fair financial return.
New Zealand agencies like the Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment could help Pacific countries with establishing regulatory, environmental and governance processes for seabed mining.
Support in those areas “would not be inconsistent with the New Zealand Government’s domestic policies for the sustainable management of non-living natural resources,” the briefing said.
“New Zealand will not actively encourage seabed mining in the EEZ of Pacific Island partners, but when approached for assistance New Zealand Government and agencies can support [them] to ensure that environmental protection and good governance frameworks are in place to reduce risk to the marine environment and national interests.”
Among the key principles for New Zealand when considering any requests for support were promoting the sustainable management of natural resources, protecting the environment from pollution, and supporting countries to meet their obligations under international law.
Any support from New Zealand should also align with the Pacific Island Forum’s regional ocean objectives, the briefing said.
However, Pacific leaders have been at odds over the issue, with some regional heavyweights supporting calls for a temporary ban.
Speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in August, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama called on leaders to support a 10-year moratorium from 2020 to 2030, which he said “would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zone and territorial waters”.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape has also indicated he would support a moratorium, with his country attempting to recover more than NZ$174 million which it sunk into a failed deep sea mining project.
However, the Cook Islands has announced it will “take the lead” on seabed mining and start activity within five years, with Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown citing a potential reduction in development aid as a driver for the move.
Greenpeace NZ oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond told Newsroom that New Zealand’s position was concerning, with seabed mining carried out using an experimental technique which had never been tested in New Zealand.
“Around the world they’re kind of looking for the precedent setting of where it’s going to be allowed and how it’s going to happen…we don’t know what the environmental impact of this practice is, other than it will be pretty damaging.”
Desmond said New Zealand needed to support the calls for a moratorium from countries like Fiji, given the Pacific’s dependence upon their ocean ecosystems.
“We haven’t consented it in New Zealand, and…saying ‘we’re not going to do it here but we’re going to facilitate you guys to do it’ seems quite off to me.”
It was “short-sighted” for Pacific nations to turn to seabed mining for wealth generation, given the long-term damage such activities would cause, she said.
“If you’re looking at a small Pacific Island nation who depends so much on the ocean, even at a community level…sucking up the seabed and dumping everything back down is going to be much more destructive in the long-term in terms of what their marine resources can supply for them.”
Asked for comment on the Government’s stance and why it was not backing a moratorium, Peters’ office referred Newsroom to MFAT for comment.
In a written statement, an MFAT spokeswoman said the Government was “not in a position to release information about countries who might have requested assistance”, but reiterated the need to balance Pacific sovereignty with environmental protections.