Tag Archives: Nauru

After the loss of a ship, deep sea mining plans for PNG founder

Marine life in Papua New Guinea. Image by martinnemo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

David Hutt | Mongabay | 26 December 2018

  • In 2011, Nautilus Minerals was granted a license to mine precious minerals from the seabed off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the first project in the world to gain deep-sea mining rights.
  • Nautilus said the project would be less destructive than land-based mining, but met with protests due to the potential impact on the complex deep-sea ecosystems as well as coastal communities.
  • A year ago, Nautilus failed to make a payment on a specialized ship being built for the project. Now the ship has been sold to another company, making it unlikely Nautilus will be able to fulfill its mining ambitions.

An ambitious plan to mine precious minerals from the ocean floor off the coast of Papua New Guinea looks to have run aground due to the developer’s financial problems.

In 2011, the government of Papua New Guinea granted Canada-based Nautilus Minerals a 20-year mining license covering roughly 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) of the Bismarck Sea, off the country’s eastern coast. The Solwara 1 project was the first in the world to be granted rights for deep-sea mining, whereby enormous machines would dig into the ocean floor, harvesting zinc, copper and gold, and other commodities essential to building electrical equipment.

The Papua New Guinea government took on a 15 percent equity stake in the venture with Nautilus, but repeatedly delayed payments as its politicians and citizens protested against the environmental impact of the project, as well as the substantial cost to taxpayers.

In the meantime, Nautilus suffered numerous additional setbacks, including a shortage of investors, a declining credit line, and the decision by multinational mining firm Anglo American to divest from the company.

Now, the company has lost a ship essential to its deep-sea mining plans.

Nautilus chartered Emirati shipping operator MAC Goliath (MAC) to oversee construction of a production support vessel (PSV) designed to collect the extracted materials via pumps from the seabed. This vessel is essential to the entire operation.

The ship was being built at the shipyard of Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding in southern China. In December 2017, MAC missed a payment to the Chinese builder, which Nautilus was also unable to cover. At that point, the vessel was about 70 percent complete.

Late last month, news broke that because of financial woes and missed payments, the shipbuilding company had found a new company to take over the vessel’s construction contract: an Indian firm that is also planning to engage in deep-sea mining explorations on behalf of the Indian government.

Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding announced that the vessel had indeed been sold to the Indian firm, MDL Energy, although Nautilus reportedly thought negotiations were still ongoing. There are reports that Nautilus is attempting to seek new investment so it can reclaim the vessel, but the Chinese shipbuilder maintains that the ship has already been sold.

Mongabay attempted to contact representatives of Nautilus, but emails and telephone calls went unanswered. Nautilus’s interim CEO, John McCoach, told the Economist recently that specifics of the story, as mentioned above, were “not accurate from our perspective.”

Residents of New Ireland province, which lies in the northeast of Papua New Guinea, feared Nautilus’ deep sea mining project could have impacts on coastal marine life. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

It’s not clear how Nautilus will proceed from here, though it appears almost impossible that it will be able to build another tailor-made vessel from scratch, given the firm’s current financial situation. On Dec. 14, the company announced it had received a new loan worth $455,000; the unpaid installment on the PSV exceeded $18 million.

“Given Nautilus’ dire financial circumstances, it is fair to say the game is over,” Helen Rosenbaum, of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, the author of a major report critical of the project, recently told local media. “The people of the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea have hopefully been spared an environmental disaster.”

“It will be good news for my people if Nautilus goes bankrupt, instead of bankrupting our sea. We will fight this project to the very end,” Jonathan Mesulam, from the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, a community-based organization that opposes the project, said in a press release.

The Solwara 1 project planned to harvest mineral deposits found near seabed hot springs, or hydrothermal vents. Doing so, opponents said, could have had grave effects on rare deep-sea ecosystems.

Nautilus commissioned several environmental impact studies before it was granted the mining license in 2011. “The overall conclusion is that Solwara 1 has the potential for far fewer social and environmental impacts than the existing terrestrial mines examined,” reads one report it commissioned, written by U.S.-based consultancy Earth Economics.

Opponents of the project dismissed these studies as unsatisfactory and misleading, warning that since the Solwara 1 project was the first of its kind and would rely on as-yet-untested technology, it was too soon to say that it would definitely be safer than onshore mining. Moreover, they said the project would almost certainly destroy thousands of hydrothermal vents, each of which is host to complex ecosystems — and possibly species not yet identified by scientists.

Others critics warned that because the proposed extraction site lies only about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the mainland, it could affect coastal ecosystems and, by extension, the livelihoods of fishing communities on Papua New Guinea.

While the likely demise of Solwara 1 is considered a victory by environmentalists and some residents of Papua New Guinea, the financial problems facing Nautilus are far from advantageous for the poor Pacific nation.

Arnold Amet, a former attorney general, said in a recent press release that because his country had purchased a 15 percent stake in the venture, it would also be responsible for 15 percent of payments to creditors if Nautilus went bankrupt. “I have been warning our Government publicly and privately about the financial mess they will find themselves in when this experimental company fails,” he said.

It’s not clear whether Papua New Guinea will manage to escape this financial burden. Opponents of the project say the government should now annul the concession and cancel all of Nautilus’s permits. But this may not be the end of the region’s underwater mining saga.

DeepGreen, a new deep-sea mining venture founded by Gerard Barron, an Australian entrepreneur who was also the first financial backer of Nautilus (he sold his shares in 2007), is reportedly exploring mining possibilities off the shores of Nauru, a nearby Pacific island. Unlike Nautilus, DeepGreen aims to mine materials from the ocean shore by simply hoovering it up, rather than digging into volcanic rock, ostensibly a less environmentally harmful method of extraction. If Nautilus is unable to fulfill its concession in PNG, then it is possible DeepGreen will fill Nautilus’ shoes as the pioneer of deep sea mining in the South Pacific.

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Deep seabed mining regulation in the Pacific

rip seabed mining

Robert Makgill and Ana P Linhares | New Zealand Law Society

Deep seabed mining is increasingly seen as commercially feasible within the Pacific region. This is because it has vast seabed mineral deposits located outside sovereign territory. [1]

Despite advances in seabed mining technology, scientific knowledge concerning the unique biophysical character of the deep sea environment remains sparse. This means there is relatively little information concerning the potential risk of environmental damage associated with proposed seabed mining activities.

Obligations

The exploration and development of natural resources outside sovereign territory is governed under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Mining the seabed located under the high sea, more commonly known as the Area, is controlled under Part XI of the UNCLOS. Likewise, the right of states to undertake mining within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf is also established under UNCLOS. These rights to develop natural resources located within the seabed are attended by the corresponding obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment.

States and state-sponsored companies proposing to engage in exploration or exploitation of resources in the Area must obtain approval from the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The Republic of Nauru and the Kingdom of Tonga applied to the ISA to explore the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in April 2008. Located in the Pacific Ocean, to the south and south-east of the Hawaiian Islands, this part of the Area is considered to hold the most promise in terms of commercially viable manganese nodule recovery.

Nauru and Tonga subsequently became concerned about their potential liability for damage to the marine environment resulting from seabed mining and postponed their applications. Nauru then requested the ISA obtain an advisory opinion on state parties’ obligations and liability for seabed mining from the Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (the Chamber).

Advisory opinion

The Chamber delivered an advisory opinion on 1 February 2011 answering that each state party has a general obligation of due diligence to adopt “laws and regulations” and to take “administrative measures which are, within the framework of its legal system, reasonably appropriate for securing compliance by persons under its jurisdiction”. [2]

The Chamber identified a number of direct obligations through which law-making and enforcement might be given effect. Key obligations identified included the precautionary approach, best environmental practices and environmental impact assessment (EIA). [3]

These obligations would feature strongly in future regulatory efforts within the Pacific region designed to address the lack of information and uncertainty in relation to the impacts of mining on the marine environment.

The Chamber went on to find that state parties would be liable for damage arising from the failure of a state to carry out its obligations. On the other hand, adoption of the precautionary approach, best environmental practices and EIA within a state’s legislative framework would reduce the risk of liability in cases where environmental damage did occur as the result of seabed mining activities.

Wave of action

The Chamber’s opinion led to a wave of regulatory action throughout the Pacific region. The precautionary approach, best environmental practices and EIA have since found their way into a number of regulatory initiatives including the:

  1. European Union and Secretariat of the Pacific Community Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation (Regional Framework); [4]
  2. Cook Islands National Seabed Minerals Policy 2014;
  3. Tongan Seabed Mining Act 2014; and
  4. New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (EEZ Act).

These initiatives can be said to have firmly established the key obligations within the Pacific as central to regulating seabed mining activities.

Moreover, the recent decisions of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in Trans-Tasman Resources and Chatham Rock Phosphate [5] concerning applications for seabed mining under New Zealand’s EEZ Act, have demonstrated that consideration of the precautionary approach, best environmental practices and EIA require an adequate understanding of the existing marine environment before development can proceed.

In declining both applications, the EPA has made clear that lack of information and uncertainty does not require regulators to prevent exploration and development from taking place.

However, the precautionary approach does require the collection of adequate baseline data on existing environments before commencing exploration or development. This is to ensure that any potential environmental changes arising out of lack of information or uncertainty as to the impacts of seabed mining are able to be monitored and controlled to avoid significant adverse effects.

The key obligations identified in the Advisory Opinion have been adopted in the Pacific region as regulatory prerequisites to deep sea exploration and development.

The decisions made in New Zealand have, in turn, signalled that baseline data is required to proceed where there is imperfect information. It might be said that the obligations identified by the Chamber are serving the regulatory function for which they were intended.

Robert Makgill is an Auckland barrister who specialises in environmental and natural resources law. He appeared as legal counsel for parties in the Chamber’s Advisory proceedings and Trans-Tasman Resources. He regularly advises on seabed mining regulation throughout the Pacific region. See http://www.robertmakgill.com. Ana Linhares is a doctoral researcher who specialises in natural resources, international environmental law and law of the sea.

1. See forthcoming publication – Makgill, R. and Linhares, AP., ‘Chapter 15: Deep Seabed Mining – Key Obligations in the Emerging Regulation of Exploration and Development in the Pacific’, in Warner, R. and Kaye, S. (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Maritime Regulation and Enforcement.

2. Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea Responsibilities and Obligations of States Sponsoring Persons and Entities with Respect to Activities in the Area (Advisory Opinion) (1 February 2011) (“Advisory Opinion”), at para 110.

3. Anton, D., Makgill, R. and Payne, C., ‘Advisory Opinion on Responsibility and Liability for International Seabed Mining (ITLOS Case No. 17): International Environmental Law in the Seabed Disputes Chamber’, (2011) 41/2 Environmental Policy and Law 60 to 65, at 63.

4. Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SOPAC Division), Pacific-ACP States Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation prepared under the SPC-EU EDF10 Deep Sea Minerals Project, (1st ed. July 2012).

5. Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd Marine Consent Decision, Environmental Protection Authority, dated 17 June 2014; and Decision on Marine Consent Application by Chatham Rock Phosphate Limited, Application Ref: EEZ000006, Environmental Protection Authority, 10 February 2015.

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The robot is ready – so when will deep sea mining start?

Stephen Eisenhammer and Silvia Antonioli | Reuters

Employees of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) work on a subsea mining machine being built for Nautilus Minerals at Wallsend, northern England April 14, 2014.

Employees of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) work on a subsea mining machine being built for Nautilus Minerals at Wallsend, northern England April 14, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Nigel Roddis 

The world’s first deep sea mining robot sits idle on a British factory floor, waiting to claw up high grade copper and gold from the seabed off Papua New Guinea (PNG) – when a wrangle over terms is solved.

Beyond PNG, in international waters, regulation and royalty terms for mining the planet’s subsea wealth have also yet to be finalized. The world waits for the judgment of a United Nations agency based in Jamaica.

“If we can take care of the environment we have a brand new day ahead of us. The marine area beyond national jurisdiction is 50 percent of the Ocean,” said Nii Odunton, secretary general of the U.N.’s International Seabed Authority (ISA).

“I believe the grades look good, the abundance looks good, I believe that money will be made,” Odunton said from the ISA offices in Kingston.

High-tech advances, depleted easy-to-reach minerals onshore and historically high prices have boosted the idea of mining offshore, where metals can be fifteen times the quality of land deposits.

In Newcastle, the “beasty”, as engineer Keith Franklin calls his machine, lies in wait, resembling a submersible tank with four meter wide cutting blades.

Built by Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), it will put Canadian listed Nautilus Minerals on course to become the first company to commercially mine in deep water.

Nautilus’ primary resource, Solwara 1, about 1,500 meters underwater, is a Seafloor Massive Sulphide (SMS) deposit, which forms along hydrothermal vents where mineral-rich fluids spurt from cracks in the ocean crust.

Equipped with cameras and 3D sonar sensors the robot is driven by two pilots from a control room on the vessel above, attached via a giant power cable.

“The cameras aren’t enough by themselves because the machine will be working by vents where black soot spurts from the ocean crust and it will sometimes be near impossible to see anything,” said Stef Kapusniak, business development manager for mining at SMD. “The 3D sonar will allow it to make images and send it back to the control room.”

The machine then cuts up the sea floor and sucks the rocks through a pipe to deposit it in mounds behind – “like icing a cake,” Kapusniak said. Another machine, yet to be built, will then help suck the ore to the surface.

Nautilus aims to produce 80,000-100,000 metric tons of copper and 100,000-200,000 ounces of gold – equivalent to a modest onshore mine. It was supposed to be producing by now, but disagreements with the PNG government over financial terms have set it back.

Chief Executive Mike Johnston told Reuters he was confident a resolution would be sorted out and the company would be mining within two to three years.

Most of the world’s best deposits lie even deeper than Nautilus’ Solwara 1, at around 6,000 meters in an area known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone.

Large numbers of manganese nodules – potato sized rocks rich in copper, cobalt and nickel – lie across this 4.5 million square kilometer abyssal plain between Hawaii and Mexico.

LICENSES ALREADY AWARDED

The U.N.’s ISA is drawing up a code to deal with some environmental concerns and the commercial terms for deep-sea mining. It predicts it will be finished in around two or three years, with mining still 5-10 years away.

“It’s only after the code is in place and people are happy with it that the huge investments needed to start deep-sea mining will occur,” ISA’s Odunton, a Ghanaian, said.

ISA is, however, already doling out exploration licenses – 19 have been approved. Odunton said interest in them had “catapulted” in the past five years.

In order to get a license through ISA an applicant must be sponsored or partnered with a country. For nations like Japan which lack their own resource wealth, deep-sea mining is a potential way to secure mineral supply for the future.

China, the world’s largest metals consumers, is also one of the most active in exploring the area.

Britain has an exploration license in partnership with UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of defense firm Lockheed Martin

“These are the days you have to take a position, especially as a government,” said Martijn Schouten, managing director at IHC’s mining division – an equipment maker which targets seabed mining as its next growth driver.

IHC is the leading partner in an European Union funded project called Blue Mining, begun in February, and will look at the business case and technology for deep-sea mining over the next four years.

This new frontier is an exciting prospect for developing island nations like Tonga and Nauru, which both have exploration licenses. For Tonga, where Nautilus says it has been collecting encouraging exploration results, it could be a game changer.

“The revenue stream and taxes from a medium sized mine would have an enormous benefit to the country,” Nautilus’ Johnston said.

The main companies looking to mine the seabed, like Nautilus and UK Seabed Resources, are not, however, traditional mining firms, although Anglo American does have a 5 percent stake in the former.

IHC said most of its contracts were with technology-based companies that were not in the mining industry, although it would not specify further due to confidentiality clauses.

IHC said it has had discussions with oil majors who are beginning to show an interest in deep sea mining.

But, with little of the deep ocean mapped or explored, environmentalists worry about the potential loss of fauna and biospheres whose existence is not yet understood.

“Only 3 percent of the oceans are protected and less than 1 percent of the high seas, making them some of the least protected places on earth. The emerging threat of seabed mining is an urgent wake-up call,” Greenpeace said in a report last year.

“I think we really have to be careful about what happens to the environment,” said ISA’s Odunton. “We don’t know enough to take some of the risks we’ve taken on land.”

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New law to make it easier for UK companies to mine Pacific seabed

A new law to be passed by the British Parliament is intended to make it easier for UK companies to dig up the ocean floor in the Pacific – as the briefing below from the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes clear. It seems the UK still views the Pacific as part of its Empire which it should be free to rape and pillage for its own profit…

DEEP SEA MINING BILL

 UK Government Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

This Bill is about the deep ocean bed in areas beyond the limits of any national jurisdiction, in other words at least 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state[1].  Commercial exploitation of minerals from this area is still a concept rather than a reality, but as technology has developed to the extent where mining in such extreme environments is a possibility, exploration activity is increasing.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provided for the establishment of the International Seabed Authority, which became fully operational in 1996, two years after the entry into force of UNCLOS.  The Authority organises and controls all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area.   The Authority has developed regulations for the exploration of various mineral deposits and has subsequently issued licences to applicants for this activity.  Applicants must be sponsored by a State party to UNCLOS, and must be in possession of a licence from that State party, which serves to ensure the State party is able to exercise national control over the company or organisation concerned.   In 2012 the UK Government sponsored the first application for an exploration licence by a UK company for an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and is sponsoring a further application in 2013 in a similar area. 

Current exploration activity mainly concerns polymetallic nodules.  These are found in high density in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, usually at depths of 3000 metres or more below sea level.  They contain manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel and other trace elements.  Other exploration activity is focussed on polymetallic sulphides, found on ocean ridges such as the mid-Atlantic ridge, and exploration for cobalt-rich crusts, found along seamounts and ridges is expected to start soon.  Countries involved in these exploration activities, predominantly through research institutes, include Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and India.   More recent applications sponsored by Tonga, Nauru and Belgium, have been made by commercial enterprises.

The current UK legislation, The Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981, predates UNCLOS and the establishment of the International Seabed Authority and in a number of technical respects is inconsistent with the Convention.  The 1981 Act is also limited to one type of mineral only.  The purpose of the Bill is to bring UK legislation into line with certain provisions of UNCLOS and to broaden the scope of minerals in the deep sea for which the Government can issue licences, thereby ensuring that British companies can potentially benefit from all the opportunities available. 

As the world’s demand for minerals continues to grow, and land-based sources become overstretched, the search for minerals in the deep sea is the inevitable consequence.  Any type of mining, land based or from the sea, causes some environmental impact, but properly conducted activities to explore the seabed for minerals should have little potential for causing serious harm to the marine environment.

Little is known yet about the potential impact of deep sea exploitation but by helping to place UK companies at the heart of this frontier industry, under the control of the UK Government, we can ensure that these companies comply with the highest environmental standards, and there is due recognition given to the environmental impact in the development of international regulations for the possible exploitation of seabed minerals in the future.


[1] Except where a rock belonging to a state may be deemed so small as to be unable to sustain human habitation or economic life of its own.  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea such rocks can only generate a territorial sea (up to 12 miles) and not a continental shelf.

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Pacific nations meet to discuss mining resources

ABC Australia

Pacific leaders are meeting in Fiji this week to discuss how to mitigate the social and economic cost of extractive mining in the region.

The United Nations Development Program has organised The Pacific Symposium on Managing Extractive Industries in the Fijian capital, Nadi, to look at how Pacific nations can take advantage of its rich mining resources to best benefit local communities.

Delegates will also discuss how to manage the environmental impacts of mining.

Manager of the UNDP’s Pacific Centre, Garry Wiseman, told Radio Australia’s PACIFIC BEAT the conference will look at how governments can work directly with affected communities.

“The focus is really looking at what governments can do to…improve their inclusion of the incomes from extractive industries in their budgets,” he said.

“Also, [to] look at what governments can do to work with the most effected communities in the first place.”

Industry representatives and experts from outside the Pacific region will join delegates from Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, East Timor, and Nauru at the meeting.

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Global state of play for experimental seabed mining

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October 11, 2012 · 5:29 pm

Leaders launch Pacific deep sea mining regulatory tool

Henry Yamo* | Pacific Scoop 

With looming exploitation of the Pacific Ocean’s mineral riches on the horizon,  a regional protocol was launched today to ensure deep seabed mining was controlled in a “conserved manner”.

This is the first regional legislative and regulatory framework for deep seabed mineral exploration and exploitation, introduced at the Pacific Island Leaders Forum in the Cook Islands.

Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Tom Marsters launched the regional framework put together by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in response to the leaders’ call in the 2009 Forum.

“The completion of this important framework and its release by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) provides a key message from us gathered for the Forum, themed ‘large Ocean island states: The Pacific challenge’,” he said.

The framework was called for by Pacific leaders as one of the key priorities of the Pacific Plan for the 2009-2012 period.

The framework seeks to provide Pacific Island nations with the tools necessary to make a decision about whether or not to engage with the emerging deep seabed mining industry.

SPC Director-General Dr Jimmie Rodgers said the legal framework was targeted at providing tools and guidelines for Pacific Island countries to develop their own national legislation in for seabed minerals.

Framework needed
“The framework is needed here in the region due to the fact that many Pacific Island countries have substantial deep sea minerals within their exclusive economic zones but lack the capacity to develop their own legislation,” he said.

“This new framework will now enable respective countries to comply with relevant standards for the deep-sea mining industry within the region.”

Marsters said that because of growing commercial interest in deep sea minerals in the Pacific, nations needed to develop national policies and regulations for “sensible management”.

He pointed out that the Cook Islands was the first country in the world to have enacted legislation, the Seabed Minerals Act which was designed to regulate future seabed mining in its exclusive economic zone.

Papua New Guinea had issued a seabed mining licence to the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals Niugini to commercially develop the seafloor for high grade massive sulphide deposits – a major source of the world’s copper, gold, zinc and silver – in its exclusive economic zone in the first such operation in the world.

The government faces mounting opposition over this project.

Other Pacific island nations – including Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu – also have or intend to issue exploration licences within their exclusive economic zones.

Sponsored companies
Nauru and Kiribati had each sponsored companies that had been granted approved programmes to work by the International Seabed Authority “within the area” (being the seabed areas outside the national jurisdiction), the first developing states to do so and the programmes were expected to take place over the next 15 years.

He said that with “exciting times” the region had shared responsibility to protect and preserve the health of the Pacific Ocean and this objective needed to continue to be at the forefront of national, regional and global agendas.

The framework was completed by the SPC Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) for the Pacific (ACP) African, Caribbean and Pacific states.

*Henry Yamo is a post graduate student and journalist at AUT University reporting for the Pacific Media Centre and Cook Islands News.

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