Environmental defenders are waging another war in the Pacific, this time against deep sea mining. As land-based resources continue to deplete amid growing demand for natural resources, private companies are relentless in their quest for minerals beyond the frontier.
Nautilus Minerals Inc. (Nautilus), with corporate office in Toronto, Canada and a project office in Brisbane, Australia, got a green light to drill the ocean floor in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to extract polymetallic seafloor sulphide deposits.
The company also has plans to extend its tenement holdings in the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Zealand as well as other areas outside the Western Pacific.
Nautilus went through rigorous negotiations with the PNG government, including the settlement of commercial dispute for equity participation. The company applied for a Mining Lease (ML), along with the submission of development proposal, in 2008 and it was granted in 2011. The Environmental Permit was also given in 2009 by the PNG’s Department of Environment and Conservation. The lease term covers 25 years until 2035 to exploit the seabed for the prospect of copper, gold and silver.
Under the agreement, the State of PNG takes an initial 15 percent interest in the project with an option to take up to a further 15 percent interest within 12 months of the agreement. PNG paid Nautilus a non-refundable deposit for its initial 15 percent interest of US$7,000,000.
Support from resource industry
The mining industry admits the challenges in the world market and thus supports this development. In Sydney, the 13th Papua New Guinea Mining and Petroleum Investment Conference was held early this week to discuss prospects of mining.
Protest in Sydney
On Tuesday this week, human rights and environmental activists staged a PNG mining and pollution divestment protest on George Street in Sydney juxtaposing the conference being held at the Hilton Hotel. They said mining has been destroying communities and the environment since 1972.
Dan Jones, a Melanesian Studies advocate, said, “From Bougainville to Ok Tedi, to Porgera and Ramu Nickel in Madang, the extractive industry continues to cut corners purely to maximise profits causing massive environmental damage and social upheaval which continues to spark social uprising, ecocide and serious conflicts.”
Natalie Lowrey, acting coordinator for Deep Sea Mining campaign said, “The Nautilus Environmental Impact Assessment is deeply flawed, neither the Precautionary Principle or Free Prior and Informed Consent has been adhered to despite growing opposition in PNG. This only further disenfranchises communities in PNG who have not yet made an informed decision on whether they want to be the guinea pigs of such a new industry.”
Protesters also targeted the Bank of South Pacific (BSP) which provided Nautilus with funding. The bank is a sponsor and presenter at the conference. BSP is criticised for allowing the project to progress after it stalled.
BSP, whi considers itself the ‘greenest’ bank in the Pacific, provided a loan of $120 million (2 percent of BSP’s total assets) to PNG for a 15 percent stake. Those finances are due to be released to Nautilus from an escrow account on Dec. 11.
The Deep Sea Mining campaign sent a joint letter with PNG-based NGO Bismarck Ramu Group to BSP asking if they have undertaken a full risk analysis on its loan to the PNG government that is allowing this project to advance. However, the groups had not received an answer.
Jones explained that most Papua New Guineans do not see any benefit from mining, coal, and gas explorations to the community. They only see exploitation of their land and damage being done to their spiritual connection to land and sea. Jonas said culturally diverse subsistence agricultural communities rely on clean environments and waterways for survival. He added:
Papua New Guineans want support for their own initiatives, like value adding to existing cocoa and coconut industries. There is an increasing demand for organic health food export markets utilising fair-trade virgin coconut and cocoa in recent years is an industry PNG is failing to tap into.
Development to Papua New Guineans is much more than an expedient cash cow benefiting foreign investors and local officials. Real development includes cultural development including environmentally custodial customs, responsibilities and spiritual connections to land and sea.
Meanwhile, Mining Australia admitted that while deep sea mining generates enormous profits, the risks associated with it cannot be ignored. Potential consequences may include pollution, accidental spillage which may release toxic substance into the surrounding area, and a fear that could damage uncharted area of the sea – just to name a few.