SPC/SOPAC project on experimental seabed mining disenfranchises Pacific people

By Effrey Dademo

The Deep Sea Minerals Project of the SPC (Secretariat of the Pacific Community) disenfranchises indigenous people and promotes the interests of big mining companies at the expense of local communitiies.

The project, which aims to develop a 'viable and sustainable marine minerals industry' is focused on the development of experimental seabed mining across the Pacific region. The project key objectives are to deliver the necessary legislation, regulatory framework, national policies and management and monitoring systems for the untested mining of minerals from the sea floor.

The project is being funded by the European Union and implemented by the Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) of the SPC.

The Project has employed a British lawyer, Hannah Lily who said in a recent ABC Radio interview, her role is to "put in place legislation that will make sure that any activities on the sea bed are conducted in a careful and a sustainable way". 

But the drafting of laws to facilitate experimental seabed mining disenfranchises Pacific people's who have not yet made an informed decision on whether they want to be the guinea pigs for this type of mining. 

Rather than listening to indigenous voices, SOPAC and the SPC are dancing to the tune of the foreign owned mining industry which is keen to start mining as soon as possible, which could be as early as 2013 in the case of Papua New Guinea.

Although Ms Lily says any new laws should  "protect the marine environment and also ensure that any income that arises from this mining is used in a sustainable way that benefits citizens of each country", the SOPAC project ignores our history and experience in the Pacific. 

Firstly, trying to use legislation to effect positive environmental and social outcomes hands control to the mining companies and further disenfranchises indigenous people as access to the law and the courts is not a level playing field. Just compare the scientific and legal resources of BHP or Rio Tinto versus those of even the government's of Tonga or Nauru let alone communities living in isolated rural communities. Is the SOPAC project going to provide indigenous communities with access to the best scientists and lawyers when contracts are negotiated and disputes arise? Of course not!

Secondly, drafting legislation may be well and good, but even if the mining industry and its expensive lobbyists are kept out of the SOPAC drafting processes (and there is already little sign of that with Nautilus Minerals being given a seat at the high table), the legislation still has to be passed by governments and politicians in individual countries who are easy pray for the cashed up miners who can introduce any amendments they want to water down the proposals. 

And then there are the problems of enforcement. Good laws do not prevent environmental disasters or provide justice for the people. In her interview Ms Lily's said that "robust legislation" can effectively regulate and monitor deep sea mineral mining and protect Pacific countries "from any damage that may occur". But this has not been our experience in the Pacific. In Papua New Guinea, for example, the Constitution, National Goals and environmental laws provide stellar protection for the environment and people's human rights but that has not helped indigenous communities who have suffered at the hands of the world's largest mining companies BHP Billiton (Ok Tedi and the destruction of the Fly river) and Rio Tinto (Panguna and the war on Bougainville).

Also legislation cannot stop the corrupt and the greedy from getting their hands on the incomes that mining will provide to national governments and local communities. Trust funds, state owned enterprises, and wealth funds are all easily cracked open by politicians, bureaucrats and local chiefs who are well versed in how to steal public monies and are supported by countries like Australia and Singapore who help hide their ill-gotten gains out of the way of local law enforcement agencies.

Finally, no extractive mining industry can ever be sustainable, which is the stated aim of SOPAC's project. As soon as the minerals are dug up the mining moves on and nothing can replace the resources taken or undo the inevitable environmental damage and in the case of experimental sea-bed mines the life of the mines could be as short as just two or three years.

It is naive to believe that legislation to govern experimental seabed mining can put the checks and controls in place that will provide clarity and security, ensure the precautionary principle is followed and best environmental practice is followed. With their Deep Sea Minerals Project, SOPAC and the SPC are ignoring the realities of governance in the Pacific, unequal access to the legal system, the power of large corporations and their record of environmental and social destruction.