Divergent views on deep sea exploration and mining in the Pacific
Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS — A documentary narrated by Hollywood actor Jason Momoa delving into the pressing issue of deep sea mining attracted Pacific leaders on the sidelines of the Pacific Islands forum.
President of Palau Surangel Whipps Jr, New Caledonia's president Louis Mapou, and Vanuatu's Ralph Regenvanu came to the free viewing organised by Cook Island environmental group Te Ipukarea Society and Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG).
The film follows Gerard Barron, chief executive of The Metals Company. Barron is for deep sea mining, believing that rather than drilling into the earth for precious metals, we can just pick up the metals already lying exposed on the seabed.
The minerals on the sea floor are used to make batteries to power electric cars.
But critics fear removing these resources will upset the ocean's ecological balance and lead to the extinction of certain marine species and other unforeseen consequences.
"Anything to stimulate some discussions is a step in the right direction so we can get more people asking questions," Te Ipukarea Society director Alanna Matamaru Smith said.
Smith said the film illustrated the potential risks of seabed mining but also gave the seabed mining industry perspective.
A representative of the Seabed Mining Authority in the Cook Islands told RNZ the film was "unbalanced".
Vanuatu's Climate Minister Ralph Regenvanu said "it was a very moving film".
Regenvanu said Vanuatu's position is for no deep sea mining at any point.
"We have a lot to think about in the Pacific. We are the region that is spearheading for seabed minerals," he said.
He said it was important for Pacific nations to find common ground on the issue.
The Cook Islands is already carrying out deep sea mining exploration while other countries like Vanuatu are calling for a moratorium.
Cook Islands Prime Minister and Forum chair Mark Brown has indicated that his country will continue "looking at the potential our ocean is providing us" through exploration and potential mining for minerals in the deep sea.
"It's important that Pacific comes to where we are divergent right now on this issue and it's important that we agree on certain common positions and we are on the end of the spectrum where we believe there should be a moratorium," Regenvanu said.
Whipps Jr told RNZ Pacific on the sidelines of the Leaders Summit in Rarotonga, that science and data must be used to make informed decisions.
He also continues to call for a moratorium on deep sea mining inlight of a lack of scientific data to support its sustainability
"We feel that there's not enough data out there yet," he said.
"So, we've continued to ask for a moratorium on deep sea mining, we understand that is the Cook Islands is trying to have a centre to do studies. But I think we need independent research, and a little bit more robust to make sure that we protect our ecosystems and don't destroy the beautiful nature that we have."
'POTENTIALLY DISRUPTIVE INDUSTRY'
Greenpeace Aotearoa seabed mining spokesperson James Hita said not enough is known about the ocean for deep sea mining to start.
"One thing that we can all agree on from across the spectrum is that we don't have enough information, we cannot make a decision to go ahead with such a potentially disruptive industry without having access to a wide range of resources and a deep understanding of the deep sea," Hita said.
The film provided an "unbiased lens" on deep sea mining, which was lacking in the Cook Islands and the Pacific region, Hita said.
Another Greenpeace campaigner Aigagalefili Fepulea'i-Tapua'i said deep sea mining in one Pacific country would affect the whole region so decisions could not be made in isolation.
"It needs to be made in totality," she said.
"They need to be made in the Pacific way in the context of the Forum, the Pacific way is to make sure that everyone gets a say and that everyone is able to come to a conclusion that it's beneficial for us all."
Also in attendance was Sahil Abbi, an investor at DYNE, which is focused on providing investment to Cook Islands-based seabed mining companies.
There are no companies mining the ocean floor in the Cook Islands, but exploration work is under way.
Abbi said DYNE has no desire to push projects through at the expense of the environment.
"We totally agree that there isn't enough information which is why we're investing significantly in producing more data and understanding the environment better and understanding our impact better," he said.
Abbi said if there is a way for companies to mine in a sustainable way DYNE wanted to provide companies with the necessary funding to get that done.
The countries represented at the film were seated among a cinema of representatives from the Seabed Mining Authority, investors of seabed mining and environmental and climate advocates as well as Swiss, Micronesian delegates.
Forum hosts, the Cook Islands, gifted a seabed nodule to dignitaries and leaders as a gesture at the leaders meeting.
A foreign ambassador who wished to remain anonymous said they were not impressed with the gift and would rather "throw it back in the ocean".
Cook Island locals have mixed opinions on deep sea mining, many have voiced opposition while some elders are aligned with the government.
The controversial issue divides the Pacific, with some nations seeing it as an opportunity to combat climate change but also for immense wealth.
The film was funded by a Swiss national and directed by Swiss-born, Montreal-based filmmaker Matthieu Rytz.
In June 2023, Switzerland said deep sea mining in the international seabed area must be postponed until protection from the 'harmful effects' could be ensured.
Special envoy of Switzerland for the Pacific Region, Emmanuel Bichet said: "We have to be 100 percent sure of what we are doing before we start exploiting. It's a precautionary approach by 22 other countries. We should not rush to do things."
He said it was crucial people educate themselves and learn about the potential impacts it could have on our ocean.
'CALL FOR CAUTION'
PANG, which is a regional organisation that has been working on the issue advocating against deep sea mining for the past 15 years, has been calling for a global ban on deep sea mining.
The organisation's co-deputy coordinator Joey Tau said it is "on the basis that it is a very speculative industry".
"It is one that implicates the human rights of Pacific people and those that have very close connections with the oceans," Tau said.
"It's very contradictory when we acknowledge the ocean as the largest climate regulator yet we like to enxploit the resources down at the depths of the ocean.
Responding to Brown's comment about deep sea mining, Tau said: "We also need to consider that we're on a climate crisis".
"What would exacerbate the current climate crisis? There is this call for caution and any any work of exploration needs to adhere to concerns raised by Pacific peoples and international organisations on deep sea mining.