Mining the Abyss
By Jo ChandlerDecember 6, 2013
Pacific islanders have always been sustained by the ocean. Might it now make them rich – and at what cost?
The old man’s cap proclaims “Jesus Loves Me”, but his embrace of the faith imported to this South Pacific island by missionaries just a century ago – his parents were likely the first generation to hear The Word – doesn’t preclude him from dabbling in a little local magic.
Today, there are incantations to be sung and sacred stones to be gathered from the enchanted forest enclosing his village; according to lore, this is a place of potent power. He checks off a list of ritual devotions that will ready his body, soul and canoe for a perilous expedition. At dawn he will push his outrigger into the Bismarck Sea, drop some stones in the water at his ples masalai (spirit place) and paddle to the horizon. There he will try to summon a monster from the deep.
Eliuda Toxok is a shark caller. He lives on a fabled stretch of the remote west coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, home to the local mythic hero Moroa, now melded with the Christian creator into an almighty, one-size-fits-all deity. Toxok is the inheritor of an enduring, albeit fading, mystical tradition that is entwined with the natural world, and heir to a rare culture of the Bismarck Archipelago, one that has long intrigued visitors to these waters.
When the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed by in 1642, he recorded the strange custom of the shark callers in his log: “They bound to a canoe many small half-coconut husks, assembled in a chain, and rattled with this implement on top of the water to gather the fish.”
This evening Toxok picks up the larung – the tambourine-like apparatus Tasman described – and gives it a shake. Its magic (and genius) is to mimic the sound of a school of fish thrashing on the surface of the water.
He hangs it on a stake planted in the sand alongside his other tools of trade. There’s the ka’saman, a propeller-shaped float with a noose of twisted vine looped through it in which the shark will be snared. And there’s the conch shell Toxok will blow if he is successful. This signal will be recognised and broadcast in a triumphal signature drum beat from his clan’s haus boi, men’s clubhouse, on the shoreline. Having summoned his family onto the beach to receive him, he will offer his catch to be butchered and shared according to strict protocol.
It’s only a month since Toxok brought home his last shark, his hundred-and-somethingth in more than 40 years of shark calling (he started at around age 30). Now that the annual shark season – such as it was this year – has turned, he is not so hopeful of a catch this day. On land and sea life is changing in New Ireland; even during the season there are reportedly fewer sharks than there were a decade ago, and there are certainly far fewer shark callers.
Lately, heavy rains, freak tides and floods have curtailed fishing and spoiled garden crops along the coast. Climate change is much discussed – not in the abstract, but as a presence. What was once the dry season is now just more wet, says Stanly Laxarun, a senior man from Kanemeradan village just up the road. “So crops are taking longer to mature.”
Toxok supplies wife Miriam’s cooking pot by hunting in the forest. Lean and wiry, all sinew and hollows (he personally prefers chewing buai to eating food, kaikai), he scrambles with his slingshot, the handle worn shiny with use, up the green-draped escarpment behind the village and enters the tangled interior. During his earliest years, his family lived here, biding out the Japanese occupation.
His eyes are rheumy, fried by a lifetime of navigating the brilliant sea, but his aim is still true enough to regularly bring home a flying fox. It’s protein, that most elusive staple, and it costs not a Kina. Such resourcefulness matters in a country where 57 per cent of the population live on less than $US2 a day – a bit over Kina 5, the price of a tin of fish at a town store, and twice what it would cost at a village stall.
Many people along the coast are surviving on taro and coconut, and relief rations of rice – a fig-leaf of essential service from a lethargic, uninterested state – which are delivered by truck along the fractured track that is the community’s only thoroughfare. Green vegetables are scarce. Prized household pigs, skinny and nervous, give up their wallows under the huts to scavenge through stinking-hot afternoons.
Mesi village doesn’t much look like a place that’s sitting on a gold mine. But just 30 kilometres off its beach, out beyond where Toxok paddles his canoe, is the site pegged for the world’s first commercial deep-seabed mine, where treasure lies buried 1.6 kilometres under the sea.
“In the depths of the ocean, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold that would be quite easy to exploit.” Captain Nemo, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne (1870)
Solwara 1 – ‘saltwater’ in PNG’s lingua franca, Tok Pidgin – contains gold, silver, copper and lead at dizzyingly high concentrations, cooked up in a volcanic crucible way down where the submerged earth’s seams bump and grind.
For now, all remains dark and mostly still at what will likely be the world’s first open-cut deep water mine, which sits on the crest of a volcanic ridge geologists dubbed Suzette, not far from a submerged volcano called North Su. The volcano spurts plumes of gas and sediment into the water that might push up as high as 1100 metres below the sea surface and then, depending on the current, settle over Solwara 1. The noise booms and echoes throughout the deep. There are no constants here, brutal conditions fluctuate and change.
If we were to visit the site in a submersible craft, as scientists have in recent years – the first being a French team in 2001 – we would soon leave behind the reach of daylight. The sweep of our lights would reveal a ghostly panorama of towering mineral-encrusted “chimneys”, only a few of which are still active, and bizarre populations of pale crabs, snails the size of tennis balls and bright red worms with an armour of scales. It’s not a particularly distinguished collection as such underwater communities go, but experts say it contains some novel and intriguing characters.
Stephen Low Productions
MARUM Forschungszentrum Ozeanrander, Universitat Bremen
The pH is 8.2, tipping into the base end of the scale, except in the vicinity of the active chimneys, where the outpouring might be highly acid, around pH 3. Water temperature on the sea floor averages an inhospitable 3 degrees Celsius, and so life tends to orbit around any warm, nurturing vents and currents.
Existence in this dark, dynamic, sometimes toxic world is precarious. Whole populations with no capacity to run or crawl or swim to safety are snuffed out when the geyser sustaining them spontaneously splutters or stops as the earth’s crust spreads and shifts. Scientists call these “natural catastrophic events”. The fact that they happen regularly is enlisted by proponents of deep sea mining to support their cause – nature herself mercilessly devastates these sites, and yet somehow life reconstitutes and endures.
How? Science is still largely at a loss to understand such environments. The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on earth, but it remains among the least explored. In the abyss we glimpse wonder and suspect menace. It captures our imagination, in the narratives of Jules Verne, and in the observations of recent record-breaking sea-floor expeditions by adventurer and movie director James Cameron, who used nearby waters as a testing ground for his conquest of the Mariana Trench.
It’s less than 40 years since sensors and cameras were trawled across a deep-water ridge near the Galapagos Islands, revealing for the first time super-heated volcanic plumes erupting from hydrothermal vents akin to the hot springs we might find on land. Then in 1977 and 1979 scientists climbed into a submersible called Alvin and navigated their way down for a closer look.
Their lights found a huge “smoker”, an “incredible pipe organ of chemicals coming into the ocean”, hitting the cold water and forming lumps of copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold, recalled pioneering American marine explorer Dr Robert Ballard, when he relived the moment for a TED Talk audience in 2008.
But it wasn’t the mineral motherlode that took Ballard’s breath away. “We discovered a profusion of life in a world that should not exist. Giant tube worms, 10 feet tall,” he marvelled.
“We went and found these incredible clam beds sitting on the barren rock [but] … when we cut them open, they didn’t have the anatomy of a clam. No mouth, no gut, no digestive system. Their bodies had been totally taken over by another organism, a bacterium, that had figured out how to replicate photosynthesis in the dark, through a process we now call chemosynthesis.” By accident, they had found what would be hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.
While Ballard is probably most famous for finding the wreck of the Titanic, in scientific terms his role in the ensemble that found new life forms hiding in the deep ocean is way more impressive.
“None of it [was] in our text books”, Ballard explained. “We did not know about this life system. We were not predicting it. We stumbled on it.”
Some scientists have since suggested that these hitherto hidden systems may be where life first evolved on earth.
But it was the geology that would, inevitably, excite treasure-hunters, especially as ore deposits on land became more depleted. The only surprise for many pundits is that it would take another 30 years for the nexus of mineral-market appetites, technology and opportunity to trigger what is today shaping up as an underwater minerals rush.
The metal contents of the deposits discovered around black smokers stunned scientists, recalls Dr Chris Yeats, today program leader for CSIRO Earth Science and Resource Engineering. He explored the Manus Basin, where the Solwara site and others earmarked for development are located, during the late-1990s.
The initial lure for the CSIRO was in the clues that underwater volcanic ranges might yield to locating further deposits on land, says Yeats. Instead its scientists found riches that rivalled anything remaining on the exposed earth.
Precocious Canadian-registered, Brisbane-based prospector Nautilus Minerals soon seized the initiative and obtained the first of its exploration licenses over the area. It has since staked out tenements that cover 500,000 square kilometres of the waters of PNG, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand.
Its plan for Solwara 1 – the first of many proposed mining sites – is to drop three monster robot vehicles to the sea floor, two of which will manoeuvre giant cutters by remote control to scour and scrape the vent field, levelling some of the chimneys. The third machine will suck the ore up long pipes into the belly of a vessel floating on the surface. This method is designed to prevent a toxic sediment plume rising into the water column and causing turbidity (cloudiness).
The ore will then be finely filtered and transferred to a barge and ferried directly to Nautilus’ customer in China for processing. Earlier plans for a stopover at a facility on nearby East New Britain have been shelved, at least for phase one, says the company’s country manager, Mel Togolo. Wastewater from the filtering process will be sent back down pipes to be expelled over the sea floor.
All being well, the mess is largely confined to the area of the seafloor, and the siphoning pipes bypass interference with the higher realm of fish and birds.
It’s been estimated that the hardware for this mine will cost around $US383 million. It will be used to shift 2.26 million tonnes of ore from the deep sea floor over the mine’s short lifespan – likely less than five years – and will sift from it copper at levels 10 times the average of what is being dug out of land-based mines and gold at a mouthwatering 6.4 grams per tonne. In raw terms, at today’s market prices and at the most conservative end of the resource estimate, the gold and copper alone would fetch in the area of $US600 million. Once the site is exhausted, the whole apparatus will up anchor and sail on to the next location. Another 18 mineralised seabed systems have already been identified in the Bismarck Sea, although Yeats observes that most don’t have anything like the promise of Solwara 1, and they require different technology to realise.
Last year, Steve Rogers, former chief of Nautilus Minerals, pronounced, “In time, I believe that oceans could provide the world's demand for metals in its entirety.” Other players have materialised on the seabed scene. The UN’s International Seabed Authority, reflecting on a flurry of recent applications under its auspices, characterises this moment as “the threshold of a new era”.
Some insight into the momentum fuelling the prospecting rush can be glimpsed in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strong endorsement, in March, of a venture by Pacific prospector UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of US defence giant Lockheed Martin. Deep sea mining could be £40 billion to the UK economy in the next 30 years, he said. “We are involved in a global race where we have to compete with the fast-growing economies of the south and east of the world.”
“PNG’s economic development has a history of boom and bust, feast and famine, hope and despair. Its people and its communities question where all the money has gone and why their expectations have not been fulfilled. In the end, the questions are left unanswered and people continue to live with the precious little that is left.” Lode Shedding: A Case Study of the Economic Benefits of the Porgera Gold Mine, PNG National Research Institute discussion paper by Peter Johnson, 2012
What all this deep sea activity will mean for the marine environment, and for the human communities that rely on it, is a matter of intense conjecture – in the rarified halls of top-tier scientific institutions and the palm-and-thatch meeting houses of coastal villages across the Pacific. The tone may vary, from dispassionate to viscerally invested, but the conclusions are much the same: no-one knows.
As 11 leading researchers noted in a major 2011 analysis from the international Census of Marine Life – “Man and the Last Great Wilderness: Human Impact on the Deep Sea”– the “real nature of the impact” of mining the riches lying on the seafloor “is still not well understood”.
They caution that seabed mining is taking shape at the same time as ocean ecosystems face “large and accelerating” challenges, including from other physical disturbances (trawling, waste disposal, oil and gas extraction) and physiological stress from interacting climate factors such as temperature, acidification and hypoxia (expanding ‘dead zones’ of low oxygen).
Potential mining impacts identified in the report include the disruption of the vent sites (individual chimneys and their fauna would be destroyed), the production of sediment plumes affecting filter feeders higher in the water column, changes in hydrothermal circulation and the polluting effect of wastewater. The report’s authors – drawing on field research around the Solwara 1 site conducted in 2008 as part of the Nautilus environmental impact process – highlighted the “significant risk” of losing rare species.
Nautilus, working with a team of American research scientists, has outlined several strategies to mitigate impacts on seafloor biodiversity. They include preserving untouched nearby areas with highly similar communities; setting up temporary ‘refuge’ sites within the project boundary which won’t be dug up until damaged areas have recovered; and using one of the robot vehicles to shift large clumps of rock with its resident biology out of harm’s way.
But Professor Richard Steiner, formerly of the University of Alaska, and science advisor to the Bismarck-Solomon Seas Indigenous People’s Council, said in his 2009 review of the Nautilus Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that while the company had conducted extensive studies of the bottom-dwelling (benthic) communities, it had barely considered life in the deep-water column. Even assuming the plume from the digging could be fully contained and spills avoided, there would still be light and noise from the project, both at the seafloor and around the surface traffic.
Noise from the site could travel 600 km underwater. This would be sufficient to mask what’s heard by migrating fish and whales and dolphins in at least a 15-kilometre range. The Nautilus EIS argued that industrial noise would itself be drowned out by the eruptions of the underwater North Su volcano – not a good enough investigation of this serious concern, Steiner argued.
Many scientists are nonetheless confident enough of the technology, the safeguards, and the resilience and remoteness of the deep sea to cautiously endorse a first foray into seabed exploitation through the Nautilus project, under caveats of close, long-term scrutiny – if for no other reason than to learn more.
But the majority speaking up at village meetings and gatherings attended by The Global Mail over several days in October on the west coast of New Ireland – the closest human communities to the project – find this suck-it-and-see strategy deeply objectionable.
They say they don’t want to be “guinea pigs”. They have zero confidence in the capacity of local regulators or government to safeguard their interests. “Let it be tried first someplace else,” they say – somewhere easily accessible, with good communications, where the world can observe what occurs; somewhere capable of efficient response and recovery if something goes awry.
Most say they are dead against the project. Others are pragmatic, wondering what might be gleaned from it to improve woeful local services and infrastructure.
A handful of locals are positioning to secure some substantial piece of the action for their communities – jobs, cargo, benefits, power, maybe a processing facility on their shores so that the lion’s share of loot doesn’t go direct to China. There have been rumblings that uprisings will take place if the locals are not heard–the spectre has been raised of the copper-fuelled crisis that began 25 years ago on nearby Bougainville Island. “This thing will not come to pass if they don’t take us on board,” declares one of the big men in Mesi, Peter Lakna.
Lakna is angry, as many are, that coastal peoples’ traditional seafaring and fishing hasn’t guaranteed them a royalties share or a seat at the table for talks over the shape of the project, as they would likely have gained if the resource were on land. “The sea is our garden,” he insists. But the legal advice to the PNG Minerals Resources Authority doesn’t support that claim, specifically stating that “coastal people cannot be recognised for (Memorandum of Agreement) discussions and cannot be recipients of benefits derived from the project”. It asserts that the site is owned by the PNG Government.
Several women at the meetings declared that they would march on the next Nautilus project talks in Kavieng and present the forum with gorgor, a kind of ginger root plant which is used in customary dispute handling. Gorgor is a taboo marker, signaling a grievance and demanding resolution, one which managers at New Ireland’s Lihir mine have been confronted with frequently in recent years.
Last week a photograph appeared on the high-traffic PNG political Facebook forum ‘Sharp Talk’ showing a man from Mesi waving gorgor from his outrigger over the sea. “In New Ireland the gorgor protocol is our traditional law,” wrote University of PNG political scientist and activist Patrick Kaiku. “[Nautilus] ships or vessels must not venture into this area prohibited by the gorgor. If Nautilus breaches this area and enters illegally, we have all the right under kastom to destroy the vessels or ship.”
Attitudes in the villages range from resigned cynicism to concern to fury. The depths of ordinary New Irelanders’ disquiet at the project is an enunciation of something much bigger: the rumble of pervasive disenchantment and despair palpable in communities across PNG, where 80 per cent of 7 million citizens live in rural and remote communities, many with limited or no access to basic services.
People feel ripped off by the resources boom, by the promise that giving miners and loggers access to their land would bring some material improvement to their lives. The Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, acknowledged their grievances in an extraordinarily blunt recent speech to a grassroots audience in Central Province, declaring that, “we’ve wasted the last 12 years”, blown the windfall of an economy growing at 6 to 8 per cent, and surpluses of K7 billion to K8 billion, “on priorities that did not really help the community”.
Taxes and other statutory payments from mining companies contribute significantly to PNG’s coffers, with those from the four biggest miners combined worth an average K1568.4m a year (in the three years from 2009-11), according to a recent analysis by Margaret Callan for the Development Policy Centre at the Crawford School, Australian National University. That accounts for over 17 per cent of total government revenue.
But these benefits “are undermined by poor government capacity to convert revenue into basic infrastructure and services, and weak accountability and often poor performance by development authorities and landowner organisations”, Callan concluded.
Much of the resources windfall has been gobbled up by rampant corruption. “How frustrating it is to watch the richness of one’s homeland vanish into the hands of the few,” wrote the government’s chief anti-corruption agent, Sam Koim, in a paper for an Australian law journal earlier this year. He has estimated that at least 40 per cent of the country’s annual budget has been lost to sticky fingers, mismanagement and waste.
For many communities, living standards have gone backwards, as captured in a parable published last year by a young economist from a highlands village near the Porgera gold mine, the country’s second largest, which has distributed K6.4 billion over 15 years to various governments, groups, institutions and landowners. But in that same timeframe “the single health center, the primary school which I attended as a boy, an airstrip that brings supplies to the village, and agricultural extension services have all closed down, and shrubs are now growing on a new road which was built in the late 1990s to connect my village to the nearest town,” Andrew Anton Mako reported.
Landscapes, forests, waterways, traditions and communities have been ravaged. Meanwhile the latest UN human-development index confirms PNG’s entrenched, woeful ranking near the bottom of the global ladder; it is assessed at number 156 of 187 countries.
This is the context underwriting much of the the volatile politics and grassroots violence that blights the nation. At the macro level it’s likely contributing to the growing inclination towards economic nationalism, which culminated in the breathtaking move by the PNG Parliament in September to gain ownership of the country’s largest mining company Ok Tedi Mining Limited. Since the departure of BHP-Billiton from Ok Tedi a Singapore-based trust (PNG Sustainable Development Program) has controlled the environmentally-disastrous mine’s majority stake, holding the shares for the people of PNG, particularly those whose rivers were devastated by its operation. It also controls a $US1.4 billion trust fund. O’Neill’s government acquired the 63.4 per cent owned by PNGSDP, so far without compensation, after accusing the trust board of being controlled by foreign interests and not serving PNG’s needs.
And down at the grassroots, in the villages on the west coast of New Ireland, it’s why seabed mining stirs trepidation and resentment rather than excitement. A new frontier, maybe, but for many it smacks of the same old story.
“The people have seen what is continuously happening up in the highlands where there is oil and gas, and in Western Province where the Ok Tedi mine is,” says Aisack Pisure at a meeting up the road from Mesi, at Kanemeradan village, “They have seen the damage that can occur downstream. With seabed mining, what is the government trying to do [by supporting this]? They don’t seem to be concerned at all about people’s wellbeing and future.”
Elsa Lenakot – the only woman to speak up publicly at the Kanemeradan gathering (though many sidle up to privately share their concerns with The Global Mail) – delivers a short, shaky, passionate tirade. She describes herself as “just an illiterate mother”, but what if this project brings harm to the next generation, she asks. Who will sort out the mess if anything goes wrong?
“It is hard for people to believe what the company says,” says Pastor John Liak. “They would prefer that the project takes place somewhere else first – prove to them that there won’t be any environmental damage … [that] it won’t affect their livelihood.”
Nautilus’s Mel Togolo says New Ireland and East New Britain will receive substantial benefits and royalties, though the terms are still being negotiated with the two provincial administrations and the national government.
Although the amounts haven’t been determined it is Nautilus’ understanding, he says, that the stake that would in other circumstances go to landowners will be dispersed to local level governments, mostly along the coasts closest to the project – although the National Government would have the last word. The company will also contribute K2 per tonne of ore extracted (which on expected volumes would yield roughly K4.5 million total) to an independent development fund, which would be distributed according to local priorities to support schools, aid posts and the like. The Provincial Government says that while the coastal people may not be legally considered landowners, they nonetheless should receive a greater, disproportionate share of the benefits flowing to the province from the development.
Togolo insists that the company has consulted closely, that it has met with around 20,000 people in the course of awareness programs. The science is complex, he says, “we just have to keep talking to the people, explaining”. Most concerns, he adds, are founded on misinformation or misunderstanding: “People come with a mindset of land-based operation. In this operation, first we won’t be chopping trees down, we won’t be carving roads, we won’t be digging the topsoil off, we won’t be blasting … there are no villages down there to be relocated.
“Because it is high grade [the deposit], there is less waste,” Togolo says. “We won’t be using chemicals … [the ore] won’t have any direct contact with the water column, it is an enclosed system, so it has minimum impact with the fisheries in there.”
There was much talk at the Kanemeradan meeting of a big school of dead tuna, 200 fish, washing up on the nearby beach during exploratory work on the seabed in 2010 – “even the dogs wouldn’t eat them”. But no-one collected samples for analysis in the capital, Kavieng, which is several hours’ ride away on the bus, or took photographs.
Any number of things going on in the changing sea might have caused such an event. It’s an easy story for experts to dismiss or to disbelieve. But that doesn’t make it go away.
“Seabed mining is a risk not worth taking” Sir Julius Chan, Governor, New Ireland Province, 9 September 2012
Seventy signatories representing communities across the Bismarck Sea region wrote to Nautilus back in 2008 declaring their right, under customary law and as outlined in the UN Declaration on Indigenous People, to Free Prior Informed Consent over any project impacting on their land or sea resources, and to withholding their consent.
“Our livelihood and culture is based around these oceans, and it is an inseparable part of our culture, identity and way of life. Our lives are interconnected with the cycles of the sea, it is our calendar and we are dependent on it for our survival,” they wrote.
Their concerns included irreversible environmental damage, a lack of meaningful consultation, and inadequate laws to manage and regulate the project. “We are aware that the socio-economic and environmental costs of mining in PNG are often greater than the benefits,” they wrote.
PNG’s increasingly influential activist Twitterati took up the cause. For a time they had a formidable ally – former Prime Minister and veteran power-player Sir Julius Chan, who told Australia’s SBS television last August that he didn’t want his home province “to be the first in the world” to try the technology. International groups, including Greenpeace and the (anti-) Deep Sea Mining Campaign, lobbied for a worldwide moratorium.
Nonetheless, in late 2009, Nautilus Minerals gained an environmental permit from the PNG Government for Solwara 1, and a mining license in January 2011. The Somare Government, then on its last legs, was so keen for the mine to go ahead it controversially chose to take up its option for a 30 per cent equity stake.
Last year a petition with 24,000 signatures from around PNG, which called for a halt to the project, was presented to local MP and PNG Mining Minister Byron Chan – son of Sir Julius. There’s been no formal response.
Political attitudes to the project are today in a state of flux. After a year-long legal dispute Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s government has failed to come good with the money for its stake, despite an arbitration ruling in Sydney last month ordering it to pay $US118 million to Nautilus. When the deadline passed, O’Neill released a brief, vague statement, saying that his government was seeking “legal advice” on the supposedly binding ruling. Nautilus, momentarily buoyed at having its case upheld, is saying only that talks continue and its preference is that matters be amicably resolved.
Meanwhile, Sir Julius’s provincial New Ireland government now appears to be on board with Solwara 1, having gained some assurances from Nautilus. An agreement between the company, the national government, and the two closest provinces – New Ireland and East New Britain – is still “a long way from a done deal”, according to Chan’s key advisor, Dr Bruce Harris. But, he says, “We have developed a much better relationship with [Nautilus] over the past year.”
How much the deal would be worth in royalties, tax credits and support grants is not yet clear, says Harris. But Sir Julius has long had a reputation as a cunning operator.
Chan is also engaged in a bigger battle, championing an agenda for radical reform of the PNG Mining Act (1992), saying Papua New Guineans have been “duped” into “systematically giving away [their] birthright” to mining companies losing claim to minerals under the ground which had been theirs for 40,000 years of history. “We have squandered this wealth, and in doing so condemned our people to poverty, to being left behind while others prosper,” he told a conference in August.
He’s preaching the rising creed of resources nationalism, the growth of which worldwide is identified by the mining industry as its biggest threat. Chan argues the state should, automatically and free of charge, get at least 30 per cent equity in ventures like Nautilus. He’s lobbying for the raising of royalties, talking in ambit terms from about 2 per cent to 10 per cent, (noting that many nations have, or are pondering, higher rates again) and to return ownership of minerals “to the people who live on the land or to the provinces in whose territory seabed extraction is done”. His son, Minister Byron Chan, sent mining companies and investors into conniptions in late 2011 when he proposed just such a move.
Nautilus has, Harris says, neutralised some of Sir Julius’ environmental concerns by agreeing to engage an independent scientific expert who will assess the project at least monthly; by providing a “drop-dead switch” on operations in event of problems; and by securing insurance to allow immediate relief to local people if they sustain any damage from an accident. The company has also agreed to build and upgrade roads and bridges on the west coast.
“I’m not 100 per cent convinced that this is something that is going to go off without a hitch – I suspect that’s not the case,” says Harris. But Port Moresby had signed the deal, like it or not. “What we are trying to do is ensure that anything happening in New Ireland waters is done in ways that are acceptable to us and provide us with a minimum of coverage and safeguards,” says Harris.
Meanwhile the integrity of the Environmental Impact Statement that underwrites the mine’s license continues to be questioned by scientists, non-government organisations and activists, including in three substantial expert reports commissioned by lobbyists.
“It is likely that the project would result in severe, prolonged, and perhaps region-wide impacts to a globally rare and poorly understood biological community, and it is clear that the EIS does not adequately assess many of these impacts,” argued Professor Steiner in his report.
Dr John Luick, an Australian consultant oceanographer, wrote a report for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign last year, which maintains that the physical modelling components of the EIS were “to put it kindly, second rate … Moreover, every omission in the analysis plays down the risk.” He concluded that it, “fails to provide the basic information needed to assess the risk of pollution of the environment or the risk to local communities”.
Perth-based CSIRO geologist Dr Chris Yeats is widely quoted by anti-mining campaigners for saying, “we know more about the surface of Mars and Venus than we know about the deep ocean floor, broadly speaking it is a great unknown”. That’s true, he says, in general terms, but the area around Solwara 1 is well characterised – mostly as a result of Nautilus’s research. It’s his belief that enough is known to be able to conduct seabed mining safely.
He also argues that environmental concerns should be weighed against the social and environmental impact of continuing to exploit land for the minerals that markets continue to demand.
Land-based mining displaces communities, “potentially using land that could be used for other purposes (agriculture, housing etc),” says Yeats. “Then there’s the associated infrastructure – road or rail to transport the ore to a port … to get it to a smelter.
“That’s all fixed – you build it for one mine, and then if you go and mine somewhere else, you build it all again. Then you’ve got all the rehabilitation, reclamation and sterilisation-of-land issues.” Meanwhile mines get bigger and deeper, because all the easily extracted surface stuff is long gone.
Seabed mining leaves no blot on the human landscape. And when one mine is exhausted, you haul the equipment to the next deposit, “so from that point of view it is relatively low impact environmentally, and cost effective”, says Yeats.
Yeats perceives the biggest enduring environmental risk of deep-sea mining as being if the 1,600-metre-long pipelines break or leak, or if ore is accidently spilled at the surface. There are toxic materials, including arsenic, in the sludge. But unlike an oil spill, he says, the material is heavy and would soon drop back to the bottom.
Mess stirred up from the seafloor by the cutters would be contained by the pipe sucking it up and by its own weight. If some of it did find its way up the water column, Yeats says, it would encounter a natural ceiling at about the 900-metre level, where an abrupt change in the character of the water forms a barrier that fences off the lower waters from the upper layers.
Dr Charles Fisher, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University and an expert in deep-sea ecosystems, who has advised several Pacific countries, says that the land-versus-sea argument has limited power because the people who make it “are not proposing to stop mining on land when they start mining in the sea – it’s not an either/or proposition. We won’t recover the bad effects of land mining if we start mining the deep sea.
“I’m pretty familiar with Nautilus’ plans. I think in general these guys are trying hard … but in the end they are there to make money, and there is a lot we don’t know yet. We need some really careful monitoring, and for a really long time. That isn’t very palatable to mining companies because it is going to be expensive, and it is going to require a commitment long after they’ve left.
“The fact is deep-sea mining has never been done. The best-laid plans go awry. We don’t know what the effects will be.”
Fisher, who has studied deep-sea vent communities for 30 years, says, “if you increase the frequency of disturbance you are going to favour some groups over other groups, and you can upset ecological balances.
“When they mine they will wipe out the population at that site,” says Fisher. In Solwara 1’s case there are other sites nearby with similar communities that could provide larvae to repopulate the damaged area. But “mining companies aren’t going to just mine one site – once they have the infrastructure they will mine site after site.
“We need to plan more than just recuperation of a single site … we need to make sure that we’ve got sites in every region that are preserved for the full diversity and the life histories of all the different animals, that can really provide viable source populations for extended periods of time. So we need to think about protected areas.”
As for the anxieties of coastal communities about the safety of their fishing, Fisher has some qualified reassurance. There is little evidence of extensive or direct connections between the fish in the upper pelagic realm and the very deep ocean.
“But there is a tonne we don’t know. We are not [down] there very often. There are certainly indirect connections … larval species that originate at the vents and go into the water column. The ocean is one connected ecosystem. I’m not anti-mining. But I’m very much pro moving slowly and methodically, being aware of our uncertainty and acting on it.
“Mining is important to small island countries in the region, and I think it would be ludicrous for scientists from rich countries to try to dictate not to mine because of the unknowns. But I do urge the people of those countries to be aware there are unknowns, and to move forward slowly, to monitor as we go.”
Questions about PNG’s capacity for oversight of such ventures presents a stumbling block even for seabed mining supporters. “I think the issue of monitoring is a real concern,” says Jeff Kinch, head of the PNG National Fisheries College in Kavieng. “PNG does have a poor history” in that area, he says, most notably with the environmental fallout from the Ok Tedi mine.
That aside, he’s supportive of the mining concept. “The reality is that we all have our gizmos and gadgets,” he says, waving at the collection of phones, cameras and microphones on his desk. “We all drive around in our tin cars. We all in our way are supporting mining, and this is the new frontier.”
Kinch, whose college provides training and education on fishing and seafood handling, believes mining won’t interfere with commercial or community catches. But there are many other pressures on Pacific fisheries, he says, and seabed mining would provide alternative revenue for states that presently have fish and not much else by way of resources, places like Tonga and the Cook Islands.
The Cook Islands anticipates that seabed mining in its waters could grow its GDP one-hundredfold, and transform it into one of the world’s richest nations within a decade. It’s negotiating with several nations and companies, and expects that it will get a substantial stake in any venture for free, in return for access to the resources.
Tongan Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu is an enthusiastic champion of the industry, with little time for some of its critics. “We need to develop our economy so our people can benefit. Will the [anti-mining] NGOs help our people? I say no, they do nothing.” Nautilus has already identified 19 mineralised seabed systems within its exploration tenements in Tonga’s waters.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has also identified seabed potential in Fiji, Micronesia, Kiribati, Tuvulu, Timor Leste, Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Niue. At least 1.5 million square kilometres of the South Pacific floor are already under exploration leasehold, according to a year-old estimate of known sites by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.
Meanwhile there is mounting resistance to the push in some quarters. In June Australia’s Northern Territory government banned seabed mining in the Gulf of Carpentaria and around Groote Eylandt, while in New Zealand proposals have sparked an energetic push for a moratorium.
On November 11 a coalition of lawyers, students, academics and activists from New Ireland Province announced plans to sue the PNG Government – likely in Port Moresby, but possibly in Canada – challenging the legality of the Solwara 1 license on the grounds that the risk-assessment and consultation processes were flawed and inadequate.
“…the changes in material culture have caused only very small changes in, for instance, the traditional and economically important shark-fishing at Mesi. Contact with European civilization has shown no better methods in catching sharks than the old ones.” Tambu-Stones of New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, by Sofus Christiansen (1962 Noona Dan Expedition)
Today many of the clan haus bois lined up in the scrub on the shoreline at Mesi are neglected. The elaborate gates, tall splayed posts of wind-polished or painted timber through which young men would carry a pig on their wedding day, remain in place, but the surrounding graveyards are overgrown and the low stone walls are crumbling. Relics they once housed – magical stones and shark fins – have been sold, stolen or hidden away.
Eanock Tovalaun, massa of one of the local clans, clicks his tongue at the condition of his clan’s compound. By morning he will have dispatched a detail of women with hand brooms and men with bush-knives and instructions to clean it up.
“Younger generations are misusing the haus bois,” complains Tovalaun. They sneak down with home-brewed jungle juice “just to get drunk, causing a lot of problems”. It’s quiet now because the elders still have enough clout for the occasional crackdown, and they’ve just exercised it.
There are few shark callers left in Mesi, or in Tembin or Kontu, the other nearby villages where the tradition endures as observed by the late documentary film-maker Dennis O'Rourke in the classic Sharkcallers of Kontu. Eliuda Toxok is passing the knowledge to his son Amos, but other young men are not much interested. Education and modern expectations have changed their thinking.
Shark-calling traditionally had status and mystique, it was a kind of raw South Pacific incarnation of the matador – the brave loner setting out to beguile and conquer a wild creature, winning en route the respect of men and the adoration of women. Ladies would likely be fighting over him on the beach even as he paddled back with his catch, says Tovalaun.
But the practice also demands discipline and sacrifice. For several days before he goes to sea the shark caller must leave his wife and sleep in his clan’s haus boi. The shark caller must abstain from sex. Some of the younger men admit the “no pus pus” rule, combined with the other hazards of the job and fading kastam (custom) has something to do with the diminishing allure of the vocation.
The shark caller must also abstain from certain foods, and can only eat food made and served by certain people. “We can only take food from our old mama, or we cook the food ourselves … until we complete the mission we are prepared for,” explains Tovalaun, translating the old man’s Mandak-tongue commentary, and elaborating with some of his own.
The shark, he says, is very sensitive. “It can hear you from far away,” hence it responds to the clatter of the larung when it is shaken in the water. “It can smell you from far away.” One of the core concerns in Mesi and other villages is that the noise from the Solwara 1 project will disturb sharks, dolphins and other fish the communities depend on.
Eliuda Toxok is convinced that it already has. He echoes the claims of several local men who regularly skin-dive for fish, who tell stories of encountering strange noise and “dust” under the water during the exploratory phase of the project. “When the seabed drillers came around, they started reducing our lifestyle, our way of catching sharks, because it disturbs the sea,” says Toxok. “We are not agreeing with the project.”
The Nautilus EIS states that due to the project’s distant location, it couldn’t interfere with subsistence fishing and there would be no impact from mining on “near-shore coral reefs, including traditional reef fishing and shark calling”.
But Toxok’s assertion finds some sympathy in Professor Steiner’s report, which says the EIS doesn’t adequately consider factors like underwater noise including traffic from vessels. “This noise may represent a significant impact to reef sharks, and shark-calling conducted by coastal peoples of the region.”
It may be, given the cultural, social and economic changes already washing across New Ireland – including initiatives that strive to improve health, education, communications and opportunity – that the era of the shark caller, of traditional life attuned to and reliant on merciless natural systems, is already largely gone.
Shark calling is fading fast as a subsistence activity, and soon it may only endure as a curiosity, a performance piece revived for festivals and tourists. Toxok and Tovalaun recognise this and seem resigned to it. Their campaign is not to save the shark callers, but to preserve for their descendants the sharks and other fish that sustained their ancestors.
Tovalaun himself isn’t a shark caller – his father, a missionary, forbade his participation (not least because of the associated “women trouble”), and sent him away to be educated. He’s cannily applied the lessons he learned; he sells some trees to the Malaysian loggers whose ships loom perpetually just off the coast, plants a little oil palm.
He lives mostly up near Kavieng, but loves to come home to Mesi. If he lost everything tomorrow, he could come back here and sleep in his haus boi and live for nothing. “When we have a little bit of kaukau, taro and banana, it doesn’t cost me anything. If I don’t have money, I can still eat.”
Tovalaun is 58 years old and, like many of his generation, he moves with apparent ease between the modern and traditional, contrived and natural realms, enjoying the best of both. The pre-whites world of his grandparents is vivid in his storytelling, delivered as he sits cross-legged on the sand under a giant Calophyllum tree – the trunk 10-strides wide – upon which, he says in passing, his ancestors once hoisted the heads of their enemies. Sometimes they would cook them.
Cultures evolve and change, Tovalaun observes, and that’s as it should be. In his lifetime he’s seen law and order, roads, bridges and aid posts appear and then rot away. “Today, we should be advancing. We’ve got copra and cocoa to sell, but our infrastructure is eroding, and we can’t get it out.”
The champions of seabed mining argue that exploiting the treasure buried at the bottom of the Bismarck Sea is the solution, not the problem. They say it will provide a lucrative revenue stream, one that doesn’t scar the landscape or displace communities, and which, on the advice of many experts, is unlikely to impact human dimensions. But the sense of communities on the coast right now is that it’s a double-or-nothing bet.
Some people “want money for nothing”, Tovalaun says. But such money never lasts. His father taught him that the only providers that might be relied upon are God, sweat and nature. Today his concern is for the last, and most potent, of these.