Mining the Abyss

World Ocean Observatory gathers its subject matter from sources all over the world. This week's story, "Mining the Abyss," comes from an excellent journalistic piece by Jo Chandler, published in December 2013 by The Global Mail, an internet news services based in Sidney, Australia.

The article is framed by the occupation of Eliuda Toxok, a resident of the west coast of New Ireland, a province of Papua New Guinea. Toxok is a so-called shark-caller, an artisanal fisherman and devotee of traditional lore who attracts sharks to his small outrigger canoe by rattling small half-coconuts on a chain to mimic the sound of thrashing fish that in turn lures the fish to a vine noose by which he captures his prey - some 100 caught in a career of over forty years. Toxok lives on less than $2 a day, and he is representative of his friends and neighbors who live in poverty far from the eyes of the developing world.

Unless that world looks to just 30 kilometers offshore where Solwara 1, a vast area of the ocean floor, has been licensed by the New Guinea government for the world's first open-cut deep water mining operation in pursuit of gold, silver, and copper in amounts significant enough to justify an investment of some $383 million toward a $600 million return over a life-span of only five years after which the "vein" is exhausted and the equipment moves on to another opportunity.

The engineering is staggering: three enormous robotic machines, two to scour the bottom and a third to vacuum this dislodged ore up to surface vessels where it will be transferred to China for processing. The copper recovery is estimated at 10 times that of a land-based mine, and the gold is predicted at an astonishing 6.4 grams per ton. The company that has received the first exploration license is Nautilus Mineral, registered in Canada and based in Brisbane, Australia.

This enriched site is of course aligned to a volcanic ridge, near North Su, an active underwater volcano, an area where temperature, pH conditions, and the lightless environment also supports unique and profuse concentrations of heretofore unknown forms of marine life supported by the very same natural circumstances that manufactured the extreme mineral concentrations to be mined.

In this one example, you have all the conflicts of the modern world combined: our insatiable demand for natural resources from anywhere without limit, the market-driven assertion of economic value over social return, the new technical capacity to go and get without limit, the international collusion of corporate connection, corruption or political compromise by the smaller nations in which this raw wealth is found, and the social disruption resultant from the physical and financial impact on local communities that inevitably are excluded from royalties and returns exported to faceless investors far away.

There is a United Nations agency, the International Seabed Authority, based in Jamaica, that is charged with oversight of deep ocean mining, but it has done very little in its history, in part as there has not been much activity to date, and in part as it is jurisdictionally delimited from projects within a nation's exclusive economic zone. That will change, as the economics and engineering technology have changed, and other multi-national corporations, like UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin in the US, are getting into the race for returns estimated in the billions.

Is this an irresistible force with an inevitable end? Two counter-forces exist and have serious oppositional power: first, the loss of the biodiversity and knowledge inherent in these unique underwater environments and the profit from the potential of future scientific transformation into medicine, food, biotechnology, and other yet-to-be-investigated contributions to human well-being; and, second, the loss to the local communities that have already experienced the disappointment of promised economic and social returns from such enterprise on land and the profit that should be derived individually, locally, and nationally from this transfer of indigenous resources and value.

"Resource nationalism" pertains here - the right of a nation to exchange its resources for return to its population and general social welfare that is sustainable over time. Globalization has stood that idea on its head. The Middle East has flourished on its surfeit of oil, a rich although single-sourced economy, now at risk as the resources are exhausted, similar supplies are found elsewhere, or alternatives dilute demand. Saudi Arabia and the others have had a nice ride on oil. Why should the people of Papua New Guinea, indeed why should Eliuda Toxok not share fully in this wealth, managed as a sustainable asset in what must also be a sustainable place? We have heard this discussion before; but we are hearing it again, now, the same old debate, with perhaps the same devastating outcome, albeit in a new environment, under the sea.