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Our deep sea is being colonized — deep-sea mining is the ‘siren song’

Avarua, COOK ISLANDS — Mining deep areas of the ocean to gather rare metals for electric car batteries and other green technologies is attracting cash-strapped Pacific island governments.

Exploration is now under way in the waters around the Cook Islands - or 'Avaiki Nui, as the islands are known among those who reject its colonial name - for sites with potential for deep-sea mining.

While the country's leaders are enthusiastic, there are many who say it's simply extractive colonization all over again.

Liam Koka'ua, who has roots in both 'Avaiki Nui and Aotearoa, talks to Teuila Fuatai:

At COP27 last year, my nation's prime minister Mark Brown told the world how 'Avaiki Nui is leading the way to a greener future.

He talked about our 15 islands "walking the talk" as we live with the impacts and threats of climate change. We have 13 islands on solar power, and the goal is to have the remaining two converted in the next two years.

He highlighted our commitment to net zero emissions by 2040, and our focus on building resilient infrastructure - increasingly necessary as the world around 'Avaiki Nui and Te Moana Nui a Kiwa refuses to seriously cut emissions.

Then he said it was no one else's business what we do in the waters around our islands.

He was referring to increasingly loud calls for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, which he finds hypocritical because they most often come from large nations responsible for the bulk of climate change emissions.

"The very countries that destroy our planet through decades of profit-driven development, and who to this day continue their profit-driven actions, and neglect their climate change responsibilities, are making demands for a moratorium on our ocean," Mark Brown told the conference.

"It is patronizing and it implies that we are too dumb or too greedy to know what we are doing in our ocean."

In the last five years, the deep-sea mining industry has taken off, driven by global demand for greener technologies. In 'Avaiki Nui, there's strong support for this developing industry.

Since the 1960s, we've known that the seabed around 'Avaiki Nui has rich deposits of polymetallic nodules. The nodules, about the size and shape of potatoes, cover the seabed in vast areas and contain valuable minerals such as cobalt, manganese, copper and nickel which are used to make smartphones, electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, and other high-tech applications.

Big mining companies refer to the nodules as a "battery in a rock" because they have everything a new battery needs.

But, until now, seabed mining to harvest these nodules has been limited because effective extraction technology hasn't existed. That's why no large-scale mining occurred when research and mining companies first discovered the mineral-rich areas.

Instead, these minerals have been mined from land-based sources. But some say those sources are being exhausted, especially as we haven't been recycling what's extracted.

So, many companies are now looking to the seabed. Increased demand, coupled with improved mining technologies, means that our ocean floor is now a viable commercial source.

Mark Brown believes my islands of 'Avaiki Nui stand to gain. He thinks by entering commercial mining agreements, we'll contribute to a greener and more sustainable future while tapping into a rich income stream.

His interest is essentially economic. He looks at the natural resources on our ocean floor and sees them offering benefits like diversifying our economy, hard cash for big infrastructure improvements, education funding for scholarships, and a national investment fund to maximise the mining-related cash.

These are all worthy and valid things to want. But at the heart of it, mining is extraction for the sake of profit. It tramples on the very things that make us Indigenous, that tie us to our land and moana, and to our ancestors and future generations.

We know from mining land-based sources that it's a practice where there's no respect for the relationships between people, the land and ocean, no balance or re-setting of actions, no restoration of what's stripped out, and no reciprocity or giving back.

'CAPITALIST WAY OF OPERATING'

It boils down to extracting the resources there and then, and moving on to the next frontier. It's a capitalist, western way of operating.

The existing research on mining the deep sea raises red flags for our moana and sea life. And that's just from what the studies already say.

There are still so many unknowns around the harms of seabed mining because of our limited knowledge of the ocean's extreme depths.

The nodules sit far below the surface, usually about four to six kilometres down. They also differ in composition depending on where they are. For example, in the deep ocean around 'Avaiki Nui, the nodules are rich in cobalt, one of the main minerals used in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

Right now, the most efficient method for extracting the nodules involves dropping a rover-type vehicle down to the ocean floor to vacuum them up in massive quantities. In our waters of 'Avaiki Nui, there's estimated to be about 10 billion tonnes of nodules.

Once the nodules are vacuumed up, the machine shoots them up a pipe to a processing ship. Here the nodules are cleaned to remove silt and salt water, before being taken to the shore where the minerals are extracted. Back on the processing ship, the left-over sediment is pumped to about midway down the water column before being released.

So far, there've been problems identified at each stage of this process.

At those extreme depths, the whole seabed is pretty much sand, and the nodules are often the only solid surface, where they act as anchors for wildlife. Over billions of years, sea life has evolved to live on and around them. These range from microscopic organisms to sponges and other species that feed on those that settle on the rocky surface.

It's a whole interconnected ecosystem. Removing the nodules cuts a key piece of that ecosystem out. Not only that, when the nodules are removed, all the organisms living on and around them are also sucked up by the rover.

Unlike a forest, or even a coral reef, the nodules can't regenerate or heal themselves within decades or even generations. They start off as a tiny bit of marine debris, perhaps something hard like a shark's tooth. Little by little, minerals within the seawater are attracted to the solid object in minuscule amounts. The nodules form over millions of years. They are finite and non-renewable.

When I think about what that means, and the place of these nodules within the moana, I think about the lives of my tūpuna and how they lived, and the balance they successfully kept with their natural environment by managing what they took with what they gave back.

Our tūpuna were able to clearly see the impact they were having because they managed their natural resources on a near-daily basis, and they could reduce their harvesting accordingly, or even place a rā'ui (ban) if needed. The deep sea is not the same.

And marine life is at risk.

 (Read Part 2 in tomorrow’s issue where Koka'ua explores effects of deep-sea mining on sea life and what other countries are experiencing.)