Govt’s seabed minerals plan meets backlash

Wednesday November 14, 2018 Written by Published in Environment
Marine scientist Dr Teina Rongo says deputy prime minister Mark Brown’s presentation on seabed minerals mining has come up short. 18111327 Marine scientist Dr Teina Rongo says deputy prime minister Mark Brown’s presentation on seabed minerals mining has come up short. 18111327

At a public consultation in Titikaveka last week, there was backlash to government’s plan to issue foreign companies five-year licences to explore the Cook Islands’ seabed.

 

On Tuesday night, deputy prime minister and finance minister Mark Brown made the same presentation he had delivered the previous week in Te Au O Tonga and two days later delivered in Arorangi.

CINews has reported on those two meetings but yesterday obtained an audio recording from the Titikaveka meeting.

For nearly 40 minutes, Brown spoke about the monetary potential of the nodules that are heavily concentrated on the Cook Islands’ seabed, promising mining would bring “transformational change”.

After Brown’s presentation, traditional leader Tupe Short said he felt consultations were not enough. Sonny Daniel agreed.

“It’s such a big topic,” Daniel said, “and the majority of our people don’t understand what it’s all about… I represent six families and if they ask what (this consultation was) about, I’ll say I object because I don’t understand it myself.”

He recommended a consultation with the aronga mana. Brown replied that government had already met with the House of Ariki. He emphasised that at this stage, government was only concerned with exploration.

Marine scientist Dr Teina Rongo expressed concern over the minister’s statement that, according to scientific theories, reserving areas of the seabed would allow mined areas to recover.

“I don’t think we can say that now because we don’t have…that information,” Dr Rongo said. He noted no other country had mined its seafloor, so there was no available scientific data about the ecosystem and the impact of mining it.

He said climate change, an area he has researched heavily, had been studied for decades and information was still sparse. He asked how a five-year licence to explore the seafloor - “an area we know nothing about”, could produce conclusive research.

Rongo said the presentation had not addressed the risks of seabed mining and suggested government’s acceleration of seabed minerals activity flew in the face of the commitments the country was making on the international stage. He said the prime minister had just returned from a meeting at which he had described what the Cook Islands was doing to mitigate climate change.

“What we are entering right now is actually a risking of everything we are trying to protect (and) trying to advocate to the rest of the world… Sometimes I wonder whether (government knows) what is really at risk,” he said. “My concern is we are risking the very environment we are trying to fight for.”

Brown agreed with some of Rongo’s points, noting that, “we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the bottom of our ocean”.

He said if five years is not enough time for exploration, licences can be renewed.

Iaveta Short talked about how the Cook Islands people do not own the minerals on the seafloor but are “merely caretakers” and as such have a responsibility to do this “properly”.

“We really need to be very careful because our own history has so many disasters,” he said. “Just look around the corner with the Sheraton hotel—that was only a small little project and we ended up with debt of 120 million dollars.”

He took issue with the minister’s statement that government’s seabed mining legislation is leading the international charge.

“I’m tired of you saying this act is the best in the world,” he said. “We are babies when it comes to negotiating with big companies dealing with these sort of things.

“These are multi-million dollar companies. They have the best lawyers, the best engineers, the best accountants. They’ll eat us for breakfast if we don’t watch out.”

He mentioned the island of Nauru, which became rich quick because of phosphate mining, then squandered the wealth and lost everything. He speculated that the same would happen here.

“We will get drunk with the money,” he said, “and we will lose our way.”

Brown responded that government was not inviting companies to mine, only to explore.

Liam Kokaua of Te Ipukarea Society asked whether government had considered entering into a partnership with leading research institutions like University of Hawaii or NIWA.

He said the onus was on the Cook Islands to source the best possible information because mining companies “are not really concerned about our environment”.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “We are the ones that should be concerned about our environment.”

Philip Nicholas said man’s impact on the earth had been devastating and the ocean was earth’s last frontier.

“How the hell do we know…all will be sweet?” he asked.

Consultations concluded for Rarotonga on Thursday in Arorangi. Written submissions can be sent to the Seabed Minerals Authority.

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