Turning crisis into opportunity?

Monday 11 January 2021 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in Environment, National

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Turning crisis into opportunity?
Deep sea manganese nodules found in the Cook Islands EEZ. SEABED MINERALS AUTHORITY / 20092117

While Covid-19 appears to have given earth time to heal, some governments are reportedly using the pandemic to hurt conservation efforts across the globe.

And, environmentalist activists see Cook Islands decision to allow seabed minerals exploration in its waters as an excuse to begin the controversial seabed mining.

The Covid-19 pandemic has gravely wounded Cook Islands’ tourism dependent economy.

According to Asian Development Bank, even if borders reopen at the beginning of this year, GDP may decline by 15.4 per cent in 2021.This is the worst economic decline the country is facing in decades.

To mitigate such drop and help recover the economy, there have been suggestions that the Cook Islands start diversifying its economy.

But a local environmental activist says the government may use the crisis to push for controversial developments.

In an interview with CNN, marine scientist and environmental activist Jacqueline Evans says the pandemic would be government’s excuse to begin seabed mining.

“As soon as I heard that there was this disease moving around the world, I knew that this would be the reason, the excuse the government would use to begin seabed mining,” Evans told CNN.

“Our government has said that they would like to begin seabed mining in the next five years, yet there is so much we don’t know about the biodiversity of our deep ocean.”

Evan agrees the local economy needs to be diversified, but says many people disagreed that mining is the way to diversify the economy.

She believes government may allow for seabed mining to overcome the loss of tourism due to the pandemic.

Evans says even though seabed mining hadn’t started, they wanted to make sure that the ocean is protected from any bad decision making around that.

In October last year, the government through Seabed Minerals Authority, an agency responsible for regulating seabed minerals activities under the Cook Islands jurisdiction, launched a tender for seabed minerals exploration in its waters.

The signing of the declaration for the seabed exploration license has been deemed as a step closer to extracting valuable minerals from its ocean floor.

But Alex Herman, the Seabed Minerals Commissioner, says Prime Minister Mark Brown has been very clear that government is allowing exploration to go ahead, but “not commercial recovery” at this stage.

The Authority in an earlier statement to CNN said: “The devastating impact of Covid-19 on our vulnerable economy has further strengthened our resolve to, at the very least, explore the potential of mineral resources that possess.”

Herman told Cook Islands News: “Strong environmental management has, and remains a key priority for government.”

She says the government has taken a careful and cautious approach towards developing the seabed minerals (SBM) sector, since the discovery of Cook Islands abundant nodule resource in the 1970s.

In 2009, Cook Islands passed the world’s first dedicated seabed law, and in 2013 the Authority was established to regulate Seabed Minerals activities.

“In 2018, government put in place a hold on licence applications for Seabed Mineral Authority’s exploration to ensure we had our key laws and processes in place. At that time, 2020 was set as the goal for reopening SBM licensing for exploration”.

Herman says no decision will be made to go ahead with seabed harvesting until they have a sound understanding of the marine environment and the potential impacts of harvesting on it.

“This is a number of years away,” she adds.

“Exploration research will help us to better understand whether the harvesting of our seabed nodules is possible – in an ecologically sustainable manner, and without serious harm to our marine environment – or not.”

But local environment group Te Ipukarea Society is not convinced. They are backing regional calls for a moratorium on the fledgling deepsea industry over concern about potential risks of environmental damage in the furthest depths of the ocean.

They are concerned that, Cook Islands being rich in manganese nodules, the country has had significant interest from mining companies and investors, though exploitation has yet to begin.

To help people understand these concerns, Te Ipukarea Society in partnership with Korero o te Ōrau last month released a documentary – Deep Conversations on Deep Seabed Mining in the Cook Islands – an in-depth view from the people on deep seabed mining.

The documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xNGGoFDc1A) was also done in the hope to create more dialogue in the community and engage on the issue of seabed mining.

In the documentary, local marine scientist Dr Teina Rongo says it is critical not to rush the process.

“We can see the impacts of climate change. There is a decline in our fish stocks and coral reefs are dying. At this point we have no right to carry out additional activities that have the potential to compromise our ocean. Its critical we don’t rush this process,” Dr Rongo says.

Te Ipukarea Society campaign coordinator Teuru Tira’a-Passfield shares similar sentiments, “it is too soon and there is still so much that isn’t known”.

Tira’a-Passfield says the rationale behind a moratorium is that there is not enough scientific information on what the impact is going to be, the extent of the impact and the likelihood.

“We don’t know enough about the deep sea in general to be able to say what the impacts are going to be.”