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Te Ipukarea Society: Navigating challenging waters at the ISA

Saturday 1 April 2023 | Written by Te Ipukarea Society | Published in Environment, National


Te Ipukarea Society: Navigating challenging waters at the ISA
Jamaican youth and ISA delegation members supporting a moratorium or ban on seabed mining. SUPPLIED/ 23033150

Te Ipukarea Society along with NGO indigenous representatives from Hawaii, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and Aotearoa NZ participated as ‘observers’ in the recent International Seabed Authority meetings, which gave them the opportunity to intervene in matters discussed.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 under the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) convention.

Every year delegates from around the world travel to Jamaica to debate topics related to mining of the deep sea.

An important task is to debate the rules and regulations that could enable large scale deep sea mining activities within the high seas.

The most important area is the Clarion Clipperton Zone, a space that stretches the width of Canada, located between Hawaii and Mexico. Because no nation owns this space within the high seas, all benefits acquired from any potential deep-sea mining activity here are intended for the betterment of humankind.

There are 167 members of the ISA, including the Cook Islands. For 10 years the Cook Islands government has been present at the ISA, and vocal on these very discussions that govern how deep sea mining activity could happen in the high seas.

In March this year, for the first time, local indigenous non-government representatives from the Pacific were supported by Greenpeace to attend the ISA meetings. A voice and perspective the ISA has not heard since having started 28 years ago.

Te Ipukarea Society along with NGO indigenous representatives from Hawaii, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and Aotearoa NZ participated as ‘observers’ in the meetings, which gave them the opportunity to intervene in matters discussed.

Key areas the non government indigenous delegation was vocal on included discussions on the underwater cultural heritage connections that Pacific Islanders have with the deep sea.

For a number of states present at the ISA, the concept of underwater cultural values was recognised as only tangible items like sunken artifacts. For these states, there was no concept of intangible connections which Pacific Island states have to the deep sea. For example in the Cook Islands, the deep sea is known as a place where our atua (gods) reside. A sacred place that has sustained people since the very beginning.

The seabed itself is called Vari-ma-te-takere (mud at the very bottom). It is here that the first atua and their offsprings like Tinirau, a son of Tangaroa, reside. Tinirau is the lord of finned fish, which includes sharks and the smallest fish. It is from this sacred place that life begun. Starting from a coral pulp, to plants and then humanity as we know it. This underwater heritage connection is also similar to the genealogy of aboriginal Hawaiians.

Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) was also tabled, to challenge states whether they have the consent of the people to consider proceeding with deep sea mining activities. FPIC refers to a specific right that pertains to indigenous peoples and is recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

It allows them to give or withhold consent to a project that may affect them or their territories. Examples from PNG argued that the people have not been properly informed on the potential environmental risks which needs to be weighed up by the public.

Youth representation spoke about the need for more time to ensure that robust independent data was collected to make informed management decisions. It is our youth today and future generations that will have to live with the consequences of the environmental impacts incurred. Therefore a significant amount of time is still needed to collect unbiased data.

The indigenous Pacific delegation also challenged the colonialist operation of managing the high seas as a block system, where countries are designated with certain zones to conduct activities.

The block system gives the impression that we are given the authority over marine resources within a limited space. But this is a blue space that is fluid and naturally has no boundaries. It is therefore naive to believe the impacts incurred in one block would not spread near and far given the fluid nature of our ocean.

Overall the Pacific NGO’s attendance at the ISA meeting was an interesting eye-opener. Particularly considering just three weeks ago during a UN meeting the world finally agreed on a high seas treaty that focused on protecting our oceans. The ISA however was discussing matters around how we can explore and exploit deep sea minerals.

The Cook Islands as of last year started their five-year exploration phase within the Cook Islands EEZ. Three mining companies were granted exploration licenses.

The licenses allow contractors to collect both environmental and mineral data which will be used to determine whether commercial deep sea mining within the Cook Islands can be feasibly carried out in an environmentally sound way.

While there has been significant “consultation” by Government on the benefits of mining our deep sea, there has been very little discussion about the very real environmental risks of deep sea mining. 

As an environmental NGO, Te Ipukarea Society is doing our best to fill this gap in the “informed” component of FPIC for our communities.