Opinion: Communities worry anew as PNG revives seabed mining plans

Duke of York islands are the closest small islands to the site of the proposed Solwara 1 mine in Papua New Guinea (Photo: ACT NOW!)

Chris Malgan sits in his outrigger canoe, singing and shaking a ring of coconut shells in the water next to the boat. The inky skies backdropping the reef portend a late-morning storm that will bring a deluge of rain and tumultuous seas, likely skunking any attempt to “call” sharks to his boat. 

So today, he’s merely doing a demonstration in the lagoon just offshore from the village of Kono in Papua New Guinea. But in the right conditions, the clacking coconuts will mimic a distressed fish or a harried shoal in a way that lights up a shark’s neural circuitry. And with time-honed skill — and perhaps a bit of luck — “Sharks will come from all directions,” Malgan says.

When a shark rises to investigate the sounds, he shows how to slip a noose of woven reeds hanging from beneath a propeller-blade-shaped plank of buoyant wood around its neck. It’s meant to tire the shark at the surface so he can club and haul it into the boat while avoiding its prickly teeth.

Malgan, 62, is Kono’s chief, which fits his grandfatherly vibe. He wears a blue-and-yellow baseball cap that says “God is good all the time” over a youthful though ever-so-slightly graying head of hair.

He’s been a shark caller for more than 40 years, during which time he says he’s brought hundreds back to his community, where they were at the center of celebratory feasts. As with many a fisher, a few stand out in his memory, like the 2-meter (6.5-foot) hammerhead he pulled up one time. Shark callers aim for the eyes to disable and dispatch their quarry. But one of the hammerhead’s eyes at the end of its scalloped head was too far for him to reach. When the time came, though, the shark acquiesced to its fate, Malgan says, arcing its body toward the boat and handing itself over for the final blow.

Successful shark callers like Malgan say they believe the practice transcends seamanship, and that it arises more from a profound connection with sharks and the ocean. They’re committed enough, for example, to submit to abstinence the day before the hunt and to subsist only on sweet potatoes known as kaukau and fish — protocols they say are necessary to anchor their bond with their quarry. They might also have to endure a brutal celebratory “blessing” with leafy switches from their fellow villagers if they’re successful.

“They almost killed me on the reef,” Malgan says about the time he returned with his first shark four decades ago.

Shark calling is a practice that Malgan says is deeply embedded in the region’s culture. But he says he worries now that the future of this generations-long tradition may be in jeopardy. Throughout the island province, people are watching as the sea has crept closer as a result of climate change, eating away at their shorelines and beaches. Logging inland has added silt to the once crystal-clear water, and the enormous foreign ships carrying timber away have filled the underwater world with sound.

And now, communities like Malgan’s face a resurgent interest in the minerals that lie deep below the surface. Local people thought they had defeated the Solwara 1 deep-sea mining project, planned for the waters off the west coast of the island of New Ireland, not far from where Malgan paddles his outrigger canoe on shark calling and fishing forays. But recently, the project has showed renewed signs of life. Its proponents have shared little information with the public or the communities it would likely affect, nor sought their input, Malgan and others say. They say they worry the pollution, noise and destruction it could yield will strike at the beating heart of the marine ecosystems anchoring their culture and way of life.

The undead seabed mining project

For decades, the prospect of seabed mining at a site some 30 kilometers (19 miles) offshore has loomed over Kono, its neighboring communities and Papua New Guinea’s island cultures in general. Supporters of the Solwara 1 project, and deep-sea mining writ large, say the ocean floor holds metals like copper, nickel and cobalt — enough to supply the batteries that could unlock the climate-positive global transition away from fossil fuels, especially for vehicles. They also say extracting these riches from the deep is less apt to harm people or the environment than mining on land.

At present, deep-sea mining hasn’t happened anywhere in the world beyond a few exploratory tests, and many scientists urge caution from the companies and countries most doggedly pursuing it. Mounting scientific evidence suggests the effects of snapping up mineral-rich nodules or sulfides could ripple from the deep benthos to the reefs that ring communities like Kono. Marine life and habitats in the vicinity of mining operations could face the threat of destruction, research indicates. And these disruptions would put complex processes in jeopardy. Animals in the ocean, for example, play a critical role in the biological pump that stows climate-warming carbon deep below the ocean’s surface.

Around a decade ago, Vancouver-based Nautilus Minerals Inc. and its PNG-based subsidiary, Nautilus Minerals Niugini, did their own prospecting around the site off Kono under the world’s first deep-sea mining license, issued by the PNG government in 2011. Shortly after these tests, however, Kono community members say fish usually found far out to sea washed ashore, their lifeless carcasses littering the beach, and Malgan says two whales beached themselves around the same time.

Communities in PNG, buoyed by international opposition to seabed mining, protested the project, eventually forming a group called the Alliance of Solwara Warriors together with faith-based organisations in the country.

By 2019, it appeared the Warriors’ resistance, along with the financial burdens of more than 20 years of operations that hadn’t produced any saleable minerals, had drowned the project. That year, Prime Minister James Marape backed a moratorium on deep-sea mining and Nautilus filed for bankruptcy in Canada.

But in the second half of 2022, the project resurfaced. Another company, Deep Sea Mining Finance, had acquired Nautilus Minerals’ assets and now seemed poised to continue working through Nautilus Minerals Niugini to resuscitate the embattled project. Since then, government officials have appeared to be open to resuscitating the project.

“It is now clear from my discussions with this company that the company is planning to return to PNG,” then-Mining Minister Ano Pala told PNG’s parliament on 01 August 2023, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported. Ano also said that Nautilus’s licenses were being renewed.

Part of the impetus appears to stem from an investment the government made in 2014, worth $120 million, according to 2015 company financial documents from Canada-based Nautilus.

“If we terminate the license, the state’s 15% interest in the project would naturally cease to exist,” Jerry Garry, the acting managing director of the country’s Mineral Resources Authority, a regulatory agency, said Aug. 9 on NBC News PNG.

Representatives of the Mineral Resources Authority, including Garry, didn’t respond to Mongabay’s questions about the project, nor has Deep Sea Mining Finance. A representative from Nautilus Minerals Niugini couldn’t be reached before publication.

Globally, the U.N-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Kingston, Jamaica, has failed to agree on regulations to govern deep-sea mining, even as countries and companies intent on mining push to make it a reality in various countries and parts of the ocean beyond national jurisdictions. If the rules are put in place under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and doing so is a top priority for the ISA, projects currently in limbo could start moving forward.

Meanwhile, PNG’s Mineral Resources Authority scheduled several hearings in January 2023 aimed at informing New Ireland communities of the renewed plans for mining. Ultimately, however, they were postponed for months.

Fear for the survival of his people was enough to galvanize Malgan’s stance on seabed mining. “If this project goes ahead, the coastal communities won’t be able to catch fish or shark anymore,” he says, “and we will lose our culture that has been maintained for centuries.”

“We say ‘no’ to this seabed mining project.”

Connected to the ocean

The Bismarck Sea is a cut of the South Pacific between the island provinces of New Ireland and New Britain and the coast of mainland Papua New Guinea. Its warm waters sit at the center of life for communities like Kono. From the early morning on, fishers venture beyond the reef about 100 m (330 ft) from the sandy shoreline to set lines as pods of spinner (Stenella longirostris) and pantropical spotted (Stenella attenuata) dolphins toss in the currents. At low tide, Kono’s residents shuffle through the shallows and on the promontory of exposed reef, where they scan for food and occasionally bend to snag a partially hidden crab or lobster.

Closer in, children paddle canoes in the mill-pond stillness of the lagoon with a practiced assuredness and skill that belies both their ages and boats that are clearly too large for them. Every evening, some will take a last somersault into the balmy sea as twilight begins to wane and the relative tropical nighttime chill sets in.

A future impacted by mining, not to mention rising sea levels and warmer waters, weighs heavy on the Kono community.

Chantal Aduk, 29, tells Mongabay that she and other mothers are scared about the unknown effects of seabed mining.

“We human beings — we cannot control nature,” Aduk says.

George Harnas, a board member for the Burau ward, a governmental division that covers an area south of Kono on New Ireland’s west coast, says many of his constituents are concerned about what lies ahead.

“What will happen to the future generation?” Harnas asks. “This project will affect children in the future.”

The west coast of New Ireland here feels distant from the outside world. People here depend in large part on what they can pull from the sea and their small gardens to eat. Cash is scarce, there’s no grid electricity, and residents must travel hours to the town of Namatanai for reliable cellular and internet service.

A paved road connects the provincial capital of Kavieng to communities on the east coast. But only unpaved dirt tracks with washout-prone log bridges link villages together in the west, heightening the sense of disconnection.

Around 70 percent of New Ireland’s communities rely on coastal resources, says Annisah Sapul, a community engagement specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s PNG marine program who is based in Kavieng. They depend on the sea for both food and income from selling their catch, Sapul says. But the growing population in New Ireland is putting more pressure on fisheries — one reason WCS has been working with communities to develop and manage marine protected areas around the island.

A major concern with seabed mining is that communities’ ability to be self-reliant could evaporate, says Allan Marat, who represents the township of Rabaul on the neighboring island of New Britain in the PNG parliament. Many of his constituents are similarly alarmed at the prospect of mining and its potential impacts on their culture.

“We love fresh fish,” Marat says. “People catch a fish at the beach, straight onto the fire. That’s what they love.

“They’re saying that, for centuries, we’ve been living peacefully,” he adds. “We’ve been enjoying the products of the sea. And now with this … deep seabed mining activity, you’re polluting our fish.”

A tangled process

Until now, however, many leaders say neither the company nor the government representatives who back the Solwara 1 project have provided much in the way of answers about what the ramifications of mining will be.

“Everyone comes and talks about the benefits,” Harnas tells Mongabay. He and Malgan recall references to boosting the economic development of affected communities that they say came from the company in the late 2000s or early 2010s, which at that time would have been Canada-based Nautilus Minerals or its PNG-based subsidiary, Nautilus Minerals Niugini. But they say no aid has materialised in the time since.

Deep Sea Mining Finance didn’t respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment. Its website (archived here) references a “commitment … to the significant social programs already undertaken on New Ireland” but includes no further information about what these efforts have entailed or will in the future.

It’s easy to see why promises of health care or education or new roads would be tempting, says Jonathan Mesulam, who founded and runs the Kavieng-based NGO West Coast Development Foundation.

“For rural settings, where people are in dire need of services, they will obviously fall for those benefits because this is what is desperately needed,” Mesulam says. “If these things have been promised, then people will easily accept it.”

Born and raised just a few kilometers north of Kono, Mesulam has long heard the concerns of the communities about deep-sea mining. At one point, he was working as a teacher near the town of Namatanai, and he used his platform to help bring together a “coordinated campaign” against the Solwara I project.

Eventually, in 2016, the resistance melded into the Alliance of Solwara Warriors expressly to stop the seabed mining. Mesulam serves as the group’s coordinator and spokesperson.

From the outset, he says, the trickle of information about the project has been frustrating, and the apparent resurgence of Solwara 1 has followed the same trajectory, with no meaningful community consultation in Mesulam’s view.

In October 2022, representatives from Deep Sea Mining Finance or Nautilus Minerals Niugini met with provincial government authorities in Kavieng, he says, but the meetings didn’t include community leaders or members. Many did turn up, however, to protest outside the government offices alongside the Solwara Warriors, with banners calling for a ban on seabed mining in Papua New Guinea.

Mongabay’s request for comment from Edward Lasisi, the CEO of the New Ireland provincial administration’s economic sector, went unanswered.

According to a notice obtained by Mongabay, the federal government’s Mineral Resources Authority did hold hearings referencing an exploratory mining license originally held by the now-defunct Nautilus Minerals in two west coast villages on Feb. 6, more than a year after the first was originally scheduled.

Representatives of the Mineral Resources Authority didn’t respond to Mongabay’s questions about the substance of these hearings.

In the absence of seabed-specific legislation, the government has looked to the 1992 Mining Act as a proxy for how to govern the seabed within PNG’s territorial waters, says Anthony Walep, chief litigator with the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), a PNG-based nonprofit organisation. That law requires that communities are informed about projects that could affect them, he says.

“It calls for consultation,” Walep says, but what that word means isn’t always clear. “When we talk about the consultation, we talk about meaningful consultation, meaningful awareness, benefits, royalties, the pros and cons of the project.”

It shouldn’t involve just “one or two people” from the communities speaking for everyone, he adds.

Nor are many documents related to Solwara 1, either under its former or present license holder, publicly available. Canada-based Nautilus, the bankrupt former licensee, told shareholders in 2015 that it had carried out an environmental impact assessment before it received an environmental permit from the government in 2009. But the results of that assessment, including any possible drawbacks, aren’t clear, nor are questions about whether Deep Sea Mining Finance would have to update those findings.

Currently, Walep is representing the Solwara Warriors and Mesulam in an ongoing legal case that demands access to documents regarding the government’s agreements with Nautilus. The government’s lawyers have argued the documents are “commercial in nature” and therefore confidential, he says. But Walep and his team say some of the documents that aren’t yet public could shed light on how the company and the government approached the consultative process required by law.

“That’s what we want to know: whether they followed the process,” Walep says.

Tension often arises with the need to inform local communities about extractive activities that could impact their lives. Any company faced with the hurdle of obtaining consent on the way to profits from mining has a strong incentive to paint a rosy picture for communities, says Emily Greenspan, associate director of Oxfam America’s extractive industries team.

“There’s a conflict of interest there for sure,” Greenspan says. The government, on the other hand, has a duty to look out for its people’s interests and therefore should take the lead in informing and allowing communities to decide whether to agree to these sorts of projects, she adds.

“The problem is that some of these governments abdicate that responsibility.”

Watchdog groups, human rights advocates and consumers increasingly want to see that companies have followed protocols to obtain free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC, as laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In September 2023, Oxfam published a report outlining the importance of engaging communities in the FPIC process from the beginning, especially as the push for minerals necessary for the energy transition ramps up. The report’s authors looked at the policies in place by mining companies, large and small, as demand for the minerals used in batteries and electric vehicles has surged. They found that some companies didn’t even have policies in place, and if they did, they often “suffered from limitations.”

The Oxfam report focused primarily on terrestrial mining, where identifying affected communities and the impacts they could face can be more straightforward — though by no means simple or easy.

Still, a 2022 court ruling in South Africa could lay the foundation for coastal communities looking to secure their rights to livelihoods when they face the impacts of mining. In that case, lawyers representing small-scale fishers successfully argued that Shell’s seismic exploration for oil off the country’s Wild Coast would harm their clients. What’s more, they say their FPIC rights hadn’t been respected. The judge ruled that Shell couldn’t explore the area in question, a decision the oil company is currently appealing. If the ruling holds, it could serve as a model for communities who feel they haven’t been consulted.

“There’s a precedent now,” Greenspan tells Mongabay. The message to these companies is that “you need to stop this project until you consult with the fishing communities that are directly affected,” she adds.

Scientists step in

Just how coastal communities and the broader ocean will be affected by deep-sea mining remains an open question. But without solid answers, many scientists are urging a cautious approach.

“Essentially, we stand to lose parts of the planet before we know, understand and value them,” says Diva Amon, a marine biologist and scientific adviser to the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Still, Amon adds, scientists “are absolutely certain” that mining will exact a heavy toll on the benthos, the dark yet wondrously vibrant ecosystems along the seafloor. Mining vehicles will kill any animals in their path, she says, and obliterate habitats that may have taken millions of years to develop.

“What will happen if this ecosystem is disturbed?” Mesulam asks rhetorically. “It will take millions of years to recover.”

As more science has come out clarifying what has been a fuzzy picture of how mining could affect ecosystems deep below the ocean’s surface, more scientists have begun to support calls for caution, sometimes in unique ways. In 2023, scientists named a new-to-science species of tubeworm that lives in the Bismarck Sea’s Manus Basin in honor of PNG communities’ resistance to seabed mining: Alaysia solwarawarriors.

“I think many of us feel almost a moral imperative, given how quickly this industry is trying to move, to really raise our voices about the risks,” says Amon, also the co-founder and co-director of the Trinidad and Tobago-based science and conservation NGO SpeSeas.

More than 800 scientists and policy experts from 44 countries have signed onto a call for a deep-sea mining pause.

Adding to a growing body of research, Amon led a 2023 study published in the journal npj Ocean Sustainability revealing that climate change will likely push commercially important tuna species into the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), northeast of PNG in the international waters of the Pacific, setting up the potential for conflict that has led seafood industry groups to speak out against mining. The ISA has awarded more than 1 million square kilometers (nearly 400,000 square miles) of deep-sea mining exploration contracts in the CCZ — covering a quarter of its total area — as companies suspect it’s home to valuable minerals.

“Where we do still need more science is about the impacts of the plumes,” and how far into the surrounding ocean they will extend, Amon says, referring to clouds of seafloor sediment that mining will inevitably stir up.

Studies like one that appeared in 2023 in the journal Nature Communications have begun to provide clues as to how the ocean beyond mining sites might respond. A team of researchers led by Vanessa Stenvers examined the impacts of sediment, meant to simulate the plumes resulting from mining, on their study subject, the helmet jellyfish (Periphylla periphylla).

They found the jellyfish could cope by switching on cellular defense mechanisms and producing excess mucus to shrug off the unwanted sediment, which isn’t common in the “midwater” column that connects the benthos with the surface. The problem is that making mucus takes energy, says Stenvers — energy that’s already at a premium in this part of the ocean.

“There’s not a lot of food, so many animals have evolved this really slow metabolic pace,” adds Stenvers, a doctoral candidate at the GEOMAR Institute in Germany and the Smithsonian Institution in the U.S. Such rapid change to their environment could threaten their survival.

Corals, also Cnidarian invertebrates like jellyfish, might react similarly. That could spell trouble for the fish populations living on the reefs that are such an important source of food and livelihoods to villages like Kono.

The justification for mining the deep-sea — that is, water deeper than 200 m (660 ft) — is often that it can provide the minerals necessary for making the batteries that will power, among other things, electric vehicles. As a result, proponents of the industry argue that the benefits of addressing the rapidly warming global climate outweigh the costs to the marine environment.

Gerard Barron, perhaps the world’s most vocal supporter of seabed mining, has also suggested that mining the deep sea will be less destructive than extracting the minerals on land.

“Would I love it if everyone was celebrating this moving forward and skipping down the path saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to save our most biodiverse carbon sinks on Earth by leaving the rainforests in place and not pushing out Indigenous communities,’” Barron told Politico in 2023. He also said that harvesting metals from the ocean involves “a whole host of lower environmental impacts than the land-based alternatives,” according to a Reuters story.

Barron is CEO of The Metals Company, a Canadian outfit that aims to mine the CCZ in partnership with the South Pacific nation of Nauru. He was also an early backer of Nautilus Minerals but reportedly sold much of his stake after the company went public in the 2000s. The Metals Company is aiming to harvest nickel, cobalt and other minerals from rocks known as “polymetallic nodules.” It’s a different approach than Deep Sea Mining Finance would take at the Solwara 1 project site, which would involve collecting sulfide deposits that form around hydrothermal vents. (Other mining strategies focus on seafloor crusts and deep-sea mud.)

“There is no doubt that climate change is the biggest crisis facing our planet, and we urgently need to stem the impacts,” Amon says. But regardless of the approach, the land and the seafloor are “fundamentally different places,” she adds.

“Because of the limited knowledge we have of the deep sea, you just cannot weigh the two against each other,” Amon says. Nor will deep-sea mining lead to an end to terrestrial mining, she adds.

“There’s no future in which one will cancel out the other,” Amon says. “Instead, what we will see if deep-sea mining proceeds is destruction, both on land and in the deep ocean.”

No Plan B

As the afternoon sun descends toward the horizon, a stiff easterly breeze holds both the tropical heat and sandflies at bay, boosting Kono’s paradisiacal affect, with its drooping palms and powdery sand.

Mesulam holds a hand to his chest and exaggerates an inhale. Here, he says, “coming back” to the village, away from the relative hustle of Kavieng and a demanding international travel schedule as part of his crusade against seabed mining, he can relax.

At the same time, that idyll nurturing the culture he’s fighting to protect is under threat. Just as scientists puzzle over how climate change will raise sea levels, warm the oceans and cause the mass die-offs of corals, Mesulam worries over what those changes will mean for these communities’ homes, their families and their culture. At one point, he turns away from the shoreline and toward the forests sitting just inland. They rise steeply on a spine that bisects this part of New Ireland.

“We have the mountains right next to us,” Mesulam says. Their presence means that there’s no ready Plan B for people who inhabit the coast, particularly in a country where 97percent of the land is clan-owned and therefore already claimed.

Mesulam bristles visibly when the issue of climate change arises as a justification for accessing these minerals, whether off the coast of New Ireland or in the CCZ. It seems unlikely the metals surfaced here would have a big enough impact to protect these coastal communities from the marine heat waves, surging storms and rising sea levels that could result from climate change.

Nor would the cars they’d help build run on New Ireland’s unpaved roads anytime soon: Vehicles of any kind are rare here, and there’s no power grid to charge EVs. They will, however, ply smoother roadways in wealthier countries far across the sea.

“The idea of mining the seafloor to address climate change is … It’s not right,” Mesulam says.

“What is the guarantee that this project will have no impact on the environment?” he asks. “If there is no guarantee, then our livelihood is far more important. “That is our biggest concern,” Mesulam says.