1 Nov 2013

Cook Islands prepares for seabed mining but concerns abundant

5:50 pm on 1 November 2013

The Cook Islands government says the country is preparing well to benefit from the rich store of minerals on its seabed.

And it says things are well in hand to ensure the country does not become a guinea pig in the frontier industry surrounding seabed mineral extraction.

But there is concern it is being too pushy on the issue.

Sally Round has been in Rarotonga and filed this report.

Beyond the surf pounding the reefs which encircle the Cooks 15 far-flung islands lie huge and valuable mineral deposits. The small round lumps known as nodules lie on the sea-floor about 5 to 6 kilometres down. They contain base metals such as manganese, nickel, cobalt and titanium and they're being eyed by multinationals keen to supply a growing global market for high-tech devices.

"MARK BROWN: Valuations on the amount of minerals on the sea floor range into the billions of dollars."

The Minister for Seabed Minerals, Mark Brown, says the government is in discussion with a number of international companies over exploration rights.

MARK BROWN: It's significant deposits that are down there, but we still have to get further information as to how much of this would be available to and is viable for exploitation.

Even though the technology for commercial mining, or 'harvesting' as the industry prefers it to be called, is not expected to be on stream until after 2020, the Cook Islands already has legislation and an authority in place. I've come to the Seabed Minerals Authority to find out more about the nodules and their location. The Authority is tasked with ensuring the seabed minerals sector is developed in a steady and informed manner, maximising benefits to the people and taking into account economic and social impacts. The Minister Mark Brown says the Cooks is also setting up a Sovereign Wealth Fund and looking at a beneficial tax regime.

MARK BROWN: We've seen in the last few years in terrestrial mining in countries like Australia the attempts to put in a super tax to realise super profits, if you like, when the price of minerals spikes up. So all of these things we're looking at and taking into consideration to ensure that the country receives a fair share of any of the revenue that's derived from our minerals that are exploited from our waters.

But the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Wilkie Rasmussen, says the government is driving through a message of the economic benefits seabed mining would bring and it's a way of diverting attention from more pressing issues like depopulation. He doesn't think much of the government's efforts at consultation.

WILKIE RASMUSSEN: If consultation is to be done, it needs to be taken to the people of the outer islands. You have a handful of people that go to several meetings that they hold here in Rarotonga and they take that to justify that that process has been done. I see it more as the government ticking off the boxes. It's not full consultation. I don't think it's representative at all of the Cook Islands people.

Wilkie Rasmussen's sentiments are echoed by some of the country's traditional leaders. Although the House of Ariki has given its blessing to the idea of exploring the potential for seabed mining, it wants to see the environment protected as the sea is the food basket for its people. The President of the House of Ariki, Tou Ariki, says people in the outer islands are waiting to hear from the Seabed Minerals Commissioner.

WILKIE RASMUSSEN: Outer island people, they don't know what really is happening. I know the commission has been overseas. It should be concentrating on going to our own people first and telling our own people what is happening now.

An environmental watchdog in the country, the Te Ipukarea Society, is working closely with the Seabed Minerals Authority to ensure the Cooks Islands takes a precautionary approach. One of its board members, Teina McKenzie, says more awareness needs to be raised in the Cooks around environmental concerns.

TEINA MCKENZIE: So far, the only consultation that has gone out has been about the money that can be earned from this industry. That has to be balanced with the realistic impacts on our environment. We have to be very careful about that as a large ocean state.

An official from the island of Mangaia, Poroa Arokapiti, says the people there are fifty/fifty about the idea of mining, which they have learnt about during consultations on the marine reserve.

POROA AROKAPITI: 50% really agree and the other 50 don't know. They don't understand what seabed mining is. And I believe those who agree, they still don't know what seabed mining is. The rumour is there's more money - millions and millions of dollars are going to come to the Cook Islands, which is a good thing. But I believe if there's money coming, it should be shared among the islands.

The Cook Islands whale sanctuary spans three million square kilometres of the country's waters and the Cooks is a centre for whale research. Sheryl John of the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre fears the lack of information about seabed mining and its possible effects on sea creatures.

SHERYL JOHN: It's the fear of the unknown, to a point, because I don't think anyone really know what result this is going to have. The bottom of the sea has always been untouched. It's a really important part of the whole of the marine life that happens in the deep ocean. If we go in there and rape and village everything from the bottom of the ocean, which is until now untouched, I'm really concerned about what that is going to mean.

Opposition MP Sel Napa also worries about the unknown.

SEL NAPA: I would rather see someone else mine, and then let's wait and see what their result is, what effect it will have on their environment and the people and their food cupboard. Because us Pacific island people, we love our fish, and we like to see the fish still around in our ocean.

The Cook Islands announced the setting up of its Marine Reserve the largest in the world last year. But the Minister for Seabed Minerals, Mark Brown, says it won't preclude the harvesting of seabed nodules. He says the government wants to ensure good environmental protection measures are in place to safeguard the Cook Islands pristine waters and its present number one earner, tourism, as well as other marine resources.

MARK BROWN: We don't see ourselves as a guinea pig, we see ourselves more as pioneers and leaders in this particular field. It's important that when we do get into any sort of negotiations we do have the best information possible so that we can make informed decisions. But it's important that we lead any future development in seabed mineral mining and that we're not being led. It's a learning process. A lot of what we know about the bottom of the sea at 5,000 metres... As somebody once told me, I think we know more about the dark side of the moon than we know about what's down 5,000 metres below us.

Mark Brown says exploration licenses are expected to be issued within six years.