Rare earths deposits prompt debate in French Polynesia
Conflicting views on who owns rare earths off French Polynesia .
France and lawmakers in French Polynesia cannot agree over who owns valuable seabed minerals believed to be in sizable quantities off the Marquesas islands.
So-called rare earths are highly sought after for use in devices like mobile phones, with China dominating the global market.
Politicians in Tahiti want a law change to secure such deposits but Paris says there is no need for that because they are already theirs.
Walter Zweifel has followed the debate.
WALTER ZWEIFEL: It seems there is a disagreement over what is considered a strategic resource. The president of the assembly Marcel Tuihani has tabled a resolution, asking for France to change the law so that the territory gets access to the sea bed with whatever can be found there. This is also a longstanding demand of the pro independence camp which says the matter should go to the UN decolonisation list. The French overseas minister George Pau-Langevin says that rare earth are not included in the French catalogues of strategic resources. She says what is on the list are substances needed to produce nuclear energy such as uranium, plus oil and gas reserves.
JAMIE TAHANA: So the two sides are talking about different things?
WZ: Yes, in part. The French minister wrote a letter to the government in Tahiti to clarify what she considers to be strategic resources. The question of surrendering the rights of the seabed is not touched on. The pro-independence side has hit back and accused her of thinking they had rocks in their heads. In a statement the opposition says a 1959 decree can be changed with a strike of a pen by the prime minister on instruction from the president. It says should any strategic substance be found in the zone of rare earth nodules, Paris would certainly seize it all without any chance of a recourse.
JT: You say there is quite a debate about it. Is such seabed mining imminent?
WZ: In the central and eastern Pacific, seabed mining is still only a long held aspiration. A couple of decades ago the Cook Islands was dreaming of becoming very wealthy by mining manganese nodules. In Tahiti hopes are being raised because the economy is struggling, tourism is not what it used to be a dozen years ago and unemployment has shot up. The debate has also been stirred by France to secure an extension of the rights to the continental shelf off New Caledonia, and now it wants to extend it in French Polynesia as well. Two years ago the French economic social and environmental council urged the government to secure seabed resources saying France would be negligent not to profit for them as French Polynesia has rare earths.
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