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Cook Islands

Outrage as second country looks to mine ocean

The Cook Islands has hinted that it will most likely follow Nauru’s footsteps and milk the cash cow that lies five kilometres down on the seabed in the form of mineral nodules.

The nation’s biggest earner is tourism, while other earnings include money that flows back into the nation in the form of remittance, and the tuna industry. Agricultural exports died down in the 1990s.

The nation was one of the top suppliers of pineapple to canneries in New Zealand and was the major supplier of oranges for the Raro brand of juices. The juice brand took its name from the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.

Prime Minister Mark Brown disclosed the Cook Islands intention to diversify its economy as he met with New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta.

A machine designed to collect nodules from the sea floor. Picture Blue Abyss
A machine designed to collect nodules from the sea floor. The Cook Islands has hinted that it will most likely follow Nauru’s footsteps and milk the cash cow that lies five kilometres down on the seabed in the form of mineral nodules. Picture: Blue Abyss

“COVID-19 had a huge impact on our economy to the extent of dropping our economy, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by 25 percent,” Mr Brown said.

“At this moment the world is trying to transition to a green economy, the minerals and the metals that are required to enable this, exist in the nodules that we have in our ocean.

“This (deep sea mining) has the potential to match if not surpass the tourism industry that our country currently earns.”

New Zealand, which is in a Free Association agreement with the Cook Islands and allows the nation to use its currency and passport, has a different viewpoint on deep sea mining.

Ms Mahuta said it is a matter for the Cook Islands as it is a sovereign nation and the decision is entirely theirs.

“There is a common agreement that marine biodiversity and protection of our environment is very important to all of us,” Ms Mahuta said.

“It is also agreed that there needs to be an environmental protection framework established by the International Seabed Authority (ISA).”

In February this year, the Cook Islands awarded three companies licences to explore its seafloor to see if mining expensive minerals like copper, cobalt and manganese are viable, all important components in the manufacturing of batteries to power electrical devices.

The argument presented by Mr Brown is the same as Nauru Oceans Resources Incorporated (NORI) and Canadian miners the Metals Company, as they pursue to extract the first batch of minerals in the Clarion Clipperton Zone which lies along the seabed territory of Nauru, Cook Islands, Tonga and Kiribati.

New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta with Cook Islands prime minister Mark Brown. Picture Office of the PM Cook Islands
New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta with Cook Islands prime minister Mark Brown. Picture: Office of the PM Cook Islands

There has been no study done yet that will quantify accurately the damage done to the seabed and the surrounding ecosystem if extraction of the minerals start.

On one side there are island nations like Palau, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia and Vanuatu who have called for a moratorium on deep sea mining until scientific research gives the all clear.

On the other side are island nations for whom the minerals on the seabed means much improved economies as serious considerations are being made to tap into the US$20 trillion industry.

The Cook Islands also has a marine sanctuary called the Marae Moana but this does not extend to areas where the deep sea mining would take place.

Cook Islands noted environmentalist and marine scientist Teina Rongo is not convinced and definitely not happy with the way the lure of the dollar is being used to cover up a possible threat with global implications.

“We are not in any place or any situation where we can take a risk with the ocean. The ocean is already dying because of climate change impacts,” Mr Rongo said.

Te Ipukarea Society, a Cook Islands based conservation group believes that a venture such as deep sea mining requires effective governance structures and high standards of environmental protection.

Nodules that lie in the Cook Islands seabed. Picture: CI Seabed Minerals Authority
Nodules that lie in the Cook Islands seabed. The Cook Islands has hinted that it will most likely follow Nauru’s footsteps and milk the cash cow that lies five kilometres down on the seabed in the form of mineral nodules. Picture: CI Seabed Minerals Authority

Technical director Kelvin Passfield said they hope the Cook Islands Government will take a tougher stand at the ISA negotiations. These negotiations will then set the platform for a legal framework from the ISA which would govern deep sea mining.

“We urge our Government not to fast track mining in the Cook Islands waters until we have a better understanding of the potential consequences to the health of our ocean, fisheries, marine life, and future,” Mr Passfield said.

“This will take more time, and more effort at encouraging independent research in our waters. By independent, we mean not led by mining companies with a vested interest.

In this argument over deep sea mining, climate change is being used as a double edged sword where those in favour are saying that the minerals from the seabed are needed if transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy is needed.

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