Editor’s note: As industrial civilization devours the natural resources of the Planet, it leaves destruction in its wake. Since this system always depletes the land rather than operating on sustainable yield, it necessitates imperialism of new lands. This piece examines a new frontier in the war being waged against the planet: deep sea mining.
A previous Climate & Capitalism article, Capitalism’s growing assault on the oceans, argued that the world is entering “a new phase in humanity’s relationship with the biosphere, where the ocean is not only crucial but is being fundamentally changed.” It cited research that described and graphed capital’s growing drive to industrialize the oceans and sea beds — a process that some scientists have dubbed the Blue Acceleration.
Interest in deep-sea mining for copper, cobalt, zinc, manganese and other valuable metals has grown substantially in the last decade and mining activities are anticipated to begin soon. Deep-sea mining poses significant risks, not only to the area immediately surrounding mining operations but also to the water hundreds to thousands of feet above the seafloor, threatening vast midwater ecosystems.
Currently 30 exploration licenses cover about 580,000 square miles of the seafloor on the high seas and some countries are exploring exploitation in their own water as well. Thus far, most research assessing the impacts of mining and environmental baseline survey work has focused on the seafloor.
However, large amounts of mud and dissolved chemicals are released during mining and large equipment produces extraordinary noise—all of which travel high and wide. Unfortunately, there has been almost no study of the potential effects of mining beyond the habitat immediately adjacent to extraction activities.
“This is a call to all stakeholders and managers,” said oceanography professor Jeffrey Drazen, lead author of the article. “Mining is poised to move forward yet we lack scientific evidence to understand and manage the impacts on deep pelagic ecosystems, which constitute most of the biosphere. More research is needed very quickly.”
The deep mid-waters of the world’s ocean represent more than 90 percent of the biosphere, contain 100 times more fish than the annual global catch, connect surface and seafloor ecosystems, and play key roles in climate regulation and nutrient cycles. These ecosystem services, as well as untold biodiversity, could be negatively affected by mining. The paper provides a first look at potential threats to this system.
“Hawai” is situated in the middle of some of the most likely locations for deep-sea mining,” said Drazen. “The current study shows that mining and its environmental impacts may not be confined to the seafloor thousands of feet below the surface but could threaten the waters above the seafloor, too. Harm to midwater ecosystems could affect fisheries, release metals into food webs that could then enter our seafood supply, alter carbon sequestration to the deep ocean, and reduce biodiversity which is key to the healthy function of our surrounding oceans.”
Editor’s note: Deep-sea mining is a sign of addiction. Only a culture driven by a death urge masquerading as a profit-production-motive could contemplate destroying some of the largest and most intact remaining habitats on Earth and call it “green.” One of the first companies that may begin deep sea mining is The Metals Company, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada. TMC plans to extract nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese from “polymetallic nodules” dredged from the deep seafloor in an area of international waters called the Clarion Clipperton Zone southwest of San Diego. The company claims that mining the oceans is less harmful to the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a biocentric organization, Deep Green Resistance is opposed to deep-sea mining — and indeed, all industrial mining. Mining is the one of the most destructive industries on the planet in terms of habitat destruction, pollution, and social injustice. Modern industrial civilization is fully dependent on mining, and as an organization dedicated to dismantling industrial civilization, we oppose and will fight all industrial mining activities. We put the planet first.
This week, the International Seabed Authority, the intergovernmental body tasked with overseeing deep-sea mining in international waters, concluded its recent set of meetings, which ran from July 4 to Aug. 4, 2022.
The purpose of these meetings was to progress with negotiations of mining regulations, with a view that deep-sea mining will start in July 2023 after the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered a rule that could obligate this to happen.
While many countries appear to support the rapid development of these regulations, an increasing number of other countries have expressed concern with this deadline, indicating a possible turn of events.
It starts with tiny deep-sea fragments — shark’s teeth or slivers of shell. Then, in a process thought to span millions of years, they get coated in layers of liquidized metal, eventually becoming solid, lumpy rocks that resemble burnt potatoes. These formations, known as polymetallic nodules, have caught the attention of international mining companies because of what they harbor: rich deposits of commercially sought-after minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese — the very metals that go into the batteries for renewable technologies like electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels.
But while some experts say we must mine the deep sea to combat climate change, others warn against it, saying we know too little about the damage that seabed mining would cause to the ocean’s life-sustaining properties.
Actual extraction has yet to begin, but in June 2021, the small Pacific island country of Nauru pushed the world closer to this possibility by notifying the International Seabed Authority — the intergovernmental body that oversees mining in international waters — that it had triggered a two-year rule in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This rule would theoretically allow it to start mining in June 2023 under whatever mining rules are in place by then. Nauru itself doesn’t have a mining company with this interest, but it sponsors a subsidiary of Canada-based and U.S.-listed The Metals Company.
Since then, the ISA has been working to negotiate a set of regulations that would allow it to follow the two-year rule. But at the latest set of meetings that took place between July 4 and Aug. 4 in Kingston, Jamaica, progress on the mining code appears to have stalled, observers reported.
“Overall, the feeling in the room is that there’s now a majority of states that are recognizing that it’s unrealistic, unachievable, and would be highly irresponsible,” Emma Wilson, a conservation expert who attended the recent ISA meetings as a representative of the NGO OceanCare, told Mongabay.
Representatives from several countries, including Spain, Chile, New Zealand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Trinidad and Tobago, made the case that the mining regulations shouldn’t be rushed to meet the obligations of the two-year rule. Spain’s representative, for instance, said that “as a precaution, the time has come to take a break,” while Costa Rica’s representative said “because we are responsible for the Common Heritage of Humankind, for our peoples and for future generations, we must act with caution.” (The UNCLOS defines the seabed and its resources as “the common heritage of mankind.”)
However, other countries, such Australia, the U.K., Tonga, and Nauru itself, took the position that regulations should be approved without delay. Tonga’s representative said the nation stood “ready to support work of Authority and relevant bodies especially for completion of regulatory frameworks in [a] timely fashion while assuring due diligence where appropriate.” Even France stated that it was committed to adopting “a legal framework with rigorous environmental protections to ensure that harm to ecosystems in the marine environment is minimized.” This position seemed to be in contrast to President Emmanuel Macron’s statement at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon at the end of June that “we have to create the legal framework to stop high seas mining and not to allow new activities that endanger ecosystems.”
On July 25, Chile’s delegation presented a letter to the ISA Secretariat, requesting that a discussion about the two-year rule become an agenda item at the assembly portion of the meetings, which began on Aug. 1. But this request was ignored, OceanCare’s Wilson said. Instead, the ISA Secretariat relegated it to the end of the meeting in the “any other business” category, which “undermined it,” and the ISA Secretariat even closed the meetings a day early, she added.
“One thing that became very, very evident this week is that the ISA Secretariat is doing everything that it can to brush the conversation under the carpet about [whether] there is another possibility of not adopting the regulation,” Wilson said.
Mongabay previously reported on concerns about transparency at the recently concluded ISA meetings, including accusations that the ISA had restricted access to key information and hampered interactions between member states and civil society.
Despite the many setbacks, Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), told Mongabay that he was observing a change happening in the negotiations.
“There’s a broad recognition that unless something really surprising happens, these regulations are not only unlikely to be adopted by July 2023, but they’re probably not likely to be adopted for several years at least,” said Gianni, who attended the meetings as a representative of EarthWorks, an NGO that works to shield communities and the environment from the negative impacts of extractive activities.
Gianni added that the ISA council has also yet to agree upon the financial mechanisms under which mining could operate, which need to be put into place, in addition to the regulations, before the ISA can issue exploitation licenses. However, he said it’s still unclear whether deep-sea mining will officially be stalled.
“It’s a bit like the Titanic,” Gianni said. “We’re starting to see the rivets popping and the thing is slowly starting to turn. But is it going to miss the iceberg and head in the direction of protecting the marine environment? That’s still an open question.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Editor’s note: O Canada!Welcome to the new wild west. If you liked Deepwater Horizon you will love Deep Sea Mining. This statement pretty much sums it up, “countries could have their chance to EXPLOIT the valuable metals locked in the deep sea.”Corporations love to deal withpoorer, less developed countries who can do less by way of supervision because they lack greater resources and capacity.
“Like NORI, TOML began its life as a subsidiary of Nautilus minerals, one of the world’s first deep-sea miners. Just before Nautilus’s project in Papua New Guinea’s waters failed and left the country $157 million in debt, its shareholders created DeepGreen. DeepGreen acquired TOML in early 2020 after Nautilus filed for bankruptcy, the ISA said the Tongan government allowed the transfer and reevaluating the company’s background was not required.”
And mining royalties are paid to the ISA. If this doesn’t sound fishy, I don’t know what does. There never should be a question as to what a corporation’s angle is. Their loyalty always is to the stockholders.
Citizens of countries that sponsor deep-sea mining firms have written to several governments and the International Seabed Authority expressing concern that their nations will struggle to control the companies and may be liable for damages to the ocean as a result.
Liability is a central issue in the embryonic and risky deep-sea mining industry, because the company that will likely be the first to mine the ocean floor — DeepGreen/The Metals Company — depends on sponsorships from small Pacific island states whose collective GDP is a third its valuation.
Mining will likely cause widespread damage, scientists say, but the legal definition of environmental damage when it comes to deep-sea mining has yet to be determined.
Pelenatita Kara travels regularly to the outer islands of Tonga, her low-lying Pacific Island home, to educate fishers and farmers about seabed mining. For many of the people she meets, seabed mining is an unfamiliar term. Before Kara began appearing on radio programs, few people knew their government had sponsored a company to mine minerals from the seabed.
“It’s like talking to a Tongan about how cold snow is,” she says. “Inconceivable.”
The Civil Society Forum of Tonga, where Kara works, and several other Pacific-based organizations have written to several governments and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to express concerns that their countries may end up being responsible for environmental damage that occurs in the mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an expanse of ocean between Hawai‘i and Mexico.
“The Pacific is currently the world’s laboratory for the experiment of Deep Seabed Mining,” the groups wrote to the ISA, the U.N.-affiliated body tasked with regulating the nascent industry. As a state that sponsors a seabed mining company, Tonga has agreed to shoulder a significant amount of responsibility in this fledgling industry that may threaten ecosystems that are barely understood. And if anything goes wrong in the laboratory, Kara is worried that Tonga’s liabilities could exceed its ability to pay. If no one can pay for remediation, Greenpeace notes, that may be even worse.
“My concern is that the liability from any problem with deep-sea mining will just be too much for us,” Kara says.
Another Pacific Island state, Nauru, notified the ISA in June that a contractor it sponsors is applying for the world’s first deep-sea mining exploitation permits. The announcement triggered the “two-year rule,” which compels the ISA to consider the application within that period, regardless of whether the exploitation rules and regulations are completed by then.
Among the rules that may not be decided upon by the deadline is liability: Who is responsible if something goes wrong? Sponsoring states like Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati — which all sponsor contractors owned by Canada-based DeepGreen, now The Metals Company — are required to “ensure compliance” with ISA rules and regulations. If a contractor breaches ISA rules, such as causing greater damage to ocean ecosystems than expected, the contractor may be held liable if the sponsoring state did all they could to enforce strict national laws.
However, it’s not yet clear how these countries can persuade the ISA that they enforced the rules, nor how they can prove that they are able to control the contractors, when the company is foreign-owned. The responsibility of sponsoring states to fund potentially billions of dollars in environmental cleanup depends on the legal definitions of terms like “environmental damage” and “effective control,” which may be as murky two years from now as they are at present.
Myriad problems may occur in the mining area: sediment plumes may travel thousands of kilometers and obstruct fisheries, or damage could spread into other companies’ areas. Scientists don’t know all the possible consequences, in part because these ecosystems are poorly understood. The ISA has proposed the creation of a fund to help cover the costs, but it’s not clear who will pay into it.
“The scales of the areas impacted are so great that restoration is just not feasible,” says Craig Smith, an oceanography professor emeritus at the University of Hawai‘i, who has worked with the ISA since its creation in 1994. “To restore tens or hundreds of thousands of square kilometers would be probably more expensive than the mining operation itself.”
Nauru voices concerns
Just over a decade ago, before Nauru agreed to sponsor a deep-sea mining permit, the government worried that it was going to find itself responsible for paying those damages. The government wrote to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, voicing concerns about the liability it could incur. As a sponsoring state with no experience in deep-sea mining and a small budget to support it, the delegation wanted to make sure that the U.N. did not prioritize rich countries in charting this new frontier in mineral extraction. Nauru and other “developing” countries should have just as great an opportunity to benefit from mining as other countries with more experience in capital-intensive projects, they argued.
Sponsoring states like Nauru are required to ensure their contractors comply with the law but, the delegation wrote, “in reality no amount of measures taken by a sponsoring State could ever fully ‘secure compliance’ of a contractor when the contractor is a separate entity from the State.”
Seabed mining comes with risks — environmental, financial, business, political — which sponsoring states are required to monitor. According to Nauru’s 2010 request, “it is unfortunately not possible for developing States to perform their responsibilities to the same standard or on the same scale as developed States.” If the standards of those responsibilities varied according to the capabilities of states, the Nauru delegation wrote, both poor and rich countries could have their chance to exploit the valuable metals locked in the deep sea.
“Poorer, less developed states, it was argued, would have to do less by way of supervision because they lacked greater resources and capacity,” says Don Anton, who was legal counsel to the tribunal during the decision on behalf of the IUCN, the global conservation authority.
The tribunal, issuing a final court opinion the next year, disagreed. Each state that sponsored a deep-sea miner would be required to uphold the same standards of due diligence and measures that “ensure compliance.” Legal experts generally regarded the decision well, because it prevented contractors from seeking sponsorships with states that placed lower requirements on their activities. However, according to Anton, the decision meant that countries with limited budgets like Nauru have only two choices when they consider deep-sea mining: either sponsor a contractor entirely, or avoid the business altogether.
According to the tribunal’s decision, “you cannot excuse yourself as a sponsoring state by referring to your limited financial or administrative capacity,” says Isabel Feichtner, a law professor at the University of Würzburg in Germany. “And that of course raises the question: To what extent can a small developing state really control a contractor who might just have an office in that state?”
Nauru had just begun sponsoring a private company to explore the mineral riches at the bottom of the sea Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), initially a subsidiary of Canada-based Nautilus Minerals, transferred its ownership to two Nauru foundations while the founder of Nautilus remained on NORI’s board. As a developing state, Nauru said, this kind of public-private partnership was the only way that it could join mineral exploration.
Nauru discussed the tribunal’s decision behind closed doors, according to a top official there at the time, and the government sought no independent consultation, hearing only guidance from Nautilus. Two months after the tribunal gave its opinion, Nauru officially agreed to sponsor NORI.
After the tribunal’s decision, the European Union recognized that writing the world’s first deep-sea mining rules to govern companies thousands of miles away would be a tall order for countries with little capacity to conduct research.
The EU, whose member states also sponsor mining exploration, began in 2011 a 4.4 million euro ($5.1 million) project to help Pacific island states develop mining codes. However, by 2018, when most states had finished drafting national regulations, the Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG) found that the mining codes did “not sufficiently safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples or protect the environment in line with international law.” In addition, in some cases countries enacted legislation before civil society actors were aware that there was legislation, says PANG executive director Maureen Penjueli.
“In our region, most of our legislation assumes impact is very small, so there’s no reason to consult widely,” she says. “We found in most legislations is that it is assumed it’s only where mining takes place, not where impacts are felt.”
For Kara, mining laws are one thing, but enforcement is another. Sponsoring states must have “effective control” over the companies they sponsor, according to mineral exploration rules, but the ISA has not explicitly defined what that means. For example, the exploration contract for Tonga Offshore Mining Limited (TOML) says that if “control” changes, it must find a new sponsoring state. When DeepGreen acquired TOML in early 2020 after Nautilus filed for bankruptcy, the ISA said the Tongan government allowed the transfer and reevaluating the company’s background was not required.
Kara questions whether Tonga can adequately control TOML, its management, and its activities. TOML is registered in Tonga, but its management consists of Australian and Canadian employees of DeepGreen. It is owned by the Canadian company. Since DeepGreen acquired TOML, the only Tongan national in the company is no longer listed in a management role.
“It’s not enough to be incorporated in the sponsoring state. The sponsoring state must also be able to control the contractor and that raises the question as to the capacity to control,” Feichtner says.
When Kara’s Civil Society Forum of Tonga and others wrote to the ISA, they argued Canada should be the state sponsor of TOML, considering TOML is owned by a Canadian firm. In response, the ISA wrote that the Tongan government “has no objection” to the management changes, so no change was needed.
“Of all the work they’re doing in the area, I don’t know whether there’s any Tongan sitting there, doing the so-called validation and ascertaining what they do. We’re taking all of this at face value,” Kara says. With few resources to track down people who live in Canada or Australia, Kara is worried that Tonga will not be able to hold foreign individuals accountable for problems that may arise.
In merging with a U.S.-based company, DeepGreen became The Metals Company and will be responsible to shareholders in the U.S. The U.S., however, has not signed on to the U.N. convention that guides the ISA, and as such is not bound by ISA regulations, the only authority governing mining in the high seas.
“What I think is pretty clear is that ‘effective control’ means economic, not regulatory, control,” says Duncan Currie, a lawyer who advises conservation groups on ocean law. “So wherever it is, it’s not in Tonga.”
On Sept. 7, Tonga’s delegation to the IUCN’s global conservation summit in France joined 80% of government agencies that voted for a motion calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until more was known about the impacts and implications of policies.
“As a scientist, I am heartened by their decision,” says Douglas McCauley a professor of ocean science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The passage of this motion acknowledges research from scientists around the world showing that ocean mining is simply too risky a proposition for the planet and people.”
Tonga’s government continues to sponsor an exploration permit for TOML. According to the latest information, Tonga and TOML have agreed that the company will pay $1.25 in royalties for every ton of nodules mined. That may amount to just 0.16% of the value of the activities the country sponsors, according to scenarios presented to the ISA by a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Royalties paid to the ISA and then distributed to countries may be around $100,000.
Nauru’s contract with NORI stipulates that the company is not required to pay income tax. DeepGreen has reported in filings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that royalties will not be finalized until the ISA completes the exploitation code. With the two-year rule, NORI plans to apply for a mining permit, regardless of when the code is written.
“The only substantial economic benefit [Nauru] might derive is from royalty payments, and these are not even specified yet. and on the other hand, it potentially incurs this huge liability if something goes wrong,” Feichtner says.
Like NORI, TOML began its life as a subsidiary of Nautilus minerals, one of the world’s first deep-sea miners. Just before Nautilus’s project in Papua New Guinea’s waters failed and left the country $157 million in debt, its shareholders created DeepGreen.
“I am afraid that Tonga will be another Papua New Guinea,” Kara says. “If they start mining and something happens out there, we don’t have the resources, the expertise, because we need to validate what they’re doing.”
DeepGreen has said it is giving “developing” states like Tonga the opportunity to benefit from seabed mining without shouldering the commercial and technical risk. DeepGreen did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.
“I’m still trying to figure out their angle. Personally, I think DeepGreen is using Pacific islanders to hype their image. I’m still thinking that we were never really the target. The shareholders have always been their target,” Kara says.
She says she doubts the minerals at the bottom of the ocean are needed for the world to transition away from fossil fuels. In a letter to a Tongan newspaper, Kara wrote, “Deep-sea mining is a relic, left over from the extractive economic approaches of the ’60s and ’70s. It has no place in this modern age of a sustainable blue economy. As Pacific Islanders already know — and science is just starting to learn — the deep ocean is connected to shallower waters and the coral reefs and lagoons. What happens in the deep doesn’t stay in the deep.”
Editor’s note: We know less about the bottom of the sea than we know about outer space. We really require no scientific evidence to know that mining is bad for the environment wherever it occures. It should not be done on land, under the sea or on other planets. The ISA needs to reject the deep sea mining industry’s claims that mining for metals on the ocean floor is a partial solution to the climate crisis. As Upton Sinclair said, “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” We can see this with the archeologist working for Lithium America in Thacker Pass. An interesting film to watch on the twisted relationship between science and industry is The Last Winter.
The high cost of studying deep-sea ecosystems means that many scientists have to rely on funding and access provided by companies seeking to exploit resources on the ocean floor.
More than half of the scientists in the small, highly specialized deep-sea biology community have worked with governments and mining companies to do baseline research, according to one biologist.
But as with the case of industries like tobacco and pharmaceuticals underwriting scientific research into their own products, the funding of deep-sea research by mining companies poses an ethical hazard.
Critics say the nascent industry is already far from transparent, with much of the data from baseline research available only to the scientists involved, the companies, and U.N.-affiliated body that approves deep-sea mining applications.
When Cindy Van Dover started working with Nautilus Minerals, a deep-sea mining company, she received hate mail from other marine scientists. Van Dover is a prolific deep-sea biologist, an oceanographer who has logged hundreds of dives to the seafloor. In 2004, Nautilus invited Van Dover and her students to characterize ecosystems in the Manus Basin off Papua New Guinea, a potential mining site with ephemeral hydrothermal vents teeming with life in the deep ocean.
Van Dover was the first academic deep-sea biologist to conduct baseline studies funded by a mining company, an act considered a “Faustian pact” by some at the time. Since then, more deep-sea biologists and early-career scientists aboard research vessels funded by these firms have conducted such studies. But partnering with mining companies raises some thorny ethical issues for the scientists involved. Is working with the mining industry advancing knowledge of the deep sea, or is it enabling this nascent industry? While there are efforts to disclose this scientific data, are they enough to ensure the protection of deep-sea ecosystems?
“I don’t think it’s sensible or right to not try to contribute scientific knowledge that might inform policy,” Van Dover said. With deep-sea mining, she added, “we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and complain when it goes wrong.”
More than half of the scientists in the small, highly specialized deep-sea biology community have worked with governments and mining companies to do baseline research, according to Lisa Levin, professor of biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Collecting biological samples in the deep sea is expensive: a 30-day cruise can cost more than $1 million. The U.S. National Science Foundation, the European Union and the National Science Foundation of China have emerged as top public funders of deep-sea research, but billionaires, foundations and biotech companies are getting in on the act, too.
Governments and mining companies already hold exploration licenses from the U.N.-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) for vast swaths of the seafloor. Although still in an early stage, the deep-sea mining industry is on the verge of large-scale extraction. Mining companies are scouring the seabed for polymetallic nodules: potato-shaped rocks that take a millennium to form and contain cobalt, nickel and copper as well as manganese. Nauru, a small island in the South Pacific, earlier this year gave the ISA a two-year deadline to finalize regulations — a major step toward the onset of commercial deep-sea mining. The ISA is charged with both encouraging the development of the deep-sea mining industry and ensuring the protection of the marine environment, a conflict of interest in the eyes of its critics.
The Metals Company, a mining company based in Vancouver, Canada, formerly known as DeepGreen, recently said that it spent $75 million on ocean science research in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific. The company has established partnerships with “independent scientific institutions” for its environmental and social impact assessments. Kris Van Nijen, managing director of Global Sea Mineral Resources said, “It is time, unambiguously and unanimously, to back research missions … Support the science. Let the research continue.” UK Seabed Resources, another deep-sea mining firm, lists significant scientific research that uses data from its research cruises in the CCZ.
The ISA requires mining companies to conduct baseline research as part of their exploration contracts. Such research looks to answer basic questions about deep-sea ecosystems, such as: what is the diversity of life in the deep sea? How will mining affect animals and their habitats? This scientific data, often the first time these deep-sea ecosystems have been characterized, is essential to assessing the impacts of mining and developing strategies to manage these impacts. Companies partner with scientific institutions across the United States, Europe and Canada to conduct these studies. But independence when it comes to alliances with industry is fraught with ethical challenges.
“If deep-sea science has been funded by interest groups such as mining companies, are we then really in a position to make the decision that is genuinely in the best interest of deep ocean ecosystems?” asks Aline Jaeckel, senior lecturer of law at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “Or are we heading towards mining, just by the very fact that mining companies have invested so heavily?”
The ethics of independent science
There’s a risk of potential conflicts of interest when scientists are funded by industry. While mining companies often tout working with independent scientists, in company-sponsored research vessels, “having somebody independent on board would be somebody who has presumably no financial affiliation in any way shape or form,” says Levin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
When working with mining companies to collect baseline data, scientists are compensated through funding, which can be as high as $2.9 million, for their research labs. Many go on to publish journal articles based on data gathered on company-sponsored ships, advancing science in a relatively unknown realm where access is expensive and sparse.
While knowledge of the deep sea has advanced in recent decades, scientists are still trying to learn how these ecosystems are connected and the impact of mining over longer periods of time. The deep pelagic ocean — mid-water habitats away from the coasts and the seabed — is the least studied and chronically undersampled. There is also a dearth of deep-sea data for the Pacific, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, where researchers (and mining companies) are increasingly focusing their attention.
For mining companies, science adds legitimacy, argues Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist and director of SpeSeas, Trinidad and Tobago. “I think they recognize the value of science in appealing to consumers … and stakeholders as well.”
Being funded by industry is not an issue if scientists are able to publish their research without restrictions, even if results are negative for the contractor, says Matthias Haeckel, a deep-sea biologist who is coordinating a mining impact project in the CCZ, funded by the European Union. “The question is if it’s up to this degree of independency, and that’s difficult to know from the outside … for me it’s sometimes a transparency issue. It’s not clear what the contracts with the scientists are.”
For some scientists, the key difference between being funded by an entity like the National Science Foundation versus the industry is control. Mining companies can ask scientists to sign nondisclosure agreements because companies in competition are concerned about the details of their sampling programs being made public, says Jeff Drazen, a deep-sea scientist at the University of Hawai‘i who is conducting research funded by The Metals Company. While there is a general understanding that scientists are free to publish their research, there can be embargos on when the research is released and requirements for consultation with the contractors.
“Many of them want you to sign an NDA before you can even talk to them. With the current contract we have with The Metals Company, none of our people have signed NDAs, and that was one of the reasons we decided to work with them,” Drazen says. “This is a common part of the business world to sign these NDAs — and that is antithetical to science, so that’s a cultural shift for most of us academics.”
The ISA has issued guidelines for baseline studies, but the decision of what and how much to sample rests on the company and scientists involved. “Scientists have to be careful not to necessarily be driven entirely by what the person funding the research wants,” says Malcolm Clark, a deep-sea biologist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. “We’ve got to be very objective and make it very clear what’s required for a robust scientific project, and not just respond to the perceived needs of the client. Easy to say — very, very difficult to actually put into practice.” Clark also sits on the Legal and Technical Commission, a body within the ISA tasked with assessing mining applications.
‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’
Scientists are still trying to fathom the depths of our oceans, both to understand the sensitive ecosystems that thrive there, and the minerals that can be extracted from polymetallic nodules that have formed over millennia. Less than 1% of the deep sea has been explored. The interest in exploiting ocean minerals is coupled with advancements in scientific research. A study published earlier this year found that deep-sea research languished when this interest in exploitation waned in the 1980s and ’90s.
For baseline research, “if this fundamental first-time characterization of these ecosystems is going to be done, it should be done by experts, so there’s quality assurance,” Levin said in a lecture in 2018 on the ethical challenges of seabed mining. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t at some level.”
There’s also the perceived conflict of interest: the intangible effects of working closely with industry representatives, where collecting data means going out together on a research vessel for several weeks at a time.
“We’re humans, we’re building relationships, and going to sea is a particularly bonding experience because you’re out there isolated and working together. I cannot imagine how that kind of relationship will not at some point interfere with scientific judgment,” says Anna Metaxas, a deep-sea biologist at the Dalhousie University in Canada, whose research has not been funded by mining companies. It’s not the collection of data that Metaxas is concerned about, “it’s what you do with the data and how you end up communicating to whom and when.”
“What I’m noticing with many PIs [primary investigators] working with mining contractors is that they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them,” says Amon. “As a result, they are less willing to speak to the public and the press, which is really unfortunate.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that according to two people familiar with the matter, Jeff Drazen was facing the possibility of having his funding revoked after publicly criticizing seabed mining. In an interview with Mongabay, Drazen declined to comment on the matter.
Other prominent scientists who work with mining contractors did not respond to interview requests for this article.
The trouble with DeepData
Since the ISA started giving out exploration contracts, the data that contractors collected was kept in a “black box” for more than 18 years, hidden from the world with the key in the hands of the contractors, the scientists who conducted this research, and a few people within the ISA. Because academics are involved, some of this data and analysis would eventually become available as peer-reviewed scientific literature.
In 2019, the ISA developed DeepData, a public database where contractors are required to submit the baseline data they collect. But the only data available to the public is environmental data. Resource data, particularly related to polymetallic nodules that are of interest to mining contractors, is off-limits and remains proprietary. The distinction between environmental and resource data is a “gray area,” according to Clark. What is deemed confidential is up to the mining contractors and the secretary-general of the ISA.
“Miners are going after the components of the habitat,” says Craig Smith, a deep-sea scientist at the University of Hawai‘i. “But we can’t really assess the abundance of that habitat without knowing the abundance of the nodules.” In fisheries, for example, industry-sensitive data is aggregated to help with management decisions, but such data is considered proprietary for the nodules.
The metallic content of these nodules is also a trade secret, though the information could be relevant for environmental assessments. Toxicity from broken-down ores could be created in the sediment plumes or wastewater that’s reinjected in the water column as a byproduct of the mining process, potentially affecting fish and other biodiversity. Where exactly in the water column mining companies will discharge the wastewater is also confidential.
Drazen, whose research (funded by The Metals Company) is looking at mining impacts on the midwater column, says the mining process will discharge mud and chemicals. “There’s a whole suite of potential effects on a completely different ecosystem above the seafloor. We depend upon the water column ecosystem … a lot of animals we like to eat … forage on deep-sea animals,” he says. The discharge of metals and toxins over potentially large areas could contaminate seafood. A recent study suggests that elements in discharge waters could spread further than mining areas, affecting tuna’s food, distribution, and migration corridors. There is increasing evidence that tuna, swordfish, marine mammals and seabirds rely on deep-sea fish, and foraging beaked whales could also be diving down to the seafloor in search of food.
DeepData is experiencing teething problems. A workshop to assess biodiversity for the CCZ in 2019 found inconsistencies in the data, making it difficult to synthesize across the CCZ. Different sampling methods can make it difficult to provide a cohesive picture.
“There’s still a bit of work in progress with DeepData. But certainly, the willingness is there to have it serving people with appropriate needs,” Clark says. “We do still need to be careful of the commercial confidentiality as it relates to the geochemical information in particular.”
The ISA did not respond to requests for comment.
An opaque decision-making body
The structure of the ISA, particularly its de facto decision-making body, the Legal and Technical Commission, is also fraught with transparency challenges. The Legal and Technical Commission assesses mining applications, which currently involve exploration contracts for the deep sea, but all of its meetings are held behind closed doors. The commission is composed of 30 experts nominated by their countries — some by governments that also hold exploration contracts — with only three deep-sea biologists on board.
“Even if some mining companies might genuinely fund what might be considered independent science, we still end up with a problem that the decision about whether or not to mine and the decision around environmental management of seabed mining rests entirely on data that is provided by the mining companies,” says Jaeckel of the University of New South Wales. “There is a lot of trust placed on mining companies.” There is no way to independently verify this data either, because deep-sea science is expensive, she adds. The degree to which companies are accurately reporting the baseline data to the ISA is not clear.
The commission is the only body within the ISA that sees the content of contractor’s applications, so the baseline data that contractors submit to be able to monitor impacts are only visible to the commission. There is an audit of the scientific data by the commission which reviews a contractor’s confidential annual reports. And then there’s public scrutiny of environmental impact assessments by NGOs.
Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Metals Company, is “going to have to produce something really good,” says Clark of the company’s upcoming environmental impact assessment. Clark is a deep-sea biologist who was nominated to sit on the commission by New Zealand, which does not hold an exploration contract with the ISA. “Otherwise, the whole industry’s potential will be affected because it will taint the view of public and NGOs as to what contractors are doing — are they doing a serious and good job at the underlying research or are they trying to cut corners and push the ISA into making hasty decisions?”
That baseline research with industry might enable mining is “a very naïve perspective,” adds Smith of the University of Hawai‘i. “My gut feeling is that mining will go forward. It would be really wise to just permit one operation to go forward initially and monitor the heck out of it for 10 years. That would make a lot more sense than permitting multiple operations without even knowing what the real footprint will be in terms of disturbance.”
Editor’s Note: The Halmahera Island in Indonesia is the only known home to the Hongana Manyana tribe. Unfortunately, it is also the home to vast reserves of nickel. Mining companies are now evading the indigenous rights and ecological rights of the inhabitants of the island, as well as of the island herself, to steal the nickel. The nickel is going to be used for manufacturing electric cars. The following piece is taken from Survival International.
Nickel Mining Threatens Uncontacted Hongana Manyana Tribe in Indonesia
The Hongana Manyawa – which means ‘People of the Forest’ in their own language – are one of the last nomadic hunter gatherer tribes in Indonesia, and many of them are uncontacted.
They have a profound reverence for their forest and everything in it: they believe that trees, like humans, possess souls and feelings. Rather than cut down trees to build houses, they make their dwellings from sticks and leaves. When forest products are used, rituals are performed to ask permission from the plants, and offerings are left out of respect.
The Hongana Manyawa root their whole lives to the forest, from birth to death. When a child is born, the family plant a tree in gratitude, and bury the umbilical cord underneath: the tree grows with the child, marking their age. At the end of their lives, their bodies are placed in the trees in a special area of the forest that is reserved for the spirits.
If there is no more forest, then there will be no more Hongana Manyawa.
Providing for themselves almost entirely from hunting and gathering, the Hongana Manyawa are nomadic; setting up home in one part of the forest before moving on and allowing it to regenerate. They have unrivalled expertise in the Halmahera rainforest, hunting wild boar, deer and other animals and maintaining a close connection with the sago trees – now threatened by deforestation from mining – which provide their main source of carbohydrate. They also have incredible medicinal knowledge and can treat many sicknesses with local plants, although this has become increasingly difficult following the new diseases brought by forced contact and resettlement in villages.
It’s more convenient for me to keep moving because the food is much more diverse and available, I can go hunting regularly. Permanently staying in the village is very uncomfortable and there is a lack of food.
Avoiding contact to stay alive
The arrival of the mining companies is just the latest threat to the Hongana Manyawa and their land. In recent decades, Indonesian governments have repeatedly tried to force contact onto the Hongana Manyawa, with the aim of stopping their nomadic way of life and evicting them from their ancestral forest home. They say this is to “civilize” them: they have tried to settle the Hongana Manyawa and have built Indonesian-style houses for them. The Hongana Manyawa say these new houses, with roofs made of metal sheets rather than palm leaves, made them feel “like animals in a cage”.
We are so happy living by the forest with different kinds of meat and food, where we can collect roof materials so we can replace the zinc roof the government has built for us.
As with uncontacted tribes the world over, forced contact has proved disastrous for the Hongana Manyawa. They were immediately exposed to diseases to which they had no immunity – from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, terrible outbreaks of diseases which the Hongana Manyawa refer to as “the plague” affected the newly-settled villages, leading to widespread suffering and even death.
We had many different diseases when first settled, some of the sickness led to deaths, some people had fever that went on for days and nights and endless coughing for days and even weeks.
The contacted Hongana Manyawa also serve as convenient scapegoats for the police, who frequently blame them for crimes they have had nothing to do with. Several of them have been imprisoned for murders they did not commit and have languished in jail for many years.
It’s better to live in the forest so we don’t get accused of these things. We feel unsafe and many of the men moved into the forest and then came to get their wives and families. Some are deep in the forest…they are deeply traumatized.
Far from being respected for their unique and self-sufficient ways of living, the Hongana Manyawa experience severe racism and are regularly described by Indonesian officials and the media as ‘primitive’. There is a widespread belief that they would benefit from ‘integration’ into wider society: a belief that comes with disastrous and deadly consequences.
Many Hongana Manyawa are now living in government-built villages. Many others – traumatised by the government’s forced settlement attempts, like other peoples around the world who have experienced forced contact – have returned to their forest.
The uncontacted Hongana Manyawa have made it clear time and time again that they do not want to settle or have outsiders coming into their forest. They are very much aware of the dangers – including fatal epidemics of disease – which forced contact brings. As with the uncontacted Sentinelese tribe of India, it is little wonder that they are defending their lands and shooting arrows at those who force their way in.
But now they face the threat not just of being forced out of the forest that sustains them, but of seeing it all destroyed by corporations rushing to provide a supposedly ‘sustainable’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ lifestyle to people thousands of miles away.
‘Green’ mining threatens the lives of uncontacted tribal people
The greatest threat to the Hongana Manyawa today comes from a supposedly ‘green’ industry.
Their rainforest sits on lands rich in nickel, a metal increasingly sought after as an ingredient in the manufacture of electric car batteries. Indonesia is now the world’s largest producer of nickel, and Halmahera is estimated to contain some of the world’s largest unexploited nickel reserves. Nickel is not essential for these batteries, but now that the nickel market is booming, mining companies are homing in and tearing up huge swathes of rainforest.
The uncontacted Hongana Manyawa are on the run. Without their rainforest, they will not survive. These cars are marketed as ecofriendly alternatives to fossil fuel powered cars, but there is nothing ecofriendly about the way nickel is being mined in Halmahera.
It goes without saying that uncontacted tribes cannot give their Free, Prior and Informed Consent to exploitation of their land – which is legally required for all ‘developments’ on Indigenous territories under international law.
Nevertheless, Weda Bay Nickel (WBN) – a company partly owned by French mining company Eramet – has an enormous mining concession on the island which overlaps with Hongana Manyawa territories. WBN began mining in 2019 and now operates the largest nickel mine in the world. Huge areas of rainforest which the Hongana Manyawa call home have already been destroyed. The company plans to ramp up the mining to many times its current rate and operate for up to 50 years.
If we don’t support the fight for their forest, my uncontacted relatives will just die. The forest is everything, it is their heart and life. My parents and siblings are in the forest and without support they will die. Everything in the forest is getting destroyed now – the river, the animals, it is gone.
The Indonesian government claims that nickel mining is “critical for clean energy technologies” yet coal-fired power stations are being constructed at IWIP to process the nickel. The International Energy Agency estimates that 19 metric tons of carbon are released for every metric ton of nickel smelted and there is evidence from a similar project in Sulawesi of this leading to respiratory diseases for locals. Not only is this mining (accompanied by roads, smelters and other huge industrial projects) devastating the Hongana Manyawa’s rainforests, it is also polluting the air and damaging the rivers. The processing of nickel is often highly toxic, involving a host of chemicals which produce almost two metric tons of toxic waste for every metric ton of ore processed.
They are poisoning our water and making us feel like we are being slowly killed.
Eramet, Tesla and connected companies
International companies are involved, directly or indirectly, in the mining of uncontacted Hongana Manyawa land.
WBN is a joint venture between several companies, but French company Eramet is part-owner and responsible for the mining itself. Eramet prides itself on its environmental and human rights credentials, claiming that it will “set the standard” and “be a benchmark company” when it comes to human rights. Yet it continues to mine on the territory of the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa.
Survival has learned that German chemical company BASF is also planning to partner with Eramet to build a refining complex in Halmahera and that a possible location for this may be on uncontacted Hongana Manyawa territory. This would be devastating for the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa in the area, who are already in hiding from mining.
Survival has been told that uncontacted Hongana Manyawa are now fleeing further and further into the rainforest, traumatized by the attacks on their forests and way of life.
Trees are gone and replaced with the big road, where giant machines go in and out making noise and driving the animals away.
Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle company, has signed contracts worth billions of US dollars to buy Indonesian nickel and cobalt for its batteries. Its CEO Elon Musk has also had high level negotiations with the Indonesian government to open an electric car battery factory in the country. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has even offered Tesla a ‘nickel mining concession.’
Tesla’s Indigenous rights policy states: “For all raw material extraction and processing used in Tesla products, we expect our mining industry suppliers to engage with legitimate representatives of indigenous communities and include the right to free and informed consent in their operations.”
Yet Tesla has now signed deals with Chinese companies Huayou Cobalt and CNGR Advanced Material, both of which have links to nickel mining in Halmahera. While supply chains are secretive and often obscure, Tesla’s interests in Indonesia and the scale of the planned mining in Halmahera make it possible that nickel mined from Halmahera could well end up in Tesla cars.
I do not give consent for them to take it…tell them that we do not want to give away our forest.
Demand for electric cars is driving the destruction of uncontacted people’s lands.
Rather than destroying yet more of the natural world, and the people who defend it, in the name of combating climate change, we should be supporting uncontacted tribes to defend their rainforests and their land rights; they are the guardians of the green lungs of the planet.
We the Hongana Manyawa, do not want a mining company to come, because it will destroy our forest. We will protect this forest as much as we can. If the forest is destroyed, where will we live?
Take Urgent Action for the Hongana Manyawa
The Hongana Manyawa are running out of forest and running out of time. They desperately need international support to stop the destruction of their homelands before it’s too late.
The Hongana Manyawa’s land rights must be recognised. Survival is calling for the declaration of an emergency zone for the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa. Around the world, Survival has successfully campaigned for the land rights of uncontacted tribes, defending them from outsiders bringing in deadly diseases and devastating development projects which could destroy them.
We are calling for:
– Eramet and the other companies mining in Halmahera, to immediately abide by international law and stop mining and other developments on the lands of uncontacted tribal people.
– Tesla and other car companies to publicly commit to ensure that none of the nickel or cobalt they buy ever comes from the lands of the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa in Halmahera.
– The Indonesian government to establish an ‘Uncontacted Tribe No-Go Zone” to protect the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa and their territories.
With your support, the territories of the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa can be protected from mining so that they can continue to live as they choose on their own land.
I want to share my knowledge with my grandchildren and those who want to learn how to eat and live in the forest.
Please tell Tesla to pledge that none of the minerals they buy ever comes from the lands of uncontacted Indigenous people in Halmahera – and let the mining companies, and the Indonesian authorities, know you’ve done so.