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Earlier this year I blogged about the looming prospect of deep seabed mining and the efforts of ELAW’s partners in the Pacific Islands to protect vital ocean resources and coastal communities from the rush to mine the sea floor.  Environmental and community rights organizations have come together to inform citizens about the risks of deep seabed mining.  Advocates in Papua New Guinea (PNG), including ELAW partner Effrey Dademo, are at the front edge of this campaign because their government issued a license approving the first commercial seabed mining project in the region – Solwara I.

Advocates present seabed mining petition and legal opinion at the Pacific Islands Forum, August 2012. Image: Cook Islands News

The organizations brought their message to the Pacific Islands Forum, a meeting of regional political leaders held in late August in the Cook Islands.  Act Now!, the Pacific Network on Globalisation, and the Pacific Conference of Churches presented leaders with a petition signed by more than 8,000 people supporting a moratorium on seabed mining.  The petition was backed by a legal opinion urging leaders to employ a precautionary approach and defer decisions on seabed mining until the environmental impacts of this new technology are more clearly understood.

It seems the message is being heard.

Today, The National is reporting that PNG’s Minister for Environment and Conservation, John Pundari, is calling for public forums to discuss and debate the future of the Solwara I project.  Minister Pundari stated:

“I want these experts in oceanography, sedimentology, volcanologists, fisheries and marine ecology – including organisations such as universities, national research institutions, international and national NGOs, and other experts and leaders – to come together, present their cases, and debate the facts on aspects of the Solwara I project so we can all determine whether the government’s decision to approve the project was a good or bad decision.”

This is a remarkable turn of events because the PNG government, until now, has steadfastly refused to even acknowledge public opposition to seabed mining off the country’s coast.  Now there will be an opportunity for members of coastal communities and other ocean-dependent peoples to explain their views on seabed mining.  We look forward to these public forums!

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

A recent headline in my news reader caught my eye – “Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids.”  I thought for a moment that the article might be a joke.  It wasn’t.

The rising price of metals and rare earth minerals is driving a global mining frenzy, so it is not surprising that people are looking to exploit potential mineral resources in space.  Here on earth, ELAW is working with partners in at least 15 different countries on projects related to mining.  We review mining laws and provide recommendations for strengthening environmental and community protections, we conduct technical reviews of new mining proposals, and we provide assistance to advocates who are helping communities affected by mine pollution.  It seems that not a week goes by without a new mining-related project landing on someone’s desk.

Although asteroid mining only exists in imaginations of billionaires at this point, there is another new frontier for mining — deep seabed mining — which poses an enormous and imminent risk to our oceans.

It turns out that there are deposits of metals, such as gold and copper, near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.  One expert describes these vents as undersea hot springs where superheated, mineralized water rushes through the seabed and reacts with cold seawater to form chimney-like towers.  Only recently discovered in the last several decades, these vents are unique and relatively unknown ecosystems that flourish with life despite the lack of sunlight.  With improved technology, scientists are now able to explore and document the incredible creatures that live near these vents and they are discovering new species of fish, tube worms, crabs, and microorganisms.

There is still much to be learned about hydrothermal vents, but that is not stopping a handful of mining companies from rushing forward to mine metal deposits from the ocean floor.  ELAW partners in Papua New Guinea are opposing the world’s first commercial seabed mining operation by Canada’s Nautilus Minerals, Inc. that would strip deposits off the floor beneath the Bismarck Sea.  Other countries in the Pacific have issued seabed mining exploration licenses, or are about to.  Local communities are very concerned that seabed mining activities will cause significant harm to water quality, fisheries, and their economic livelihoods.

ELAW partner Effrey Dademo, and the non-governmental organizations Act Now! PNG and the Pacific Network on Globalisation, are hoping to mobilize public support for a petition that will be presented to Pacific leaders later this year asking them to take a precautionary approach to seabed mining.  Leaders in Australia’s Northern Territory have already heeded the call and issued a moratorium on seabed mining in coastal waters until 2015 so the impacts can be more closely studied before projects are considered.

Asteroid mining may seem unrealistic to some, but seabed mining is a real and imminent threat to our precious ocean resources.  It deserves global attention and concern before it is too late.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

Belize offers almost perfect habitat for bonefish, permit and tarpon, and ideal opportunities to pursue them with flies. Unfortunately, some shortsighted developers don’t care about the flats and the health of the marine environment.  They have already destroyed critical habitats, and more abusive projects are being planned:

  • The proposed South Beach mega-resort on Ambergris Caye would destroy roughly 500 acres of mangroves near Hol Chan Marine Reserve – essential habitat for the many bonefish that live and breed in the area.
  • In southern Belize, a proposed development on Big and Little Channel Cayes in the Southwater Marine Reserve, a World Heritage Site, would destroy mangrove, coral and sea grass beds – the perfect permit habitat that gives this area its reputation as the “Permit Capital of the World.”
  • Prime tarpon habitat has already been destroyed by dredging and construction of a development on Rendezvous Caye off the Placencia coast.

Fortunately, people who live in Belize are organizing to protect these fish and the habitat they need. Fishing guides, small hotel operators, and citizens are coming together to challenge environmental abuses and work toward a sustainable model of development that protects Belize’s unique marine habitats.  The Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development (ACCSD) in San Pedro and the Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD) on Placencia are young organizations that want to chart a sustainable future that protects the fish.

ACCSD and PCSD have teamed up with ELAW to ensure that the lessons learned through these efforts to protect fish habitat in Belize can be shared around the world through the ELAW network.

We have joined to form the Grand Slam Alliance, which will strive to:

1.  Stop the destruction of flats, mangroves, corals, and seagrass beds that are critical for fish;

2.  Assist with crafting master plans for coastal and island development that will protect valuable habitat;

3.  Work to strengthen and enforce laws and regulations aimed at protecting sportfish and their habitat;

4.  Educate communities about the importance of protecting habitat that is critical to the long-term survival of healthy fish populations;  and

5.  Help communities speak out to protect fish and critical habitat.

To learn more about the Grand Slam Alliance, visit our website: www.grandslamalliance.org

Belize Reef

ELAW is celebrating a landmark victory in Belize.  Last year a cargo vessel smashed into the Mesoamerican Reef, near Caye Glory in Belize, damaging 6,000 square meters of pristine reef.  Today, the Chief Justice ruled that the reef is not property but a living thing, and the shipping company must pay $11 million Belize dollars ($5.5 million US dollars).

Read more at Belize News 7.

This sets a fabulous precedent for grassroots advocates all over the world who are working to protect coral reefs.

ELAW staff provided legal and scientific  support to our partners in Belize regarding liability for the vessel grounding.  ELAW has worked for many years to protect the Mesoamerican Reef through law.

Maggie Keenan, Communications Director

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