Almost a year ago, Sandor Mulsow told China Dialogue Ocean that the body charged with both protecting the international seabed and developing rules to govern its exploitation, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), is in fact promoting mining. Mulsow is a former head of environment and minerals at ISA.
The allegation of lack of neutrality raised by Mulsow was not discussed at the most recent ISA assembly on 1–4 August this year, according to attendees interviewed by China Dialogue Ocean. Yet we are just nine months away from seabed mining potentially beginning under whatever regulations exist in July 2023.
That is because, in July 2021, the Republic of Nauru triggered an arcane rule that could obligate the ISA to allow exploitation within two years. One of the last official forums to debate all this before the deadline will be the final ISA session of the year, running from 31 October to 11 November.
The richest submarine area for these minerals is the Clarion-Clipperton zone, which spans 4.5 million square kilometres in the Pacific Ocean, between Mexico and Hawaii. Exploitation would begin here. Its proximity is of great concern not only to Mexico, but the whole continent.
We have sought the views of several Latin American experts. They all agree that there is very little scientific evidence about what we have (and stand to lose) on the seabed, and that the ISA is being permissive regarding the commencement of mining.
One of the main arguments given in favour of deep-sea mining is the need for minerals to accelerate the crucial transition to renewable energy. However, the interviewees point out that if mining is not well regulated, it would harm the heritage of humanity and future of the planet.
Mexico: ‘We are very concerned’
In 2016, a concession was awarded for the Don Diego mining project in Mexico, located off Baja California. The project aimed to extract 350 million tonnes of phosphate from the seabed over 50 years but it had no environmental impact study or prior consultation with local people. In the face of “strong opposition from fishing cooperatives, academic sectors and civil organisations”, the project was cancelled, explains Violeta Nuñez Rodríguez, a professor and researcher at Mexico’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, who has studied and published on sea mining.
“After what happened with Don Diego, we are very concerned about the impacts that could be generated by the beginnings of seabed mining, especially in the Clarion-Clipperton area, which is very close to our coasts. In the event of any impact, Mexico would be the first country to be affected,” she said. “There has been no in-depth debate on the issue in Mexico.”
As always, the most vulnerable will be the ones most affectedVioleta Nuñez Rodríguez, Metropolitan Autonomous University
Ignacio March Mifsut, director of evaluation and follow-up of Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, said at a forum in Mexico City in early October, that mining in the Clarion-Clipperton zone “is going to affect the entire Pacific of Mexico and also Central America”, but that to understand exactly how requires more research. March Mifsut says it is necessary “to monitor ecosystems, physical and chemical oceanographic processes,” before, during and after any mining activities. “We know that [Clarion-Clipperton] mining is here, and unfortunately we had to have it 30 kilometres away.”
Nuñez adds that it seems the ISA “doesn’t see the danger that exploitation and alteration of the different ecosystems could mean. If we already have a brutal problem in terms of climate change, I don’t want to imagine what it will be like when we start exploiting the seabed. It is a very complex situation to start activities without proper studies and clear regulations. And as always, the most vulnerable [people and other animal species] will be the ones most affected.”
Chile: ‘The ISA is dragging its feet’
“The main problem with sea mining is that they are accelerating the start of it without scientific knowledge,” Diego Lillo Goffreri, a lawyer with AIDA’s Ecosystems Programme and part of the NGO team present at the August ISA assembly, told China Dialogue Ocean.
Lillo Goffreri says the idea that deep-sea mineral deposits are needed to help build the technology that will transition the world towards renewables “is not agreed upon by the international community”.
“Exploring the [Clarion-Clipperton] area would mean disturbances that we have no idea about. Species perhaps not known to science could be seriously affected.” There has not much progress made in deep-sea research in recent times, he adds.
“Who will control international waters, who will regulate, how will the benefits that supposedly belong to all humanity be shared? There is no clear legislation. Before it promotes deep-sea mining, the ISA needs a modern legal vision that adapts to environmental challenges, that helps protect the planet” continues Lillo Goffreri. “The feeling we have is that the ISA is dragging its feet, rather than taking firmer decisions. Action must be taken before July next year.”
Costa Rica: ‘Lack of knowledge’
Costa Rica’s ambassador to Jamaica and representative at the ISA assemblies, Gina Guillén, is one of the most active people at the meetings.
She told China Dialogue Ocean: “This is an issue that concerns all of humanity, but only 40 countries attend the meetings. I don’t think it’s indifference. I think it’s more a lack of knowledge. For a long time, here in Jamaica [at ISA headquarters] things have gone by without a word being said and there hasn’t been much participation from the countries.”
She believes that as long as the decision-making process is not clear “no decisions should be made.” It is not possible to finish drafting regulations by July 2023, she says, adding that we should wait until we have enough scientific evidence before proceeding to mine. “We have to realise that we are putting the fate of the planet at stake.”
While experts such as Sandor Mulsow believe the ISA is pro mining rather than pro protection, Guillén is more cautious in her appraisal: “The Secretariat has to be neutral. That is its role. It has to be mindful of the importance of effective protection of the marine environment.” But she says “ISA needs to work more on transparency. Their processes are not transparent, they don’t have clear and uniform procedures. They need to improve on that.”
Another situation that worries Guillén is that according to the ISA’s agenda for the ongoing 31 October to 11 November meeting, “only two hours of the last day is allocated to discuss deep-sea mining and the beginning of activities. It has been relegated to something minor. The future of the planet is an add on. Half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean and we don’t seem to understand that”.
In this the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, Guillén is calling for “investment in research, concentrating on the Clarion-Clipperton zone, where all the current interest is, so that we can make more informed decisions.”
Peru: ‘More consultation need’
“I was at the mid-year meeting of the ISA, representing young people, and the feeling is that the ISA aims to eventually approve deep sea mining regulation, said Daniel Cáceres, representative of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance in Latin America. “There needs to be a global consultation of young people” to make these decisions, he added.
In addition to these demands, the marine biologist – who is part of a campaign to collect signatures against sea mining – believes there should also be an ecological and economic analysis of the damage that could be caused, considering the human populations that depend on the sea.
Juan Carlos Rivero, biologist and scientific director of the NGO Oceana Peru, adds that “nature and evidence show us that accidents always happen. That is why there is a need for well-regulated control in the exploitation zones. Down there, where nobody can see, they can do anything.”
In the late 1980s, two German scientists trialled mining in a manganese-rich area 4,000 kilometres off the coast of Peru. They raked about 20 square kilometres, causing a sediment plume that wiped out animals including sponges, soft corals and sea anemones. Twenty-five years later, when the last assessment was undertaken, these animals had barely recovered.
Rivero believes mining is bound to start at some point. “We have to be really prepared for it, not like we are at the moment,” he says. “We have to be clear that in such fragile ecosystems, any slightest alteration can have an incalculable cascade effect”.