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Pacific islands as global frontier for Seabed mining

Pacific islands are set to become the global frontier for a new industry—the mining of minerals from the seabed. The industry carries plenty of potential for controversy, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone familiar with mining on land, in our region and elsewhere.How much of the proceeds will flow to the people of the Pacific? How will the industry affect communities? How many local people will be employed, and on what grade of job, with what working conditions? What will be the impact on nature? Who will really be in control?Pacific islands governments have been discussing and debating these questions for several years, and we have some proposed answers in the form of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework. Even so, the concerns I raised above are very real. They are, for example, causing significant delay to the Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea.This indicates that mining companies as well as governments need to take the peoples’ issues seriously. If they do not, operations will be disrupted and perhaps even cancelled. Last month, at the kind invitation of Minister Anthony Lecren of New Caledonia, I had the honour of discussing these issues with representatives of other Pacific states and territories at the Oceania21 environment meeting. I outlined what I see as the issues and challenges facing Pacific islands as we address this new frontier. And I was struck by the level of concern, both for local communities and for the environment. But I was also struck by the potential of the industry to help our islands, if it is done properly.Prices for copper, silver and palladium rose fivefold between 2004 and 2011; if the right deals are struck with companies mining these minerals from our seabed, some of these high prices can benefit our people. The so-called “rare earth” elements such as neodymium, dysprosium and samarium are especially important in the “green economy”, in technologies such as wind turbines and electric cars, which can help industrial countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.PREPARE FOR SEABED MININGSo I would endorse the views expressed at various times over the last year by a number of senior figures in our region, including Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu; SOPAC Director Dr Mike Pettersen; and SPC Director-General Dr Jimmie Rodgers.We need to prepare for the era of seabed mining; we need a tough set of rules on social and environmental criteria, preferably turned into national laws.(Aliki Faipule Foua Toloa is Minister for Energy of Tokelau, former Ulu [head of government] and Commissioner on the Global Ocean Commission. This statement was made by Faipule Foua Toloa in his capacity as a Commissioner of the Global Oceans Commission. It was not made on behalf of the Government of Tokelau and should not be taken as representing the means of the Government of Tokelau.)