Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 12:34 AM, Nov 23, 2020

Companies interested in conducting seabed minerals exploration work in Cook Islands have until December to put in their Expressions of Interest.

This was announced by Prime Minister Mark Brown in an elaborate ceremony last week which officially launched the exploration licensing phase of seabed minerals exploration in the Cook Islands.

“I, the Minister for Seabed Minerals, officially declare blocks of Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone available for exploration,” Brown said. “I now invite applications from interested parties to apply for exploration licenses in our waters.  The licensing process will be administered by the Seabed Minerals Authority.  The closing date for application is the 11 of December 2020.”

“My word of advice to interested applicants: put your best foot forward.  This is a long term partnership so we the government want to ensure that whoever we allow to operate in our waters will put forward the best exploration work programme and would leave the best outcomes for our country and our people,” Brown added. 

If mining does eventuate, Cook Islands would be the second country in the Pacific to venture into seabed mining, following Papua New Guinea. PNG was the first nation globally to allow seabed mining in its waters when it granted Canadian company Nautilus Minerals a mining license in 1997.

Nautilus has since become bankrupt, abandoning a project that had cost the PNG Government over US$100million in failed investment in the company.

Although the sources of minerals in the two countries are very different – PNG involved the extraction of Seafloor Massive Sulphides(SMS) from hydrothermal vents while in the Cook Islands, any mining activity will focus on extraction from manganese nodules – seabed mining in general is being vigorously opposed in the Pacific by environmentalists, individuals, NGOs and church groups. Other countries such as Fiji have put in place a moratorium on seabed mining until more scientific information becomes available.

But Cook Islands is known to be sitting on a potentially lucrative minerals lode in its manganese nodules, which its Government now wants to tap into as it tries to lessen its economy's heavy reliance on tourism, currently in cold storage due to COVID-19.

The nodules were first discovered there by Russian scientists 50 years ago and since then, a number of scientific expeditions have been carried out in Cook Island waters, firming up a scientific data base on the nature, size and value of its undersea fortunes. 

One early study in 2001 by Japanese scientists in collaboration with SOPAC had estimated the value of minerals in the nodules to be in the trillions of dollars and enough to supply global demand “for the next 500 years”.    

Another study a decade later by Imperial College marine geochemist David Cronan, estimated that the Cook Islands’ roughly two million square kilometres of EEZ contained 10 billion tonnes of manganese nodules, rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals and worth tens of billions of dollars as these metals are used in the manufacture of communication technologies (batteries) and in smart and green technologies. 

Commercial mining however was dependent upon the availability of suitable technology, which hadn’t been possible until very recently.    

For Cook Islands, the decision to finally allow exploration to formally begin came after years of groundwork in the creation of relevant laws and governance mechanisms that try to balance environmental concerns with the necessity to convert the potentials of the nodules into economic opportunities.

“To be clear, this is not a process that happened overnight.  It has taken many years and the efforts and hard work of many people, together with exhaustive consultation with all stakeholders, including our traditional leaders, village communities and most importantly our Pa Enua (outer islands) to conclude the preparatory work so that we can be ready to move into this next phase,” said Prime Minister Brown. 

“The sector has the potential for setting up a transformational future for the Cook Islands, one that will secure the prosperity of current and future generations of Cook Islanders.  When extracted in an environmentally responsible manner, the metals found in the nodules, such as nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt have the potential to help meet our SDGs.  To achieve that, we are building a seabed minerals sector based on best principles and practices, supported by a robust legal framework to benefit the Cook Islands and our people in harmony with our high environmental, social and cultural values.”

“With the resurgence of global demand for strategic metals such as cobalt, the Cook Islands has received interests from potential explorers wishing to undertake exploration activities in our waters.   We as a government wanted to make sure that we have our legal framework and our operational systems and processes in place before we open up our waters for exploration,” Brown said.

Much is also riding on the wealth from the nodules to help the country mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“There is a major shift globally towards a society based on renewable energy and technology.  In order to achieve a low carbon economy, the World Bank estimates that more than three billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed by the year 2050.  The demand for cobalt alone is going to increase by nearly 500 percent to meet the growing demand for clean energy.  Many of these critical minerals are found in the deep seabed.  Our Cook Islands nodules contain a high concentration of these minerals and are vital to the transition to a low carbon economy.  Again our ocean holds the key to meeting some of the world’s greatest challenges such as combating climate change and ensuring affordable and clean energy for all,” said Brown. 

In 2012, the Cook Islands Government set up its Seabed Minerals Authority to administer all relevant work and in anticipation that seabed mining will transition to become a full-fledged industry in the future.  

The Authority’s Commissioner Alex Herman described the exploration licensing process as “a major step towards achieving the vision for our seabed minerals sector.” 

“Much has been achieved. Much remains to be done. However I am confident in the processes that we have set up and that we have a sound foundation on which to build the Authority’s core role, which is to administer, manage and regulate the conduct of seabed minerals activities in our waters,” Herman said. 

“Our licensing framework contains a number of independent checks and balances such as our independent licensing panel and a separate permit body for environmental approvals.  It also requires that key environmental principles are upheld and met.  Equally important, it serves the interest of our communities, for example through our advisory committee who will share and make recommendations to the Authority on community perspectives,” she added. 

COVID, climate and oceans were high on the agenda, as foreign ministers and officials from around the region met online on 14 October, for the 2020 Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting (FFMM).

This year’s ministerial summit focussed on the COVID-19 crisis and post-pandemic recovery; actions to address the ongoing challenge of climate change; policy on oceans and the impact of sea level rise on maritime boundaries; and finalising an agenda to place before the virtual meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders, likely to be held in early November.

Each year, a Forum Officials Committee meets to discuss the draft agenda for the annual Forum, and thrash out initial draft language that can square the circle over sensitive issues. In 2015, a Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting was added to the list of regional meetings, designed to free up more time for Presidents and Prime Ministers to talk freely amongst themselves at the annual leaders’ summit.

Pandemic response

Opening the online FFMM, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor noted the success of regional co-operation in the early days of the pandemic: “Using available regional mechanisms such as the Biketawa Declaration and the Boe Declaration, we were able to achieve a world first with the establishment and operationalisation of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19, our regional response platform which has been able to move around 47,000 kilograms or 466 cubic metres  of medical and humanitarian supplies through our region.”

The regional response to COVID-19 initially prioritised the distribution of medical supplies, testing kits and technical assistance. But Forum member countries, especially those without any confirmed cases of coronavirus, are increasingly looking at the social and economic damage caused by border closures and disrupted trade and tourism.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe chaired the ministerial summit and spoke to journalists after the meeting. He highlighted “the need to address the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 crisis on vulnerable groups, including persons with disability, the elderly and women and girls - an issue faced by the full Forum membership.”

One ongoing challenge for smaller island states is to organise the return of citizens who have been working or studying abroad. Kiribati and Tuvalu are seeking assistance from the United Nations and neighbouring countries to bring home seafarers and seasonal workers who must transit through regional travel hubs like Auckland, Nauru or Nadi. The Tuvalu Foreign Minister recognised that many of his own nationals have found it hard to return home and “hundreds of i-Kiribati seafarers are amongst those in limbo as they were at sea, awaiting repatriation home and they’ve been stuck for many months.”

The FFMM proposed further discussions on a regional quarantine facility and travel bubbles to allow the transit of affected workers.

Simon Kofe stressed that developing countries need economic support during the recovery, but also ongoing medical assistance: “Ministers highlighted the need for cooperative, multilateral approaches to allow equitable access to trusted and certified COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines and ensuring their accountable and transparent procurement and distribution.”

Dame Meg Taylor confirmed that access to vaccines was a crucial next step in the regional response: “Our governments have been working very closely with different groupings to make sure that the Pacific secures vaccines. We had a very strong commitment from the Australian Prime Minister during this meeting that Australia would make sure that as they access vaccines, they would ensure that the Pacific was also able to access that vaccine.”

At a time of geopolitical contest in the region between China and the ANZUS allies, the Forum Secretary General diplomatically noted that Australia was not the only potential source for vaccines: “The leaders - all of them, hopefully - will be emphasising that we get our fair share of the vaccines and this is not just through Australia and New Zealand. If there are opportunities for vaccines from elsewhere that have been cleared, I know there is some of our countries that are working with different groupings to ensure that those vaccines will be available.”

The foreign ministers discussed a common statement “Protecting the health and well-being of the Blue Pacific”, to be presented to leaders and then to the forthcoming Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on COVID-19 in December.

Climate policy

In her opening speech to the meeting, Dame Meg Taylor stated: “Notwithstanding COVID-19 and whether there is a vaccine today or tomorrow, we will continue to face a more pressing challenge, the existential threat of climate change and its related impacts.”

The Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) was the first Pacific country to lodge an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and has been calling on fellow Forum members to put forward more ambitious NDCs.

After the FFMM, RMI Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Casten Nemra said: “The Pacific region reaffirmed at ministerial level the determination to uphold the Paris Agreement and to deliver new, more ambitious nationally determined contributions in this fifth anniversary year of the landmark international accord. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new climate ambition in the Pacific is indispensable to our building back better.”

Secretary General Taylor acknowledged that “for some countries, coming through with NDCs may pose some internal challenges,” but said the FFMM had reaffirmed the regional policy adopted at last year’s Forum Leaders Meeting in Funafuti: “The ministers reaffirmed their support for the ‘Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Action Now ’ and that is as important this year as it was last year.”

Marshall Islands is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and is using this position to leverage greater action on climate change. At the FFMM, Foreign Minister Nemra obtained regional support from his counterparts to campaign for a UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights. Fiji is currently another island member of the UNHRC, and backed this initiative in the meeting.

Nemra explained: “In endorsing the creation of a dedicated new UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights, the Pacific region will remain at the forefront of ambitious new actions to uphold rights threatened by the climate emergency facing all societies. We look forward to working with the entire region and the international community, as well as within the UN Human Rights Council, to secure this vital new mandate for overcoming the climate crisis by next year.”

This year’s 26th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Glasgow (COP26) was deferred because of the pandemic, but there are still regional and global efforts to increase ambition before the meeting, to be held in late 2021. The outcome of November’s Presidential election in the United states will have a major impact on the Paris Agreement, but Pacific island nations are also looking for greater climate action from their Kiwi neighbours, following Saturday’s elections in New Zealand.

Just days after the FFMM, the major victory of the NZ Labour Party in national elections will impact regional as well as domestic policy. Under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Labour now holds a majority in its own right. The elections saw the political demise of former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters, a long-standing figure on the national and regional stage. Peters’ NZ First party failed to meet the 5 per cent threshold to be represented in Parliament and his departure from the former governing coalition removes a constraint on New Zealand’s climate ambition.

This was highlighted the day after the NZ election, with Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama welcoming Jacinda Ardern’s victory in a tweet: “Proud to see my friend @jacindaardern score a historic victory. With a full embrace of a #netzerocommitment by 2050, this was also a landslide win for the climate. Your friends in Fiji are ready to keep moving with our work to make the Pacific and our planet a better place.”

The 2019 leaders meeting in Funafuti saw close collaboration between Bainimarama and Ardern, leaving Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison isolated in his opposition to more urgent, ambitious targets on greenhouse gas emissions and reduced use of fossil fuels.

Forum communiques usually include enough wiggle room to allow members to paper over their differences on climate policy, but the FFMM’s reaffirmation of the Kainaki II Declaration places the Morrison Government in a difficult position. Kainaki calls on parties to the Paris Agreement “to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020. This may include commitments and strategies to achieve net zero carbon by 2050.”

The Morrison government has refused to adopt such a strategy, even though a broad coalition of Australian organisations – from environmental groups to the National Farmers Federation and Business Council of Australia – have supported the objective of net zero emissions by 2050. Despite the recent adoption of a “technology road map” on climate, Morrison may face increasing pressure at this year’s Forum leaders meeting over Australia’s lack of ambition on emissions reduction.

Dame Meg Taylor suggested that attempts to water down a Forum consensus on climate action would not constrain island nations in the lead up to COP26: “What we really need to do is to ensure that the Kainaki II Declaration is the basis for our discussion. However there was discussion and acknowledgement that there are other groupings too like the PSIDS, AOSIS and also the Higher Ambition Coalition that many of our member states - particularly the island countries - do belong to. They are going to push hard to make sure that the commitments under the Paris Agreement are met.”

Beyond climate, the Forum Foreign Ministers discussed regional oceans policy, despite the disruption of Blue Pacific advocacy during the UN Year of the Ocean. With Palau scheduled to host a regional oceans summit in December, the Forum will consider establishing a subcommittee to continue work on defining legal maritime boundaries.

At the meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced that the new ‘Pacific Fusion Centre’, currently operating from Canberra, will be based in Vanuatu. The centre will collate information from security and fisheries agencies across Pacific Island countries to provide more comprehensive “real time maritime domain awareness.”

Online leaders’ summit

The 2020 Forum leaders meeting was originally scheduled for August in Vanuatu, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of independence. However health and travel restrictions in the COVID-free nation led to the postponement of a face-to-face meeting. Since then Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, the current Forum Chair, has been negotiating with other leaders to finalise a date for a virtual summit, with a restricted agenda.

Beyond key agenda items of the post-pandemic recovery and climate policy, this year’s meeting must make a decision on the appointment of a new Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, as Dame Meg Taylor ends her second term of office next January.

Speaking after the FFMM, Tuvalu's Foreign Minister Simon Kofe said that Prime Minister Natano was still working to finalise a date for the online summit, which should be decided within days: “The process will be determined by the leaders. But in terms of dates, we are looking at November. The majority of members have expressed their preference for the first week of November.”

Five Micronesian leaders have threatened to withdraw from Forum activity if their candidate for Secretary General, RMI’s Gerald Zackios, is not appointed to the post. But Simon Kofe believes that the issue will be resolved, noting: “It's something that the leaders will look into. We are certainly very concerned about the threat from the Micronesians to pull out from the Forum.”

Summing up a successful meeting, Kofe said: “It’s been an extraordinary year this year. We are coming to the end of 2020 and I would say that we faced a number of challenges this year and there are more challenges ahead of us. But as the Pacific, we can draw on our culture and our values to be able to maintain our unity and our resilience through these testing times.”

“For the Pacific, the impact of climate change will remain as the greatest threat to our Pacific people in the longer term. You can quarantine COVID-19, but climate change cannot be quarantined.”

That’s Exsley Taloiburi, climate change finance adviser at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Suva.

This month, the annual Forum Economic Ministers Meeting (FEMM) went online, to discuss the regional response to the coronavirus pandemic. The meeting focussed on the social and economic effects of border closures, increased health spending, the collapse of tourism and associated job losses. But Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor was quick to acknowledge the region was dealing with compounding and interconnected challenges: “Today, we are now faced with three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and the ongoing climate crisis.”

The final FEMM outcomes statement agreed: “We recognise the three-pronged crisis currently facing the region – the impact of COVID-19, the devastating effects of climate change and natural disasters, and the fragile economic health of the region as a consequence of inherent vulnerabilities.”

Tuvalu’s Minister of Finance Seve Paeniu was chair of FEMM 2020. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Paeniu stressed that these combined crises affect states like Tuvalu, that do not have any confirmed cases of coronavirus: “Even though we are COVID-19 free, we are already feeling the flow-on impact in terms of the financial drain on our resources, in terms of our health systems, to ensure that our capacity to be able to respond in the event that there is a COVID-19 outbreak in Tuvalu. On top of that, we are very much vulnerable to natural disasters. At the beginning of this year we were hit by Cyclone Tino and then a few weeks later we had the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Despite all the international pledges for climate adaptation, Pacific governments and civil society want more action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the host of the 2019 Forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu, then Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga put it bluntly: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing – that is, cutting down your emissions, including not opening your coal mines.”

The Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) has more than 130 member organisations across the region. Earlier this year, the network issued a list of demands to Forum leaders, asking them “to call for a commitment to transforming the public and private financial system, at the domestic level and globally by 2030.”

PICAN advocates changes to climate funding mechanisms that ensure “financial flows are compatible and in line with a 1.5-degree pathway, climate-resilient development and just recovery efforts, which includes ceasing financing of fossil fuel projects and investing in 100 per cent renewable energy projects.”

For many years, civil society organisations in the Pacific have campaigned for increased community access to bilateral and regional climate programs, calling for increased funding for grassroots climate adaptation and renewable energy. But even as governments are working to increase flows of climate finance for adaptation, advocacy groups are focussing on another financial angle, seeking to turn off the taps! They’re lobbying donors and financial institutions to end their financial support for new emissions-intensive projects proposed by coal, gas and energy corporations.

Civil society groups lobbied Forum economic ministers before FEMM 2020, with Joseph Sikulu of 350.Org calling for re-allocation of subsidies and grants: “The work that’s going on, especially in our community groups, is to shift financing away from fossil fuel projects, especially at a time when we need finance to be flowing to ensure a just recovery for our community in this time of COVID. We want to ensure that governments aren’t funding the bail-out of some of these big projects.”

As a climate advocacy network, 350.Org Pacific has joined counterparts in Australia and New Zealand to target major projects such as the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, managed by the Indian corporation Adani. The Adani mine has just begun construction, but coal mined in the inland Galilee Basin must be transported to the coast for export. Environmental activists are seeking to hit the finances of the Adani-owned Abbot Point coal export terminal, fearing damage as coal ships transit the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Last year, two Korean financial corporations Samsung Securities and Hanwha Securities purchased $120 million of debt in the Abbot Point terminal, which has total debts nearing US$1.5 billion. Now, after community campaigns, environmental activists have secured commitments from the two Korean financiers to refuse re-financing of Abbot Point’s debt when it falls due for repayment before December 2022.

Patricia Mallam from 350.Org says: “We’re training Pacific Climate Warriors how they might intervene at Annual General Meetings, to ensure financial institutions seriously consider moving away from financing the coal industry and looking at renewable options.”

The slogan of the Pacific Climate Warriors is “We’re not drowning, we’re fighting!” The resources needed for that fight will be high on the regional agenda in coming months.

As a teenager, the atmosphere in our household every Sunday morning could either be described as a war zone, or a fiesta. It really depended on my mother’s mood, which was determined by whether we would be on time for the 10am mass or not. Scrambling for our Sunday Best (which really should have been ironed the night before), trying to gulp down breakfast one hour before mass started and remembering to take our contributions for the offering were just a few of the chaotic moments before a sense of calmness would settle us down, the minute the top of the Sacred Heart Cathedral came into view.

Days of worship vary in the Pacific, but the common thread that binds us together is that the peoples of the Pacific strongly believe in a higher entity, a God, who we serve through prayer, community service, environmental stewardship and contributions to the church.

This higher entity is the same God we turn to during tumultuous events. Recently, the Pacific has been hit with severe natural and climate disasters and COVID-19. Many Pacific Islanders have found solace in the church, and in their faith. In Tonga, at the peak of severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, 1,850 people took shelter in Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) church buildings.

Pacific Pays the Price

This year, the world fell to its knees as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world - showing just how connected and interdependent we are on each other. It’s evident now more than before that what happens in the more developed world, affects EVERYONE.

In the same way, if we look at industrial activity and carbon emissions - the Pacific Islands do not have any coal mines and contribute the least towards global carbon emissions - yet we face the brunt of the climate crisis.

Almost daily, media updates on how governments in more industrialised nations are bailing out the perpetrators of the climate crisis to cope during the global recession paint a dire picture of what’s to come.  The climate crisis seems to have taken a backseat to ensuring the comfort of the wealthy corporations who continue to invest heavily in fossil fuels. It is a sad realisation that the best interests of people are not front and centre for most governments.

Whilst G20 nations deliberate over bailouts and salvaging their own economies, the people  of the Pacific are steadfast in their faith and modelling all the Principles of a Just Recovery for a more sustainable, secure future.

The five principles of a Just Recovery are:

  • Put people’s health first, no exceptions.
  • Provide economic relief directly to the people.
  • Help our workers and communities, not corporate executives.
  • Create resilience for future crises.
  • Build solidarity and community across borders – do not empower authoritarians.

Churches Lead on Climate Action

The church has always been a source of hope and help for Pacific Islanders, including the Pacific diaspora in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. When it comes to climate change, I’ve learnt from Reverend James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), that churches have been saying the same things scientists have about climate change, long before it hit the mainstream.

As far back as 2004, the PCC met in Kiribati to discuss the effects of climate change on island nations, and produced the Otin Tai declaration, calling on industrialized nations to reduce fossil fuel use, acknowledge responsibility for climate change, and provide more adaptation funding, among other things.

Five years later, the PCC released the Moana Declaration which then led to the establishment of a Climate Change Unit within the PCC to push for the inclusion of climate change into sermons across the Pacific Region, and engage in more constructive dialogue with those most affected by climate change.

Practise What You Preach

A Proverb which resonates well with what what the PCC is doing amidst the backdrop of gloom and chaos is:

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”

The PCC and the Pacific Theological College’s Institute of Mission and Research are leading the discourse on seeking solutions to resolve the ‘ecological crisis’ facing Pacific Islanders especially its indigenous populations. Aptly called Reweaving the Ecological Mat, in collaboration with civil society organizations and academic institutions like the University of the South Pacific, it is building the foundations of an Ecological Framework for Development that will guide its engagements with its members and offer governments alternatives on development.

In April this year, with the double threats to livelihoods from COVID-19 and Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold, the PCC established its ‘Food Bank and Urban Farm’ in the heart of Suva City, as a model for replication in other Pacific countries. As the food is harvested it will be offered for free at a roadside stall. Some of the crops will be distributed to informal squatter settlements, homes for the destitute and aged care facilities.

Member churches have followed suit and utilised resources available under this initiative, including accessing training, seedlings and farming equipment to encourage communities to help themselves. The Tongan and Vanuatu national councils of churches have asked for support to form similar food banks and money will be sent to facilitate these requests.

As Pacific Islanders, just like our faith, we share similar challenges and are resilient to help ourselves, when our governments are not in a position to do so. It is through building solidarity across existing structures that we can face both the climate crisis and the global pandemic, and we don’t have to look far for living examples of how to do it.

Patricia Mallam is the Senior Communications Specialist at 350 Pacific


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