Deep Water

Cait Storr

The Republic of Nauru, which hosted the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this month, is the third smallest state in the world by area (about 21 km2) and second smallest by population (about 11,000). It celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence this year. Under Australian administration from 1920 to 1968, the British Phosphate Commission mined Nauruan phosphate in brutal disregard for the island’s environmental and economic sustainability, delivering cut price phosphate to Australian farmers and paying grossly undervalued royalties to Nauruan landowners. The Australian government’s position was that on the exhaustion of the island’s phosphate reserves, the Nauruan people should up and leave and resettle on Curtis Island in Queensland.

In 1968, under the leadership of Hammer DeRoburt and with the support of the United Nations Trusteeship Council, the Nauruan people negotiated their way to independence, against the Australian government’s wishes. Australia grudgingly handed over control, but refused to accept any liability for the rehabilitation of Nauru’s central plateau, devastated by fifty years of aggressive mining.

Phosphate mining dominated the island’s economy until the exhaustion of primary reserves in the 1990s. Since then, an interlude as a tax haven saw it blacklisted by the OECD; according to the Russian Central Bank, US$70 billion was laundered through Nauru by the Russian mafia in 1998 alone. To the irritation of China, Nauru recognises Taiwan in exchange for Taiwanese aid; to the irritation of the United States, it recognises Abkhazia and South Ossetia in exchange for Russian aid. Nauru votes with Japan in the International Whaling Commission, and with Israel in the United Nations General Assembly. A third of Nauru’s revenue comes from selling commercial fishing licences in its territorial waters. And half of its revenue derives from the income it accrues from its role in Australia’s draconian treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by sea.

Nauru is already looking for something to fill the gap when the arrangement with Australia ends. In late July, it announced that it had entered into a ‘partnership’ with a deep sea mining company, DeepGreen Resources. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) granted an exploration licence to DeepGreen’s subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, in 2011. The licence covers around 75,000 km2 of seabed in international waters in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, between Hawaii and Mexico, the site of the world’s highest known concentration of polymetallic nodules, manganese and iron hydroxide lumps that form around hydrothermal vents. They also contain variable quantities of cobalt, nickel and copper, all commodity metals whose terrestrial reserves are either rapidly depleting or conflict riven.

The sharp edge of the mining industry has been chipping away since the 1970s at the two major barriers to the commodification of the ocean floor: the absence of a legal framework for corporate exploitation of environmental resources in international waters; and the technological capacity to operate a mine more than 4000 metres under the sea. Both barriers seem likely to be overcome within the next year. In July, the ISA agreed on new ‘Draft Regulations on Exploitation of Mineral Resources in the Area’. And later this year, Global Sea Mineral Resources, which also holds an exploration licence in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, sponsored by Belgium, plans to lower its second ‘pre-prototype’ automated harvesting vehicle to the seabed.

DeepGreen’s marketing copy presents seabed mining as the solution to everything from climate change to world poverty. The Nauruan government, for its part, seems content to recycle DeepGreen’s hype, even though the financial returns it stands to collect are crumbs from the company table. Nauru says it will benefit from scholarships, employment and training provided by DeepGreen during future offshore campaigns: ‘training of the nationals of developing States’ is a requirement for getting an exploration licence from the ISA.

The ISA has so far approved 29 exploration licences in international waters. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), international waters are said to be the ‘common heritage of mankind’, meaning they are not subject to claims of state sovereignty. It doesn’t mean, however, that they are protected from commercial exploitation or corporate proprietary claims. Similar language is used in treaties dealing with outer space, but private companies are working towards exploiting the mineral resources of asteroids. The ISA 'Draft Regulations' proclaim that ‘rights in the Resources of the Area are vested in mankind as a whole’, but everything rests on the selective capitalisation. ‘Resources’ are defined in UNCLOS to mean all resources in situ at or beneath the seabed. Once removed from the seabed, they are no longer ‘Resources’ belonging to mankind, but ‘Minerals’ – which are susceptible to private ownership.

DeepGreen and the other companies are required to use their explorations licence to prepare and submit an environmental impact statement to the ISA before an exploitation licence can be issued. Despite the intense heat and light generated around the flagship agreements of international environmental law, the business of natural resource exploitation has changed remarkably little since the laissez-faire imperial scrambles of the late 19th century. Privately backed entrepreneurs sniff out untapped resources in underdeveloped regions of the world, dragging a coterie of scientists in tow; certain local minds are swayed, halfpenny royalties are promised; and international law seems to do little more than provide the vocabulary of virtue in which the whole enterprise is framed. For Nauru, darting around the jaws of ruin for sixty years, none of this comes as news. For the rest of us, as the first prototypes hit the water, it’s time to catch up.


  • 20 September 2018 at 2:18pm
    AndrewL says:
    Collecting manganese nodules? This is all too reminiscent of the Glomar Explorer and Project Azorian. Did a submarine sink nearby?

  • 26 September 2018 at 1:25pm
    Rory Allen says:
    So, they are planning to "harvest" hydrothermal vents. And one of the early participants is Belgium, whose historic exploitation of the Congo for ivory and rubber was such a model of enlightened management.

    The impact of this 'harvesting' on the complex ecosystems that live on or near these vents is not really mentioned in this otherwise excellent piece. I suggest anyone who is concerned about the possible effects on the oceans' deep sea vent ecosystems, and their wider implications, might do worse than listen to the podcast of Professor Rachel Mills on Radio 4's The Life Scientific from earlier this year.