Papua New Guinea’s Solwara Warriors and the Mining Venture That Just Won’t Die

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In the Melanesian island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG), a resolute group of community activists took on Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals Ltd over its plan to mine their oceans for minerals. They won, and the company went bust – but now it’s back in another guise.

How did they do it, and what’s next for the country’s committed campaigners? Peter Bosip, the executive director of PNG’s Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCR), has played a major role in the anti-seabed-mining movement. He explained this detailed information.

Prospecting and payoffs

Nautilus has been sniffing around PNG’s waters for decades. The government granted it an exploration license in 1997 and in 2012 signed off on a mining license for the company to drill for seafloor massive sulphide deposits around hydrothermal vents, in the Bismarck and Solomon seas on the country’s eastern flank. The government also bought a 30% stake in the project.

These deposits contain high concentrations of copper and zinc, as well as considerable amounts of gold and silver. But the vents are also extremely ecologically significant – scientists consider them to be sea-floor ‘oases’, with a biomass equivalent to that of a rainforest – and they may well be the sites where life on Earth began.

Local community members and civil society organizations were skeptical about the environmental impacts of the project – as well as the amount to which local people would benefit.

“It would be the first of its kind in the world,” said Bosip. “There is no practical experience of the kind of methodology that would be used, and the control methods and best practice that the company proposed are not convincing.”

The proposed mining site is in an important fishing zone for local people. Almost 80% of PNG’s population is rural-based, and many depend heavily on fish for their food and livelihoods. That means if any sulphur dioxide were to escape into the water and poison the surrounding marine life, the impacts for locals would be disastrous. And since the site is in a sea current zone, “it seems quite likely it would actually disperse this poison all around the waters of PNG, as well as to our closest neighboring country, Solomon Islands,” said Bosip.

In terms of economic benefits, the potential payoffs to PNG-ans are decidedly slim. Of the government’s 30% share in the proposed project, just 5% would go to local landowners.

“PNG has a lot of adopted legislation from other countries, which tend to be designed by the industries and not by the people,” explained Bosip. “So we’re seeing our country being ripped off and exploited by those foreign-owned companies, because of this weak legislation which has not been crafted to represent the interests of Papua New Guineans, and which also allows for corruption between state agencies and developers.”

Mobilizing the resistance

In 2016, opponents of the mine formed an organization called the Alliance of Solwara Warriors (Solwara means ‘salt water’ in PNG pidgin). Support for the cause grew quickly throughout PNG, as word spread through the country’s close-knit family and kinship networks – and through its churches, which are particularly influential in local communities.

“Once the church preached about creation and the well-being of human beings, and the negative impacts that such mining could bring, that really got people together,” said Bosip.

The movement also went international, with groups such as the Australia/NZ-based Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Mining Watch Canada and Caritas New Zealand offering publicity and financial support, and natural historian Sir David Attenborough dubbing the idea of mining at hydrothermal vents “deeply tragic.” Amid rising pressure, Nautilus’ shareholders began to pull the plug on their investments; in March 2018, major investor Anglo American announced its decision to sell because of the project’s failure to meet global corporate social responsibility standards.

In early 2019, Nautilus was taken off the Toronto Stock Exchange as it attempted to sort out its debts; in August that year it was liquidated, and in November declared bankrupt. The PNG government was forced to write an amount ofUS$120 million that it had invested in the project off as national debt, leading Minister of State-Owned Enterprises Sasindaran Muthuvel to bemoan the notion that the money had “sunk into the ocean.”

Back from the dead?

However, like another head on the mythological Greek ocean serpent Hydra, a new version of the company – headed by its two remaining major shareholders MB Holding and Metalloinvest – has emerged under the not-so-different name of Nautilus Niugini. That’s particularly concerning to the Solwara Warriors because Nautilus still holds a current mining license, “and the new company is currently trying to solicit funding support to conduct the mining operations,” says Bosip. “This company is not going to give up, because it already has a license, so it’s going to keep on pestering.”

That’s why the Solwara Warriors are now focused on convincing the PNG Government to cancel the license – a move it’s as yet avoided. Transparency is a key issue: it’s taken numerous requests and two years of legal proceedings for the lobbyists to compel the national Mineral Resource Authority (MRA) – via a court order – to make the licensing documents public.

In a recent press release, the Solwara Warriors described the government’s approach to seabed mining as “chaotic and uncoordinated.” For instance, while the Prime Minister James Marape has supported Fiji’s call for a decade-long Pacific regional moratorium on mining – and called the original Nautilus project a “total failure” – the MRA is currently conducting stakeholder consultations to renew Nautilus Niugini’s seabed mineral exploration licenses.

“This is a cowboy company owned by the same investors who ran Nautilus into bankruptcy and left PNG in debt – they have no concern for the well-being of our people or our oceans,” said Jonathan Mesulam, a spokesperson for the Solwara Warriors, in the press release. “We call on PM Marape, senior Ministers and the MRA managing director to walk their talk and cancel all licences for deep sea mining exploration and mining. It’s time to listen to Papua New Guinean citizens and to economic common sense.”

Bosip also makes a callout for international solidarity with the Solwara Warriors’ ongoing quest. “Sea and land is life for the people of the Pacific, so any form of destructive development – especially deep-sea mining – should be discouraged,” he says. “And we who are already opposing these developments definitely need support from people in bigger and more developed countries to help us continue.”

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