Already Papua New Guinea has approved the first deep sea mining project in the region, and prospecting surveys have been carried off the coasts of several other countries.
Allied to that officials from around the Pacific will meet in Tonga next week to learn how to get the best deals from companies offering to mine within their exclusive economic zones.
Dr Mike Petterson, the director of SOPAC, the applied Geoscience and Technology division of the Secretariat of the South Pacific Community says the aim is to make sure countries are well prepared to handle negotiations with the big mining companies.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Dr Mike Petterson, director, SOPAC Geoscience and Technology, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, SPC
PETTERSON: The workshop actually is a series of stepping stones if you like in terms of preparing the region for what was once science fiction in many ways, this harvesting of deep sea minerals, so what it's maybe becoming reality within the next few years or certainly within the next decade. And there are lots of drivers for that. One is we know a lot more about the deep sea floor and about these types of minerals, and the second thing is, is we've all heard about in the world over the last ten, 20 years is the rise of Asia really and the Asian middleclass which is driving a lot of resource competition between the big countries. So as Australia knows very well being a mining mineral rich country, which has benefitted from its mineral wealth as well because it's been able to demonstrate good governance in that area, as Australia knows areas on land are becoming scarcer, easy sites are becoming more difficult. So it's going to be new frontiers where I think some of the companies are going to be looking, hence the importance of deep sea minerals. So yeah that's how we start, so how do we prepare the region for that? And that's the big challenge you're right. This potentially is very much a David and Goliath type situation with big multinational companies or very large government state organisations coming in and negotiating with relatively small and not necessarily empowered small island states. So that's our challenge is to try and empower them and prepare them for this I think the new frontiers in mining, a very exciting development, but also one with many challenges. That's our challenge.
EWART: Now you talk about it being an exciting development, is that part of what the discussions in Tonga were all about really is trying to rein in this excitement, because the dollar signs will be ringing for developing countries in the Pacific, and as you say these giant mining companies could be coming in and offering what appears to be a very good deal generated a lot of cash, but maybe not as good as it appears?
PETTERSON: Yeah that's spot on, you've got it spot on there, that's our concern as a regional organisation. The workshop itself, the workshop is one of several workshops which are part of a program funded by the European Union which is helping us with developing law and legal frameworks around the mining of deep sea minerals. Now this is a world first actually, there's no, well as far as I am aware, there's no legal framework that's been accepted for the harvesting of deep sea minerals. And in fact this region, and I suppose there aren't too many first in the Pacific region, but in the Pacific region we're very proud this is the first and we've got some technical people in SPC who are working on this and working with lawyers around the world. So this particular workshop will be focussing very much on the law of deep sea minerals, and we're bringing in some consultant lawyers from around the world to help us. At the workshop all 20 known, and I think 15, 16 countries of the Pacific will be represented, and they will bring three participants from each country, so from Solomons, from Tuvalu, from FSM or wherever, they will be coming to this workshop and it's a five-day workshop. The focus is going to be on the law, it is not just a didactic thing, a sort of a lecture session, it's very much a participatory workshop. And we are listening, we are facilitating or listening as much as sharing our knowledge because of course everything has to be tailored and bespoke for our island member states. And we always have to be very careful of course, well in my opinion, we cannot be patronising. There's a lot of wisdom in these governments and these experts within the island states themselves. And our job is to listen to them, listen to their needs and concerns and then tailor our approach to help them as best we can, because the bottom line is as SPC and SOPAC division that I head up, is we are there for the member states and it's science for development. So that's our prime concern, so we're always trying to make sure that we're in the heart of that.
EWART: As part of this process will transparency come into this, because one of the things that we hear all too often on this particular program, in fact later today we'll be talking about the situation in Papua New Guinea and its LNG Project, is the question of transparency, whether the people of a particular country and in this case Papua New Guinea, are actually being told everything about how the money's coming in, and more importantly where the money is going?
PETTERSON: Yeah, yeah, that's a difficult one isn't it, and I don't want to talk about any individual country if that's ok. I've been involved in the mineral business not as a mining person, I've always been involved either as a researcher, a scientist or an advisor in this business. So I haven't got any profit shares or anything like that, so I am genuinely speaking as a neutral here. Value studies of course, studies of course are paramount, so if we walk through the life cycle of mining, it goes from exploration, finding this stuff, digging this stuff out of the ground, processing it, and all of that. And that is a huge investment for a company or for a country. Very often companies or countries don't make profits for five or ten years, so we have to remember that. And the other thing to remember is it's a little bit like the pharmaceutical industry, for every find, maybe only one in a thousand or maybe even less than that would actually get to the markets. So you said before about managing expectations and managing excitement, that is definitely part of the discussion. So back to the transparency, now I think if we look at transparency around the world with natural resources we can divide countries up into those countries that have really worked hard and well with money generated from minerals wealth, and all societies benefitted. I think Australia's a very good example of that. But even in Australia you have issues in Australia sometimes where transparency falls down, even within what is regarded as an internationally well governed country with lots of regulation, even in Australia and in Europe and wherever you want to consider, there are issues because we're talking about human beings here and human nature. So yes people point towards certain countries say in Africa and so oh these are very bad countries, all this money just goes to an elite group and they steal the money and nothing goes to the people. And of course nobody wants that model, not even those countries want that model. So we have got to do our best to get transparency in place. But even if you get the best regulations in place, the best transparency, the best system in the world, we have to remember that there's human beings involved and humans change, governments change, people in power change. So this is a never-ending, it's a never-ending challenge actually. So what we can do at our end is encourage good systems, good practice, best behaviours, but at the end of the day I think it's beholden on many groups from NGOs to the general population to government to actually ask hard questions regularly about transparency. It's not a one solution fits all and it's not a put a solution in place and that's perfect forever. It just doesn't work like that.