Home News PNG communities resist seabed mining: Interview with activist Jonathan Mesulam

PNG communities resist seabed mining: Interview with activist Jonathan Mesulam

by News7

The government of Papua New Guinea appears poised to approve Solwara 1, a long-in-development deep-sea mining project in the country’s waters.However, PNG has signed onto several seabed mining moratoria, and scientists have urged caution until more research can determine what the effects of this practice will be.Proponents say the seafloor holds a wealth of minerals needed for batteries, especially for electric vehicles, and thus are vital for the transition away from fossil fuels.But coastal communities in PNG’s New Ireland province have mounted a fierce resistance to Solwara 1, arguing that it could damage or destroy the ecosystems that provide them with food and are the foundation of their cultures. KONO, Papua New Guinea — News of apparent renewed interest in deep-sea mining came as a shock to Jonathan Mesulam in late 2022. Looking out over the Bismarck Sea that separates his native island of New Ireland from Papua New Guinea’s mainland, the former teacher and U.N. aid worker-turned-activist fights back tears. It’s a dose of emotion typically absent from the measured interviews Mesulam often does with PNG media. The beach where he sits is just 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the spot where a foreign company has long hoped to harvest copper, gold, silver, and other valuable minerals from the seafloor. In his media appearances, Mesulam lays out the fears of communities along New Ireland’s west coast, including the one where he grew up, that seabed mining will damage the ecosystems and fisheries that underpin their subsistence and cultures.

Mesulam first voiced his concerns about seabed mining to the communities in New Ireland when he was working as a high school teacher in the early 2010s. He has since gone on to found his own development NGO and serve as the spokesperson and coordinator for the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, a coalition of communities and faith-based organizations in PNG. (Solwara, stemming from “saltwater,” is a word for “sea” or “ocean” in Tok Pisin, an official language in PNG and a lingua franca in this country of more than 840 languages.)

More than a decade of campaigning against the mining project, called Solwara 1, has helped stir the international debate around extracting minerals from the seabed. Just a few years ago, the Alliance of Solwara Warriors could count several victories in its resistance to Solwara 1. Specifically, Prime Minister James Marape supported a 10-year deep-sea mining moratorium in 2019. That same year, Nautilus Minerals, the Canadian company that had pushed to mine the Bismarck seabed for more than two decades, filed for bankruptcy.

But as the Canada-based parent company was dismantled in 2019, its PNG-based subsidiary, Nautilus Minerals Niugini, was snapped up by privately held Deep Sea Mining Finance (DSMF). And now, DSMF appears eager to revive Solwara 1.

Communities say, however, that they’ve received little information from the project’s developers despite the decades of activity around it. Mesulam says there had been no contact for years before Feb. 6, 2024, when the company and PNG’s Mineral Resources Authority held meetings in two of the dozens of communities along New Ireland’s west coast.

Children walking on the beach in Kono village, New Ireland province. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
The now-defunct Nautilus Minerals’ financial filings from 2015 mention several “deep sea minerals fairs” in New Ireland in 2013 to give community members a chance to ask questions about the project and the industry. And DSMF’s website (archived here) currently says the Solwara 1 project’s “commitment remains to the significant social programs already undertaken by the company on New Ireland.” But there are no specifics beyond an undated photo of a “health patrol” in the province. DSMF didn’t respond to Mongabay’s repeated requests for comment on its plans or its present financial structure.

Mesulam and other community leaders say those earlier consultations focused on the benefits people might receive, not the potential threats to their way of life. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s PNG marine program estimates that 70% of communities depend on coastal resources, especially the fisheries that provide food and income.

Given the potential threats to New Irelanders’ way of life, why then, Mesulam asks, is the PNG government now considering renewing a set of exploration licenses and a mining lease that it granted to the original Nautilus prior to its dissolution? Mongabay’s requests for comment from the PNG Mining Ministry and the Mineral Resources Authority have also gone unanswered.

Deep-sea mining, which hasn’t yet begun commercially anywhere, has been highly contentious and speculative nearly from the beginning. Proponents of this extractive activity that would take place at least 200 meters (660 feet) underwater, say it’s a better way than terrestrial mining of getting the minerals are vital to the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, particularly as demand for electric vehicles grows.

Many scientists agree that we need more research to understand how — and if — harvesting these minerals can be done safely. Research suggests it could have disastrous effects on ocean ecosystems, from disturbing the little-known benthic assemblages on the seafloor to creating sediment plumes that could disrupt the marine environment further afield.

Papua New Guinea for its part doesn’t have rules in place to regulate this new form of extraction.

Questions about how to regulate seabed mining and ensure that it’s carried out safely have vexed the discussions around deep-sea mining run by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a U.N.-affiliated body based in Jamaica. The organization has yet to come up with guidance of its own despite the topic being an intense focus of recent ISA meetings. Currently, 24 countries have agreed that there should be at least a pause in deep-sea mining activity, including France, which has called for an outright ban.

But the seabed’s minerals have enticed other countries into moving their plans forward. Norway and Japan have announced their intentions to mine the seabed, along with PNG’s South Pacific neighbors, Nauru and the Cook Islands.

Meanwhile, PNG has now agreed to not one, but two moratoria on deep-sea mining: the one put in place under Prime Minister Marape in 2019; and another announced in response to a resolution by the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a coalition of Pacific countries and political parties, in August 2023.

Despite the apparent discordance, Mesulam and the other leaders of the movement remain resolute, and he noted that the Solwara Warriors have learned from nearly a decade and a half of struggle against seabed mining. They understand both the stakes and the task ahead of them, and they have found their voice.

Jonathan Mesulam standing next to an outrigger canoe in New Ireland province. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay’s John Cannon spoke with Jonathan Mesulam in August 2023 in the village of Kono on New Ireland’s west coast. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What is the Alliance of Solwara Warriors?

Jonathan Mesulam: The Alliance of Solwara Warriors is a group of coastal communities, especially in the New Guinea islands — East New Britain, Manus, New Ireland, Autonomous Region of Bougainville, [Madang and Milne Bay]. We also have support from the mainline churches, the Catholic Church through the faith-based organization known as Caritas, the Lutheran church, and the United Church. They are calling for a ban on seabed mining, not only in PNG but, of course, the Pacific as well.

Mongabay: How did the alliance form?

Jonathan Mesulam: Since 2011, there have been a number of groups advocating on the seabed mining, but there was no united voice. We saw a lot of groups addressing this issue. We were doing this awareness or advocacy on our own, but there was no coordinated campaign. So back in 2016, the alliance was formed as a collective voice of all the groups talking about seabed mining.

Stickers from the Alliance of Solwara Warriors campaign against seabed mining in Papua New Guinea. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay: Can you tell me how you got involved in this issue of deep-sea mining?

Jonathan Mesulam: I’m a teacher by profession. I taught in high school in [the town of] Namatanai. Whilst teaching, I would come to the communities to make them aware of the seabed mining issue back in 2011, 2012.

Mongabay: What has happened since then? Have they started to mine in the seabed yet?

Jonathan Mesulam: No, there haven’t been mining activities. They were only conducting exploration, prospecting with ships around these waters on the west coast. Nautilus was doing this research, and that was back in 2007. And then, in 2011, the PNG government gave them the mining license.

Mongabay: What are your biggest concerns about deep seabed mining?

Jonathan Mesulam: When you are in the village, you see the calmness of the ocean. You see people enjoying the ocean. You see people going out into the sea and coming back with fresh fish that you can enjoy.

With seabed mining … obviously, there will be environmental impacts on the ocean. The sea has no boundary, so whatever happens here will affect all the coastline because the tides are going everywhere in almost all directions. Whatever happens here will be faced by other coastal communities in [the provinces of] East New Britain and Manus. That is our biggest concern.

In PNG, we do not have legislation or policies in place for disasters that might happen so that people will be looked after. In PNG, we act on an ad hoc basis: when any disaster happens, the government goes and helps [in the short term], and then in the long term, people continue to suffer.

Mongabay: What about the impacts on the sea life in the ecosystem here? How big of a concern is that for you?

Jonathan Mesulam: The life in the ocean has taken millions of years to evolve. Some of the ecosystems have taken so long to be what they are today. What will happen if this ecosystem is disturbed? It will take millions of years to recover. If it takes millions of years for these places to be what they are today, then for you to come and disturb them in just one or two years, it’s — it’s not right.

If you dive into the ocean or you see pictures of the ocean, it’s very fragile. The animals down on the seafloor — they are very fragile species. Also, these animals support the food chain. If anything goes wrong with one of these species, then it’s gradually affecting the [whole] food web. And we are people [who depend on] the ocean. So what will happen to us?

A collapsed bridge that connects communities on the west coast of New Ireland. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay: What happened when they were first prospecting for the minerals?

Jonathan Mesulam: During the exploration period, there were impacts that some of the coastal communities have seen. Some of the fish were dying, and they came onshore, right onto the beach. They also said there were two whales that came ashore [here] in Kono village.

Mongabay: Kono and these other villages sit right on the edge of the Bismarck Sea. How much have these communities been informed about the consequences of deep seabed mining?

Jonathan Mesulam: When the company came into the communities to do awareness on this project [in 2013], they were more focused on the benefits. They were coming to rural communities where people are in dire need of services, and if benefits are promised to them, they will obviously fall for those benefits because this is what is desperately needed. They need better health, education, roads. So if these things have been promised, then people will easily accept them.

I found out during my visits that there is a huge information gap, that not enough information is given to the community on the potential environmental impact. Not everyone at the time supported the project. It’s common sense. If anything goes wrong out at sea, then they know that there will always be a potential impact on the community, especially the coastal communities. There were some people — women, children, elderly people — who were concerned about the project, but the problem is they cannot speak up. They cannot raise their voices because they didn’t see that they have the right to speak for themselves. I have been conducting this awareness in these communities. I’ve seen a number of women who were so emotional that they have to cry.

Kono’s lagoon opens onto the Bismarck Sea. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay: Talking with people here, it’s clear it’s not just about the fish that they catch. The ocean is also a huge part of their culture. From your perspective, what does the ocean mean to you and to them, especially given the threat from something like seabed mining?

Jonathan Mesulam: It’s very emotional when you talk about this decision. People are very concerned about their lives. When you see the connection that we have with the ocean, it’s more spiritual. People go out to the ocean to catch sharks [or] fish for their daily survival, they really depend on the ocean. The government does not really provide for the people. Everything is provided at home from people’s sweat. They go out and fish. They go to the garden, and they look after themselves. We’ve been looking after ourselves for ages. For such a project to come and threaten our lives — it’s not something like on land where only certain people or areas will be affected. You look at the ocean. What will happen to these coastal communities? How many people will be affected? That’s very concerning for us.

Mongabay: And what has the government’s response been from your perspective?

Jonathan Mesulam: The government has been turning a blind eye, and they focused on the investment they will get from this project. They’re not concerned about people’s livelihoods. We’re talking about protecting humanity. We should be the guardians of the resources that the [creator] has offered us, and not everything that we have is for monetary value.

Mongabay: What is the government of Papua New Guinea’s policy on seabed mining?

Jonathan Mesulam: The government does not have any legislation or regulations on seabed mining. There is no law on seabed mining in PNG. There is no offshore act, nothing. What they’ve done is used sections [of the country’s law governing mining on land] to give licenses to these companies. But there are no policies or regulations.

Fishers in Kono’s lagoon. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay: Are the issues you raise well understood at the international level?

Jonathan Mesulam: During the initial stages of the discussion on seabed mining, at the global level and at the community, people were not really aware of this project. Over time, after conducting awareness analyses, we see that people have doubts about this project. Now, there’s wider opposition to this project.

Likewise, in the global space at the ISA, certain people were pushing for seabed mining until just recently. Now, a lot of NGOs and civil society are having this discussion on the potential impact of seabed mining. A number of states’ representations at the ISA have now realized the importance of protecting the ocean. But at this stage, there are no agreed regulations in place.

Mongabay: In your view, should we wait until we have those safeguards to begin a project like Solwara 1?

Jonathan Mesulam: For me, I don’t think it is necessary for us to have any regulations. For us, I think we are happy that there should be nothing. Let’s just let it remain as it is.

Mongabay: Does that mean that the Alliance of Solwara Warriors wants the cancellation of seabed mining licenses in Papua New Guinea?

Jonathan Mesulam: Yes. When we talk about seabed mining, there are two areas of concern. One is on the national waters where the government in PNG gave licenses to Nautilus. And the other one is on the international waters. So for national waters, we’re calling for the cancellation of licenses. And for international waters like the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, we are calling on countries to respect the area as a common heritage of mankind and to not even think about mining those areas.

The coral that encircles and forms of the foundations of many of Papua New Guinea’s outlying islands. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay: Can you talk about what’s happened recently in Papua New Guinea? We’ve had Nautilus, this company that came in years ago. They prospected here, and then they subsequently went bankrupt. But now it seems that a new version of the company is back.

Jonathan Mesulam: When we learned that Nautilus was declared bankrupt and was delisted from the stock exchange in Toronto, we thought the discussion of seabed mining in PNG would be over. But we are always aware that the mining license was granted in 2011, with a time frame of 20 years, and it will expire in 2031. So that is where we are coming in to call for the cancellation of licenses. Before the license expires, we want this license to be canceled.

We also want to learn about these new companies like Deep Sea Mining Finance. Back in October [2022], when they first came to the country, they met with the mining minister and then came to the [New Ireland] Provincial Assembly. They had a meeting at the provincial conference center. We put up banners and protests while they were having a meeting inside. That’s when we were aware of these mining companies coming back. Then in February [2023], they had a discussion with the governor of [New Ireland] province. We asked them to come and visit the communities. Since October 2022, until now, in August [2023], they have not come to visit the communities. What they have done is consult the government and think that the government has given them approval without also seeking peoples’ views from the communities.

When we talk about development, you involve all stakeholders — the government, the communities, civil societies, and churches — everyone should be involved in consultation. It’s not just the government. The government does not own the resources. It’s everyone because the impact of the project or the benefits of this project will affect all the stakeholders concerned, so they have to be consulted for any development such as seabed mining.

A community meeting space in Kono, New Ireland province. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.
Mongabay: How do you think PNG’s actions are viewed by the global community?

Jonathan Mesulam: We have conventions that we have signed, and we should abide by those global commitments, like the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. You have all these 17 goals, and goal number 14 talks about protecting and conserving the oceans and sea. What is the government’s responsibility in protecting and conserving the oceans and sea? We can go and talk big at global conventions. But when we come back to our country, we don’t really put this discussion into action in the communities. That is something that our government has failed big time.

Mongabay: What do you want the supporters of mining in PNG and the companies to know?

Jonathan Mesulam: We want to remind the mining minister and the [Mineral Resources Authority] that it’s taken us 12 years to say no to this approach. And it’s not [been] an easy task. For you to just tell us that you are going to come back — it will be difficult. In the past, there were very few people who were aware of this issue, and the majority of the people were unable to speak up. But now, through wider awareness and consultation, more people are now educated and aware of this issue. In the past, you had very few people [opposed to deep-sea mining]. Now, think twice before you take that action. We want to say, “Just forget about it. Just don’t do anything because you will never get anywhere.”

Banner image: Jonathan Mesulam, spokesperson and coordinator for the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, speaks to a coastal community in New Ireland province. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Bluesky.

Pacific alliance adopts moratorium on deep-sea mining, halting resurgent PNG project

Citations:

Gollner, S., Kaiser, S., Menzel, L., Jones, D. O., Brown, A., Mestre, N. C., … & Arbizu, P. M. (2017). Resilience of benthic deep-sea fauna to mining activities. Marine Environmental Research, 129, 76-101. doi:10.1016/j.marenvres.2017.04.010

Simon-Lledó, E., Bett, B. J., Huvenne, V. A., Köser, K., Schoening, T., Greinert, J., & Jones, D. O. (2019). Biological effects 26 years after simulated deep-sea mining. Scientific Reports, 9(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44492-w

Stenvers, V. I., Hauss, H., Bayer, T., Havermans, C., Hentschel, U., Schmittmann, L., … Hoving, H. T. (2023). Experimental mining plumes and ocean warming trigger stress in a deep pelagic jellyfish. Nature Communications, 14(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-023-43023-6

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Activism, Coastal Ecosystems, Community-based Conservation, Coral Reefs, Deep Sea Mining, Environmental Policy, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Culture, Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Rights, Industry, Interviews, Interviews with conservation players, Marine, Marine Conservation, Marine Crisis, Marine Ecosystems, Mining, Ocean Crisis, Oceans

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