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Controversial deep-sea project moves ahead despite community backlash: 'No one knows what the environmental impact will [be]'

The project could disrupt ecosystems and vital fisheries.

Solwara 1, Controversial deep-sea project

Photo Credit: iStock

Despite resistance from locals, a deep-sea mining project in Papua New Guinea is moving forward. The project could disrupt ecosystems and vital fisheries.

What's happening?

Deep-sea mining is the process of harvesting minerals like zinc, nickel, and cobalt from the seafloor at depths of about 660 feet or greater. Isle of Man–based company Deep Sea Mining Finance, aka DSMF, hopes to harvest copper and gold from rocks about 4,900 to 5,250 feet below sea level 16 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea's New Ireland province.

The project, started in 2011, is called Solwara 1. In 2011, deep-sea mining company Nautilus Minerals was granted a 20-year mining lease on coastal Papua New Guinea waters. 

Nautilus Minerals declared bankruptcy in 2019 but was acquired by DSMF. The same year, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape announced a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Despite this, DSMF hopes to revive the Solwara 1 project. Ano Pala, Papua New Guinea's Minister of Mining, has confirmed that DSMF is attempting to renew the licenses for the project.

Why is Solwara 1 concerning?

Because we know so little about the deep sea and its ecosystems, experts aren't sure how deep-sea mining affects the environment. International standards of safety have yet to be established for deep-sea mining, Mongabay reported. More than 20 countries have called for a global halt to deep-sea mining until its effects are better understood.

Proponents of deep-sea mining point out that minerals harvested by deep-sea mining, like copper, nickel, and cobalt, are vital for electric vehicles. But many of the species found in deep-sea ecosystems have only recently been discovered, Mongabay reported. Further, the effects of the mining could reach shallower waters, threatening coral reefs and popular fisheries.

"No one knows what the environmental impact will [be] on the coastal communities, [not] even the scientists," Jonathan Mesulam, activist and coordinator of the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, told Mongabay.

Activists are concerned that Solwara 1 won't be held to the deep-sea mining moratorium. Prior to its bankruptcy, Papua New Guinea held a 15 percent stake in Nautilus Minerals. If the Solwara 1 project fails, the Papua New Guinea government may stand to lose that investment.

What's being done about Solwara 1?

Since Solwara 1's announcement, NGOs, Indigenous communities, and religious groups have opposed the project. The Alliance of Solwara Warriors is a coalition of communities dedicated to ending deep-sea mining in Papua New Guinea's waters.

"The life in the oceans has taken millions of years … to be what [it is] today," Mesulam told Mongabay. "What will happen if this ecosystem is disturbed? It will take millions of years to recover."

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