Matthew and Hunter islands are being mentioned this week in the Deep Sea Minerals Policy forum at the Chiefs’ Nakamal. Deep sea mining is considered a new frontier in the mining industry. Not only are valuable minerals which have long been sought after found there, but also what are described as rare earths which have important applications in computer and mobile telephone technology. Matthew and Hunter (Umaeneag and Umaenupne by their customary names for people of Tafea) matter significantly because they are on our side of the Pacific submarine plate, near where it meets the Austronesian plate on which are Australia and New Caledonia. However, between the two remote Vanuatu outliers and Aneityum there are to be found two underwater volcanoes, both of them active and which are likely to be productive of rare earths and other valuable minerals. Indeed these underwater hot spots are continually marked by “areas of discoloured water” on Admiralty charts, where pumice comes to the sea’s surface as small balls of mustard or grey coloured lightweight stone. These are likely to be considered such valuable sources for mining that former governments have issued licences for sea-bed mining in their vicinity. Two sets of licences have been issued for places directly south of Aneityum.
New Zealand has an excellent Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act dating from 2012 and this is likely to be discussed as one model for such legislation for Vanuatu. A wealth of legal opinion is also to be considered by the participants at this meeting.
However, the Vanuatu Government wants to have the participation of stakeholders and citizens consulted and involved in the creation of its new Deep Sea Minerals Policy, and it is therefore inviting those with particular views to this forum before its finalization. The Malvatumauri chiefs and women’s and youth groups along with the VCC have been invited to participate.
Mining leases have not been directly under discussion in Vanuatu for quite a long time (and sea bed mining rarely, if ever). However, the next stage in any such process has loomed large this last week with smelting of New Caledonian nickel. And now NGOs are focusing on what governments have previously ignored in the Pacific Basin.
The Forum Solomon Islands International (FSSI) NGO associated with their broadcasting service has issued warnings against planned projects on Rennell Island for mining top quality bauxite deposits on that island. An Indonesian company has sought a mining application, but FSII maintains “landholders are the key to developing their resources, not the national government, provincial government, nor the investor.” This is what the Vanuatu Independence and Constitution were all about, even though not such a fine point was put on either of them until the recent amendment to the land laws of this country.
It is not yet known whether FSII will attend the Vanuatu meeting, but their point of view would be most welcome to start a discussion.