I (Tiffany) had the pleasure of attending the youth debate on deep-sea mining on Sunday evening, organized by the Te Ipukarea Society and the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority (see the initial TIS blog post here). I came away impressed by the event and by the youth who did such a great job, but I also had a few thoughts about what was missing in the conversation.
The tone of the evening was set by the two bright-eyed, pleasant young women who were greeting guests at the door. It’s always such a pleasure to see people who are excited about their topic and prepared for their tasks, and the students volunteering and debating had clearly put significant effort into their preparation.
Twelve students debated the potential future use of the Cook Island’s seabed resources – and they had to switch sides between rounds! In other words, if they started out debating on the “yes, let’s mine!” side, they had to switch to the “no mining here” side for the next debate. It was a nice format because each student had to know the real depth of the issue rather than just focus on one side.
The young people did a great job, particularly considering they had an audience full of mining experts attending the SOPAC conference held on Rarotonga this week!
The students after receiving their awards and certificates.
Because I’m here as a researcher and conservationist, I want to talk about how the environment was presented in the debate. Again, the young people presenting did a great job. One thing stood out to me, though: The “environmental side” was always presented as a blanket argument against deep-sea mining, with no corresponding claims of environmental characteristics that might indicate no harm from mining (except for the argument that we don’t know for certain that mining would destroy everything). In other words, rather than using specific points, the argument ran as “mining might harm the environment” versus “we don’t know what mining will actually do to the environment”.
In addition to the student speeches, we also heard brief messages from members of the SOPAC project and other mining stakeholders. While the tone was professional and positive, I was a bit disappointed in the range of the environmental considerations put forth. The students clearly presented the material with which they were familiar, and some of them listed some great points (such as concern about waste disposal after the mining and extraction process had been completed as well as concern about fish, whales, and general damage to the marine region). However, the topics of benthic ecology – the life on the seafloor, both microbes and larger organisms – and the geological characteristics of the area were not mentioned.
We know very little about what lives on the bottom of the deep sea, compared to what we know about life closer to the surface. The deep seafloor often looks like empty plains of mud. However, there is life there (even the pictures of the manganese nodules under debate show fish!), and there are hints that these dark, low-disturbance regions are very sensitive to changes. Despite our lack of complete knowledge, I would have loved to see some discussion of what we do know.
Intriguing hints of life left behind.
I would also have liked to hear the geological side of the debate. The geological and biological characteristics of a place work together to shape the environment, the resilience of the community that lives there, and the impacts of changes.
Think of it this way: in your yard, the area where people walk all of the time generally doesn’t have as much grass as the areas in corners or hidden out of the way. The disturbance (people walking) affects the community (grass, and other plants). This disturbance may be all right for grass, but you probably wouldn’t let people walk on your flowerbed. The flowers are more sensitive, so they require a different, less disturbed environment.
For another example, lettuce for eating can’t live in the cracks in the sidewalk.
Neither area is worse or better, nor are any of the organisms that live in one place or another any worse or better than each other. The environments and communities living there are different, and their sensitivity to disturbances or changes is likely also different. Those differences are good! If the world was all grass, we’d likely miss the flowers. In fact, in wild systems, grasses and flowers help each other.
When we talk about adding a new disturbance, such as a particular kind of mining activity, we need to know what the environment and community are like to be able to consider the impact. Is the proposed mining site a very active region (like a sidewalk) where another disturbance will just add a small amount to the present activity? Or is it a slow-changing place where a new disturbance would be a big deal?
So… what? Well, I’m glad the event happened! The Te Ipukarea Society teamed up with the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority to put on the debate and work with the students, and the team leaders Teina Mackenzie and Alex Herman are to be admired for the effort that they put in. It’s a great example of a non-governmental organization working with a governmental sector, navigating the political, social, and environmental considerations. I’m excited that young people had a chance to learn about and publicly discuss such a complex issue.
I think we can serve the students and the whole community by providing more information about the ocean and other environments here, beyond just fish, whales, sharks, turtles, and other big animals. The ocean has a lot in it, there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot that we do know – it can all be overwhelming at times. The event reinvigorated me to keep improving and expanding the Conservation Education products that PICI has been developing.
Here’s to the courageous debaters!