A new scramble is about the break out in the Indian Ocean, the race to mine the seabed for rare earth metals and minerals. It’s a race that Mauritius is looking to plunge into also with a seabed mining bill in the works and the Economic Development Board soliciting investments for seabed exploration looking for resources. So, why is Mauritius excited about deep-sea mining and why is this a more complex issue than it appears?
1. Why is there a scramble?
Mining the seabed for polymetallic nodules containing rare earth metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese is actually a relatively old idea that is making a comeback. Starting in the 1970s, different states looked into deepsea mining for such metals and rare earth elements and in the early 1980s, companies also looked at the idea. “20 or 30 years ago, the focus was put on mining such polymetallic nodules over fears that such minerals and rare earths were becoming rare on land,” Milan Meetarbhan, former permanent representative of Mauritius at the UN, and who between 2012 and 2013 was also president of the assembly of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the international body that regulates seabed mining in international waters, tells l’express.
This enthusiasm for deep-sea mining also made its way to Mauritius in the 1980s. “Just prior to independence, the Chagos archipelago was illegally excised from Mauritian territory,” ex-foreign minister Arvin Boolell recalls, “so after 1982, when the MMM came into power and a select committee was set up to look into the issue, I was a young politician then but part of the political language at the time was about how rich that part of the ocean is, and polymetallic nodules and rare earth elements on the seabed was also talked about.”
So far, Meetarbhan explains, the biggest obstacles to the development of deep-sea mining have been two pronged: first, deep-sea mining requires heavy investments and technology since it is essentially hoovering up nodules from the seabed between 4,000 and 7,000 metres under the ocean. And the second, is that the ISA under the UNCLOS treats international waters as a common global good, so the proceeds for any mining activity there has to be shared with others. “The US has never signed the UNCLOS, and within sections of the US they don’t like the idea of having to share the proceeds from deep-sea mining,” Meetarbhan points out.
But since 2000, the idea of deep-sea mining has taken off again. That’s because many of the elements on the seabed are critical ingredients of hightech industries, such as smartphones, laptops as well as green technologies, such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric storage batteries. In 2020, a World Bank report stated that just to keep up with the growing demand for sustainable energy, global production of minerals, such as graphite, cobalt and lithium, would have to be increased by 450 percent by 2050. “It’s a race between countries to overtake one another in emerging and prime technologies,” says Boolell, and with such resources being used up on land, “the seabed is seen as the next frontier”.
The other consideration is strategic: China dominates the international market for such rare earths. Take cobalt for example. It’s used to make lithium-ion batteries for everything from electric cars and solar energy storage units to mobile phones, but 80 percent of the world’s cobalt is processed in China. The fear of Beijing being in a position to set prices of such key resources or restrict their supply to other countries has helped lead to a renewed interest in looking to source such materials from the seabed instead. “It’s commercially driven, its about countries wanting to have control over supply and to be as self-sufficient in such minerals as possible. So basically, it’s a race for them,” insists Meetarbhan.
So, in recent years, a number of countries have looked to further develop deep-sea mining technology; in April 2021, Belgium’s GSR and Germany’s BGR claimed to have successfully tested deep-sea mining equipment. China’s COMRA tested deep-sea mining harvesters in the South China Sea between June and July 2021, while in a series of trials in 2017 and 2020, Japan’s JOGMEC claimed to have successfully mined zinc off the coast of Okinawa.
2. Mauritius and the Indian Ocean
Mauritius and the Indian Ocean play a major role in this undersea scramble. There are four major undersea deposits of polymetallic nodules globally: the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the Pacific, which is estimated to hold 21 billion tonnes of manganese nodules; the Peru Basin with 10kg of such nodules per square meter; the Penrhyn basin near the Cook Islands, which have an estimated 25kg of nodules on each meter; and the Central Indian Ocean basin, which has 5kg of nodules on each square meter. Nodules containing iron, manganese, copper, nickel and cobalt. “This is the area that lies just next to the Chagos,” Boolell points out. This is what has Mauritius interested in deep-sea mining as well some evidence for such minerals within its exclusive economic zone. In 1987, studies in the Mascarene basin in Mauritian waters pointed to seabed deposits possibly containing iron and cobalt over an 11,900 square km area.
In 2009, a joint study between researchers from Mauritius and Japan found inactive hydrothermal fields in Mauritian waters raising the possibility of mineral deposits. These studies, plus the proximity to the Central Indian Ocean basin, with its proven deposits of polymetallic nodules is what has Mauritius excited. Currently, the Mauritian government has a seabed mineral bill in the works, that it announced in its government programme in 2020 and in June 2021, it played virtual host to a workshop involving the African Union and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation to look into the regional prospects for the industry. “One must not forget that there have been a number of hydrographic studies in Mauritian waters. The bill that they will introduce is just like the Offshore Petroleum Act, everybody is hunting now and expectations with Mauritius are based on what is happening elsewhere, the proximity of our waters to proven deposits and the fact that different countries are now exploring the area. There is a scramble,” Boolell maintains.
Mauritius is not the only island state looking to capitalize on deep-sea mining. In 2007, Papua New Guinea hired a Canadian firm to look for minerals in its waters, Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati jointly backed another Canadian firm to look for polymetallic nodules in the Pacific and the Cook Islands formally established a licensing process for undersea mineral exploration in October 2020. The ISA licences firms looking and mining for minerals and nodules in international waters, whereas exploration of minerals within the territorial waters of states depends on local legislation.
3. The big players in the region
So, who are the big players when it comes to deep-sea mining in the Indian Ocean? And most likely to court Mauritius for exploration and mining contracts? So far, when it comes to the big deposits in international waters, the ISA has given out a total of 31 exploration licences globally to governments as well as state-backed companies. Most of them are exploring in the Clarion Clipperton Zone or in the territorial waters of islands near it. Within the Indian Ocean, however, four states are exploring for such minerals. The first is India, an early entrant in the race. It has been exploring for nodules since at least 1981.
In 1987, it was allotted 150,000 square km of the Central Indian Ocean basin near the Chagos by the ISA to explore and since then has progressively narrowed its focus. By September 2013, it had identified a potential site to mine and in 2016, was allotted an exploration licence for polymetallic nodules by the ISA for 75,000 square km in the Central Indian Ocean basin until March 2022.
A patch that the Indians expect could hold as much as 104.55 million tonnes of these minerals. In addition, the Indian government also holds an exploration licence to look for polymetallic sulphides across a 10,000 square km stretch of the Central Indian Ocean until September 2031 that could contain deposits of copper, zinc, lead, iron, silver and gold. That is, aside from hydrographic surveys that New Delhi carries out within the territorial waters of regional states. In June 2021, the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences announced a five-year programme costing Rs40.77 billion Indian rupees to develop submersible deep-sea mining technology and a mining system for “mining polymetallic nodules from 6,000-meter depth in the central Indian Ocean”.
India is not alone in the Indian Ocean. Starting in 1990, the Chinese government established COMRA, its state-owned agency for deep sea mining. Since first getting an exploration licence from the ISA in 2001, COMRA has been mostly focused on looking at deep-sea mining in the Pacific. By 2020, COMRA had already launched 56 expeditions to the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It was only in 2011 that COMRA turned its sights to the Indian Ocean as well, getting an exploration licence from the ISA to look for polymetallic sulphides in the Southwest Indian Ocean ridge, south of Mauritius.
During that time, Boolell was the Mauritian foreign minister and recalls the interest that the Chinese were showing in the Indian Ocean. “We had a presentation in one of the Pacific countries and the Chinese were quite enthusiastic in their presentations about seabed mining in this region.” The presentation was in May 2014 in the Cook Islands. COMRA has a licence to explore a 10,000 square km block until November 2026. And this Chinese interest has not gone unnoticed in New Delhi: in March 2015, the India-based Observer Research Foundation commented on how a Chinese deep-sea research vessel was showing up in Port-Louis each year. “The vessel would have prospected for polymetallic nodules,” the report said.
Aside from India and China, the other players in the Indian Ocean are South Korea, which has also got an exploration licence from the ISA to look for polymetallic sulphides in a 10,000 square km patch on the Central Indian Ocean ridge until June 2026 as well as Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which also has a licence to explore a 10,000 square km patch in the Indian Ocean.
4. The new edge to disputes
The presence of such minerals so close to the Chagos, with other states exploring elsewhere in the Indian Ocean for deep-sea mining opportunities, has lent a sharper edge to maritime boundary disputes in the region. Most notably the dispute between Mauritius and Maldives over 95,828 square km of overlapping maritime territory between the southern boundary of Maldivian territory and the northern maritime boundary of the Chagos archipelago. Both states are currently at the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) where they have already deposited their arguments, with further documents expected to be submitted by both sides in April and August 2022.
With the Chagos waters just adjacent to the largest proven deposits of deep-sea minerals in the Central Indian Ocean basin, both states have more incentive to fight hard to extend their maritime boundaries as much as possible to maximize the chances of such deposits falling within their waters and delivering a potential windfall of deep-sea mining revenue. “Although I don’t think it started out about that,” says Meetarbhan, “it is true that generally in many cases maritime boundary disputes are about resources and there may be resources there.”
Not everyone is excited about deep-sea mining. That’s because of the lack of knowledge about the deep-sea ecosystem and how mining there might affect it. “There are so many species in the deep-sea ecosystem that we keep discovering,” says Sunil Dowarkasing, former member of Greenpeace, ex-project coordinator of the Maurice Ile Durable programme, and ex-environmental adviser at the Prime Minister’s Office, “there are three main problems about deep-sea mining; the first is the physical destruction of the seabed itself, with sediment from mining just blanketing the area and burying organisms on the seafloor.” The second, he says, is the problem of ocean ‘noise’, citing the report of the NGO Ocean Care in November 2021: “Undersea sounds travel faster and farther than on land and this could affect larger species such as tuna or lead to the beaching of dolphins and whales.”
In addition, there is the problem of chemical pollution as a result of such activity. Mauritius recently had experience with both problems: it’s tuna-processing industry is threatened by depleting yellowfin tuna stocks while the Wakashio oil spill in 2020 led to the beaching of dolphins on its beaches. Not surprisingly, international conservation groups such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund have ranged themselves firmly against deep-sea mining.
At a global biodiversity summit in September 2021, conservation groups across the globe demanded that the ISA put a moratorium on deep-sea mining. It’s not just conservationists warning of the possible danger. Earlier in November 2020, the World Economic Forum warned in a report that, “although more research is needed, some scientists warn that sediment plumes could cause reduced fish catches and contribute to metal contamination in marine food chains, potentially affecting the livelihoods of fishing communities”.
While deep-sea mining within a state’s waters would be regulated by domestic laws, like the seabed mineral bill that Mauritius is currently working on, mining in international waters such as the Central Indian Ocean basin is supposed to be regulated by a mining code set up by the ISA. The problem is that the ISA has been unable to come up with such a code yet. It was supposed to be finalized in 2020, but a meeting of the Jamaica-based ISA in December 2021 failed to come up with one, instead pledging itself to more talks on setting up such a code in 2022. Until such a code comes, the ISA won’t be able to allot mining licenses to states and companies to mine in international waters.
States such as Mauritius are thus free to come up with their laws for mining in their own waters. “We don’t know anything about deep-sea mining,” warns Dowarkasing, “but the government is working on a bill. I would suggest we first wait to see what kind of guidelines the ISA comes up with and then pattern our bill on that.” The tragedy about this debate, he concludes, “is that the only thing we seem to think about when it comes to the ocean is just extraction”.