Deep Sea Mining: A Blessing or a Curse?

Article excerpt

Now at last, an international regime for sea-bed mining acceptable to both industrialised countries and developing nations has been approved by the United Nations. Roger Murray assesses what impact this will have on Africa's leading mineral producers.

Almost two decades after negotiations over an International Law of the Sea were launched, agreement has finally been reached on an internationally recognised framework for exploiting seabed nodules containing potentially huge concentrations of manganese, cobalt, copper, and nickel - located at the bottom of the worlds oceans.

In July the UN General Assembly formally adopted a code of conduct for sea-bed mining. This will enable the establishment of a new UN agency, the International Sea-bed Authority (ISA), to administer the treaty and to oversee mining and exploration by its commercial arm, Enterprise.

This long delayed accomplishment opens the door to the formation of mining consortia joint ventures between transnational mining firms and, where appropriate, government partners, to carry out exploration to establish the commercial feasibility of recovering ocean floor minerals.

The Enterprise is structured so as to ensure that profits generated by sea-bed mining are fairly shared with land-locked and/or developing countries. Payments will be secured so that private sector technology can made available to the project partners.

This has overcome the concern that private mining companies would be put at a competitive disadvantage, one of the main objections to the original Enterprise concept by a group of industrialised countries, including the USA, UK, West Germany, France and Japan. The initial proposals have been modified to provide for private sector participation in Enterprise which will no longer be a solely governmental organisation funded by subscriptions from UN member states.

Investment will be provided by the joint venture partners for an initial project, with subsequent developments funded on a purely commercial basis. In return, industrialised countries have undertaken to cooperate with the ISA to ensure access to the appropriate technology where it cannot be acquired at a reasonable market price.

Space-age technology available

Technological progress since the 1970s - including offshore oil industry expertise and the spin-off from the US outer-space programme - have made deep sea-bed resources increasingly accessible. Advances in robotics and computer controlled systems in particular mean that the use of sea-floor crawler excavators, operating autonomously from any "mother ship", is no longer in the realm of science fiction. Although a draft Law of the Sea Treaty was adopted in 1982, it was not ratified by sufficient UN member states to come into force. Some developing countries however, incorporated provisions into their national laws. For example, coastal states concerned to protect their marine fishing grounds from foreign fishing fleets opted to extend the 12 nautical mile territorial limits by proclaiming a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and invested ownership of marine resources - including minerals below and above the sea-bed - in the state.

In Africa, these provisions have been most comprehensively applied by Namibia, which enacted an EEZ immediately on independence in 1990.

However, the 1982 treaty did establish the concept that mineral resources on and below the sea-bed in international waters beyond the continental shelf were the common heritage of humanity. …