Cobalt nodules in the Cook Islands: Black truffles of the South Seas

The mirror of the world

Status: 09/03/2023 08:06 am

Beyond the Cook Islands are large mineral deposits – mining them could reduce the country’s dependence on tourism. While the government is already dreaming up a deep-sea mining hub, marine biologists are warning of the consequences.

“These things not only have great potential, but they have enormous potential,” says South Africa’s Hans Schmidt of Mona Minerals. He points to the small, round, Black Sea nodules—large, deep-sea mineral assemblages his company is researching on behalf of the Cook Islands government. The nodules are full of cobalt and nickel— Metals that Germany also needs for its energy transition. Schmid estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the world’s cobalt deposits are in the South Pacific. The black truffles of the South Seas are a billion-dollar business.

Mona Minerals is one of three companies conducting a feasibility study on behalf of the Cook Islands Government. They need to clarify in advance how nodules can be collected from a depth of 5,000 meters – and what consequences the degradation will have on the ecological balance. Because the deep sea has not been explored yet. But Smit calls for pragmatism: “These metals are also available on land, but at a higher price than at the bottom of the ocean,” he says. “We must carefully analyze the data and facts and choose the lesser evil.”

Marine Biologist Fears Environmental Damage

About 160 kilometers from one of the potential mining areas is the Aitutaki Lagoon. The colorful underwater world there is already affected by climate change and tourism, marine biologist Tina Rongo from the NGO “Correro o te Orao” explains: Nobody knows exactly what deep-sea mining is doing. Mankind probably knows the moon better than the 5000 meter ocean depth. “We have no right to expect more from the ocean than we are already doing,” says Tina Rongo. “We need to protect the ocean, give it a chance to survive, and deal with what we’re already doing.”

A marine biologist points to the beach where excavators go back and forth to widen Ayutthaki’s harbor entrance. This leads to sediments and sediments under the water that destroy the coral, he warns. Such problems can occur even if sea urchins are mined in the deep sea.

Until now, the Cook Islands have lived primarily off their postcard ID: more than 60 percent of government revenue comes from tourism. But that is what worries the island government. Even Carla Egleton, head of tourism, says the island state needs to sustain itself more broadly economically. “If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we are on our own. No one is saving us. We have a people and children to take care of,” she says. You will carefully consider “how to make it compatible.”

Premier Brown dreams of being on top of the world

This fits perfectly with Prime Minister Mark Brown’s policy of driving an electric car. He sees a potential win-win situation: the West gets the metals for its energy transition and much-needed government revenue for the Cook Islands. But nothing has been decided yet, he insists, and research is still being carried out. Nevertheless: “The ban, the postponement, not the way that many other countries want. We do not believe in burying our heads in the sand. According to the motto: it is better to know nothing. We want to get to know our sea .”

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Brown deliberately talks about “harvesting” the tubers, not “mining” – that sounds very negative to him. He dreams of making his small island nation a center of excellence for marine research and deep-sea mining. Potential environmental problems must be handled properly, he believes and believes: “In five years we can start deep-sea mining. In ten years, the demand for these metals will be even greater, and we can be at the forefront. The Pacific provides metals to the world in a sustainable harvest of these important metals – but protects our ocean. “

Divers, blue skies, blue seas: holiday folly at Idutaki’s pool.

“It’s all about the inland route.”

Deep sea mining can bring a lot of prosperity to the people. But scientist Deena Rongo fears the Cook Islands are also losing their identity, their soul. “We are adopting a lifestyle that is not compatible with us and our environment,” he fears. “It’s about the Aboriginal way. Our ancestors have lived here for thousands of years – in harmony with our resources. We’re now questioning all that.”

Deena Rongo prays things will turn out differently. But the dichotomy between tradition and whimsy seems especially fine now.

You can see this and other reports on “Weltspiegel” on Sunday, September 3, 2023 at 6:30 p.m.

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