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Deep sea mining project Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea


The Pacific is a region of immense deep-sea mining potential. In 2008 the Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals provided its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to Papua New Guinea Government to start deep-sea mining in the Bismarck Sea, in New Ireland Province, part of the Pacific Ocean, not far from Bougainville Island.  Nautilus hoped to become the world's first deep-sea mining firm. Since 1997, Nautilus has been exploring Papua New Guinea (PNG) waters and since 2016 It conducted explorer drilling in the Bismarck Sea.[1]

The Bismarck Sea is home hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been dependent on the sea for thousands of years. The deep sea-mining project Solwara 1 was planned to mine sea-floor massive sulfides (SMS), the rich hydrothermal vents formed by plumes of hot, acidic, mineral-rich water on the floor of the Bismarck Sea. Solwara 1 covered an area of 0.112 km2, awarded part of the mining lease which includes an area of 59 km2, 30 km off the coast at a depth of 1,600 m. The project was projected to have a lifespan of 25 years and will focus on the extraction of copper, gold, silver, and zinc.[2]

The Solwara 1 project has encountered stiff opposition from a variety of NGOs. The opponents have were based in several different locations, both inside and outside PNG. Most of them are representatives of civil society, and others are also represented of local communities potentially impacted by the project. Some national politicians and public servants have also voiced their opposition to the project in their capacity as state actors.[3]

Solwara 1 project's information made available to the local people was neither comprehensive nor independent and did not reach the international law standard of Free Prior Informed Consent. In fact, different types of arguments have been mounted against the project. The most important was the scientific argument based on the precautionary principle, which says that deep-sea mining should be prohibited until there is a greater knowledge of its possible environmental impacts. The second one was the principle of free, prior, and informed consent, as embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).[4]

In 2009 PNG citizens, mostly coastal peoples, claimed the project Solwara 1 ignored the cultural value of those fishing grounds and they rang up a professor in marine conservation to review the environmental impact statement. Many irregularities have been detected, including the underestimation of "dewatering": a process where rocks grinded into the gravel on sea-floor are pumped together with water up to a ship on the surface; after that rocks are filtered out of the water. The generated dewatered effluent will create large plumes of murky water that could cover all life on the sea-floor in a layer of mud. Furthermore, it did not model what metals might expect to be in those plumes that are going to be generated and the potential human poisoning. Many other anomalies included earthquake risk, machine noise and interference in animal communication, light pollution and impacts on indigenous cultural way to fish based on shark calling.[5]

In 2011 the Deep Sea Mining Campaign released the report "Out of our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor"[6] providing an overview of Deep-Sea Mining (DSM) in general and the Solwara 1 project in particular, raising many concerns about gaps in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the many risks that have not been properly assessed. Subsequent conversations with Nautilus resulted in reassurances that research has since been conducted that would address these concerns. However, no such information has been provided.[7]

Meanwhile, local citizens tried to halt the licensing of the project. In 2012 the mining company was granted a license to start the exploration. Concerned citizens organized a grassroots campaign collecting 24,000 signatures opposing the project. One of the grassroots organizations that stood up against Nautilus is the Alliance of Solwara Warriors. In December 2012, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign sent a letter to PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill requesting the release of key documents about the Solwara 1 project. Another group, Mas Kagin Tapani Association (MAKATA), founded in 2010, has expressed concern over the project's potential effects on endangered marine turtle populations.[8]

In December 2017, coastal Communities launched legal proceedings against the PNG Government to obtain critical documents relating to the licensing and the environmental, health and economic impacts of the Solwara 1 deep-sea mining project.[9] Civil society in Papua New Guinea has been requesting this information for the past four years.[10]

Despite the advocacy campaign, everything was to be ready for mining to start in 2018. The company launched a lengthy legal battle with the PNG government about payment of shares, which delayed the whole venture. A key corporate investor pulled out and this also brought Nautilus teetering on bankruptcy. In 2019 the experiment eventually failed and Nautilus has gone into administration. In February 2019, Nautilus finally filed for court protection from creditors under the Canadian Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act.

But for the people of Papua New Guinea, this was not a victory. In 2019 PNG citizens call for a full ban on sea-bed mining. Because of the growing pressure from deep-sea mining companies (French, Canadian, US, and Chinese), in 2019, Fiji president (Frank Bainimarama) and Vanuatu Prime Minister proposed a 10-year moratorium on sea-bed mining to allow proper scientific research on Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and territorial waters.[11] In September 2019, Papua New Guinea joined Fiji and Vanuatu.[12] [13]

In May 2020 a group of the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, together with the Centre of Environmental Law and Community Rights, Marie Mondu, in association with some catholic groups and Caritas, asked to the Government to cancel the environment permit and mining license granted to Nautilus Minerals Niugini Ltd.[14]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Deep sea mining project Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea
Country:Papua New Guinea
State or province:New Ireland
Location of conflict:Bismarck Sea
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Specific commodities:Silver

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Hydrothermal vents are like hot springs, spewing jets of watery fluids from the seafloor into the ocean. The expelled fluid, if hot enough, is rich in dissolved metals and other chemicals. This makes unusual forms of life possible without sunlight (chemosynthesis, instead of photosynthesis). [22]. This apart, the dissolved metals are attractive for industry. The island of Tonga and other Pacific islands are involved in plans for deep-sea mining.

Solwara 1 and its former parent Nautilus Minerals Inc. have been successfully restructured and acquired by Deep Sea Mining Finance Limited (DSMF) in the course of 2019. DSMF is a privately owned group aiming to become the first in the world to mine Seafloor Massive Sulphide ("SMS"). DSMF is a joint venture between international holding group "USM Holdings Limited" and Sultanate of Oman group "MB Holding Company LLC". DSMF now has full ownership of interests and rights to Solwara 1, key assets, intellectual property, and subsidiaries.[15]

The Nautilus Minerals operation planned to use three large robotic machines. An auxiliary vehicle prepares and flatten the sea-bed by leveling chimneys and destroying habitats, a bulk cutter cuts material on the sea-bed, then a collecting machine gathers the material as slurry and it is pumped up a rigid pipe to the production support vessel on the sea surface. Approximately 130,000 m3 of unconsolidated sediment was planned to be moved by Nautilus Minerals over a mining period of 30 months.[16]

Many reports provided by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign warned about Solwara 1 damages on benthic habitat for a rare deep-sea sulfide mound ecosystem and also about significant risks to other marine systems and resources in the region. The target ecosystem contains numerous rare and endemic (found only at the site) macro-invertebrate species. The active mineralized chimney habitats are colonized by faunal communities that are dependent on chemoautotrophic (e.g., sulphur-oxidising) micro-organisms for energy rather than energy from the sun. Species such as tubeworms, bivalves and gastropods (and their associated fauna) cannot exist away from hydrothermal vents. These will probably be new to science (yet to be formally named and described). The Solwara Environmental Impact Statement prepared by Nautilus Minerals Niugini Limited and Coffey Natural Systems stated that at least 20 new species have been added to the species list at active vent sites. This is a high rate of occurrence for new species which indicates that there are likely many more species in the mining area that yet to be identified. Such species would probably become extinct due to such mining projects.

Potential social impacts are different from those encountered in land-based mining activities. Coastal peoples in PNG feel substantial stewardship for the marine environment. They regard the seas as a holistic entity with considerable spiritual value. Many PNG people express a strong spiritual connection to all components of the ocean environment, including deep-see hydrothermal vent systems even though they may never have seen them. This suggests that social impacts of the proposed mining activities will extend beyond monetary valuation and inferred tenure of marine resources. Although coastal peoples in PNG may not live at or directly utilize the offshore mine site should it should not be interpreted to mean that they do not value and/or exert ownership and tenure over such areas. [17]

The context of Deep Sea Mining (DSP) in Pacific Ocean

Approximately 1.5 million square kilometers of Pacific Ocean Floor is currently under exploration leasehold for deep sea-bed mining to private and national government companies within both territorial and international waters. All of this activity is occurring in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little-known ecosystems of the deep sea. Furthermore, scientific research into impacts is minimal and does not assure that the health of coastal communities and the fisheries on which they depend can be guaranteed. [18]

In March 2020 the organization Fauna and Flora International (FFI) published a study ("An assessment of the risks and impacts of seabed mining on marine ecosystems") warning of potentially disastrous risks to the ocean's life-support systems caused by Deep Sea Mine, including significant loss of biodiversity, disruption of the ocean's biological pump, and the loss of microbes important for storing carbon, methane release and destruction of unstudied ecosystems. Fauna & Flora International is calling on global governments to put in place a moratorium on all deep-sea mining. [19]

Sea-bed mining in the Pacific Ocean remains a speculative and experimental activity driven in large part by commercial and geostrategic competition. Sea-bed mining is being accelerated in the Pacific region through an apparent alliance between companies (in particular DeepGreen Metals), national leaders (especially the President of Nauru and his Government), the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the International Seabed Authority (ISA).[20]

The development of sea-bed mining regulations at both Pacific regional and international levels is occurring in haste in the absence of meaningful public debate and with little consideration of the precautionary principle and the free, prior and informed consent of the Pacific island citizens. It is questionable whether the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – the United Nation's (UN) agency responsible for managing sea-bed resources outside national jurisdictions and charged with developing DSM regulations for this area – is in fact able to serve the interests of its member states and the environment it is mandated to protect.

Under international law, including United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, all states have obligations to regulate sea-bed mining activities to protect the environment and ensure that activities do not adversely occur affect neighboring countries. In effect, this means that national policies and legislation regarding sea-bed mining are required before mining companies undertake sea-bed exploration and exploitation. However, most Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are yet to develop legislation to regulate sea-bed mining activity in their EEZs or to govern their sea-bed mineral activities in the Area. [21]

Project area:11
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,000,000.00
Start of the conflict:10/11/2008
Company names or state enterprises:Nautilus Minerals Inc from Canada
Relevant government actors:The Government of PNG had a legal right to acquire up to 30% equity in the project. The PNG government turned to its national bank for a loan of USD 125 million to fulfill this obligation via a state-owned enterprise and without parliamentary approval. When the loan is called in, the PNG cost was equivalent to one-third of the country's entire health budget for 9 million people in 2018. [21]
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:The Deep Sea Mining Campaign (DSMC) is an association of NGOs and citizens from the Pacific Islands, Australia, Canada, and USA concerned about the likely impacts of DSM on marine and coastal ecosystems and communities.The DSM campaign is a Project of The Ocean Foundation, supported by Mining Watch Canada, a Partner of Mission Blue/Sylvia Earle Alliance and a Member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. The Deep Sea Mining campaign started in late 2011 in response to the frenzy of sea-bed exploration in the South Pacific.

Alliance of Solwara Worriors is a group of over 20 communities in the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, formed after many years of campaigns against the Seabed mining areas. They produce petitions and calls to the Government.

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Noise pollution, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsDestroy deep-sea habitats; Biodiversity loss (loss of ecosystem structure and function in deep-sea ecosystems); Species such as whales, tuna and sharks could be affected by noise, vibrations and light pollution caused by mining equipment and surface vessels, as well as potential leaks and spills of fuel and toxic products.


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Moratoria
Project temporarily suspended
Development of alternatives:In 2019 PNG citizens call for a full ban on sea-bed mining. Because of the growing pressure from deep-sea mining companies (French, Canadian, US, and Chinese), in 2019, Fiji president (Frank Bainimarama) and Vanuatu Prime Minister proposed a 10-year moratorium on sea-bed mining to allow proper scientific research on Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and territorial waters. In September 2019, Papua New Guinea joined Fiji and Vanuatu.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The environmental, social and economic risks of seabed mining necessitate a complete ban, not a temporary stop as the moratorium imposes.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[5] China Dialogue Ocean, "Podcast: The damaging failure of sea-bed mining in Papua New Guinea"; 2019.

[14] Papua New Guinea Mining Watch; "Solwara 1"; 2020

[6] Deep Sea Mining; "Out of our depth"; 2011.

[12] China Dialogue Ocean, "Podcast: The damaging failure of sea-bed mining in Papua New Guinea"; 2019.

[7]Deep Sea Mining Campaign; "Letter to Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea"; 2011

[11] Business and Human Rights, "Fiji: Prime Minister calls for 10-year moratorium on sea-bed mining to allow proper scientific research"; 2019

[8] Australian Mining; "Locals launch legal action against PNG Gov’t over Nautilus deep sea project"; 2017

[19] Fauna and Flora Internationa, " An Assessment of the Risks and Impacts of Seabed Mining on

Marine Ecosystems"; 2020

[2] Solwara Mining

[4] Colin Filer et al., "How could Nautilus Minerals get a social licence to operate the world's first deep sea mine?"; 2016

[10] DSM Campaign; "Letter to Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea"; 2012

[3] Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Earthworks, Mining Watch Canada, Oasis Earth, Mineral Policy Institute. Submission to the International Seabed Authority on the Report to ISA members and stakeholders: Developing a Regulatory Framework for Mineral Exploitation in the Area, 2015.

[9] DSM Campaign; "Legal action launched over Nautilus-Solwara 1";2017

[13] DSM Campaign, "Moratorium on DSM welcomed but more courage required of PM Marape"; 2019

[15] Solwara Mining

[17] DSM Campaign; " Accountability Zero"

[16] Nautilus Minerals, 2008, 2016b

[18] DSM Campaign; "Out of our Depth"; 2011

[20] Mining Watch Canada | Deep Sea Mining Campaign | London Mining Network, Why the Rush?, 2019

[21] Mining Watch Canada | Deep Sea Mining Campaign | London Mining Network, Why the Rush?, 2019

[1] The Guardian, "Collapse of PNG deep-sea mining venture sparks calls for moratorium"; 2019.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[22] Hydrothermal Vents, a scientific description

[22] Hydrothermal Vents, a scientific description

[22] Hydrothermal Vents, a scientific description

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

The Last Frontier (documentary)

Documentary on Alliance of Solwara Warriors

Short documentary

Meta information

Contributor:Laura Grassi
Last update27/06/2020



Sea-bed mining machineries

Solawara 1 licence concessions in the Bismacrk Sea

Seafloor Massive Sulfides (SMS)

Alliance for Solwara Worriors

Traditional shark fisheries