“Deep Sea Matters”: Young Jamaican activists take a dive into the issue of deep sea mining

The ambitious event organised by a group of collaborators to highlight the issue of deep sea mining was highly successful. On a warm and very breezy lunchtime on Thursday, January 26 at the University of the West Indies Mona campus in Kingston, there was a full house audience consisting of university students, high school students, educators, researchers, diplomats, civil society representatives and environmentalists. You can watch the entire event on YouTube here (the audio is a problem for the first five minutes, but thereafter it is fine).

Here’s what these young people, who participated in Thursday’s event, think about deep sea mining.

After a comprehensive introduction and an overview of the issue of deep sea mining by climate activist and geologist Geasean Johnson, the four panelists came to the table and delivered a brilliant range of views, facts and perspectives. Geasean highlighted transparency! This word cropped up several times.

Geasean Johnson, climate activist and geologist, with an actual polymetallic nodule in his hand during his introduction. “Jamaica as a Small Island Developing State should be among the most alarmed” at deep sea mining, said Geasean, as it is most vulnerable to climate change. The ISA has issued 33 contracts to explore the deep sea – including one for Jamaica. (Screenshot)

The voices of Dahvia Hylton (Research, Advocacy and Policy Development Co-lead at Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council – JCCYC) and Robyn Young, marine scientist and Projects and Administrative Coordinator at the Sustainable Ocean Alliance Caribbean were loud and clear. Long-time climate activist and podcaster Dainalyn Swaby (“Global Yaadie”) ably moderated and kept the audience on their toes, also, while interjecting her own thoughts.

The young activists were balanced by some thoughtful and very helpful comments from Christopher Corbin, Senior Coordination Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme Cartagena Convention Secretariat and Caribbean Environment Programme in Kingston. Corbin spoke about the “potentially irreversible loss of the substrate” that would follow the mining activity – as well as the impacts of noise, toxic metals, the plumes of sediment and so on (some of which has already been seen on video during one test run recently). He mentioned there is also a cultural heritage that we should be aware of – as displayed in some fascinating booths by Institute of Jamaica.

Corbin agreed with Laleta Davis-Mattis, Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies and UWI’s General Counsel, that we need more serious media coverage of deep sea mining locally. After all, as Geasean Johnson stressed later, this is an “existential issue” for the human race. If the sea dies, so do we.

“We need to stop this industry from even starting,” declared Robyn Young, noting that oceans are all connected and that our region is, obviously, extremely dependent on the ocean.

“Complete and utter heartbreak…” This is how Dahvia Hylton felt when she first heard about deep sea mining, against the background of the growing impacts of climate change. “I thought it was make believe.” Is profit more important than our Planet? she asked. This is a burning question that has been asked in many ways, in different contexts.

(l-r) Dahvia Hylton and Christopher Corbin listen to Laleta Davis Mattis’ point of view. (Screenshot)

Laleta Davis Mattis said that she was happy to see the youth advocacy: cue for a solid round of applause. She referred to the “precautionary principle” in international law – and this can be open to interpretation in different ways. She also pointed to “our high levels of consumerism” and the need for new minerals and metals. Are they needed? That’s open to question. “We must determine whether deep sea mining is a necessity.” Will it be needed in the future? “If we need more science, then get more science,” she concluded.

Ms. Davis Mattis raised the concept of “the common heritage of mankind” – a principle in international law that emerged in the 1960s and is embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – “which is that those minerals…We must all benefit,” she asserted. This includes developing countries like Jamaica; the International Seabed Authority (ISA) signed a contract with Blue Minerals Jamaica two years ago. Biodiversity is also, of course, a major aspect of mankind’s common heritage.

Now, there is also countries’ “right to development” and to follow their plans for improving their economy to consider, reminded Ms. Davis Mattis: “Citizens need to interface with that role,” – the governmental role, that is. We need to take a long, hard look at these issues when we are thinking in the wider context of environmental management.

“We [humans] are the constant in the dialogue,” she said. Indeed, this is the age of the Anthropocene.

Dahvia Hylton expanded on her concerns. She believes in the important role of youth (in particular, millennial) who she suggested are idealistic about fighting climate change, in the Caribbean as elsewhere. Is the move towards deep sea mining “turning us into colonisers” – ready to go and mine in another region? She has realised that Pacific Islanders have been campaigning for many years before the Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council. Dahvia touched on environmental justice issues associated with mining on land in Jamaica, which would be amplified under the sea: the dust (which takes much longer to settle under water); and the noise (greatly amplified underwater, impacting marine life).

Christopher Corbin warming to the conversation. (Screenshot)

Protecting the marine environment is part of the ISA’s mandate, observed Christopher Corbin. Their position is “conflicted” however, says Robyn Young, a marine biologist and scuba diving enthusiast. Why are these decisions being made for us? She wants to ensure that representatives from SOA Caribbean are included in these important meetings at the ISA (in fact, international NGOs are allowed observer status).

However, it would be good to have the local (Jamaican) media writing on the issue of deep sea mining. There can never be enough outreach and sensitisation, Christopher Corbin agreed – pointing to the “nine day wonder” mindset of our journalists. However the issue, which is a complex one, must be made relevant, and explained to the media. However, the media create the news and influence us, Dainalyn noted: “We need to have some sort of mainstream conversation” on deep sea mining. Ms. Davis Mattis suggested that States have a role to play; they should be a part of the public education thrust.

Fundamentally, we are talking about one ocean, said Christopher Corbin. Whatever activity takes place, wherever, will affect other areas. It’s about day to day matters: fishing and livelihoods, tourism, coastal communities, coastal protection, the Blue Economy – even new potential opportunities that may be jeopardised by deep sea mining, regionally and globally. An estimated over 100 million people within the Caribbean depend on the Caribbean Sea, directly or indirectly. The sea also generates some US$400 billion “for our region.” So yes, deep sea mining will affect the average Caribbean citizen’s daily life, he concluded.

The NGOs are “critical to the discussion,” said Laleta Davis Mattis. “You are giving voice to the voiceless” (and she was referring to Dahvia’s earlier reference to the whales that might be unable to communicate as a result of land mining. Nature has rights, too.) She challenged the young people to take their placards to other places – government offices, perhaps? Dahvia explained that the JCCYC wrote an Open Letter to the Office of the Prime Minister (which followed its all too common procedure of not responding); and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which did respond). The Opposition Spokesperson on Land, Environment and Climate Change, Senator Sophia Frazer-Binns (who attended the event) had sat down and talked with them. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) requested a copy of the contract with Blue Minerals from the Government, but their request was denied.

Dahvia Hylton was eloquent and often incisive. (Screenshot)

The question and answer session presented a whole range of comments and questions from the audience. The traditional standing mic in the middle of the aisle awaited. First up was a representative of the Embassy of Costa Rica, who introduced himself as a delegate of his country to the ISA. He discussed the sponsorship issue – the country/company relationship. He pointed out that no contract for actual exploitation has been issued yet. He went back to the transparency issue at the ISA, which he noted is critical – not just the “closed doors” that the youth activists spoke about, but how “internal processes” are being conducted and how the members are informed on the results of these. ISA sessions are in fact live streamed on its website (although not all delegates were keen on this in the past). Article 145 of UNCLOS notes that mining can be done but that regulations are mandatory. He declared that Costa Rica supports the “precautionary principle,” but because of a lack of scientific evidence it does not support the exploitation of the deep sea.

University student Felix Charnley is still agonising over the fact that only four people showed up for a protest in downtown Kingston outside the ISA headquarters during their last meeting in November. He asked: what are the alternatives, since this does not seem to work in Jamaica? Social media is a good outlet, suggested Laleta Davis Mattis, who was encouraging – and so right: protest and advocacy has to be real – and sustained. Dainalyn Swaby added that trying to bring in other entities and broaden the dialogue is a challenge; are they willing? I am not sure that any Jamaican Government officials were present at this event.

An ISA trainee, UWI graduate and Jamaican geologist, who spent a month at sea in the Pacific, stood up at the standing mic and made the case for deep sea mining. He is also a Jamaican delegate to the ISA, describing discussions there as a “collective effort,” with major emphasis on environmental conservation and monitoring. He had also done some mineral exploration for gold and copper in Bellas Gate, St. Catherine (there are some remnants of mines there). “We love technology so much, but where do the resources come from?” he asked. Answer: we need to mine them! He also compared the plumes of sediment that are of great concern to those produced by underwater volcanoes (such as “Kick ’em Jenny” near Grenada) – which is, of course, a naturally occurring event over which humans have no control. Underwater mining cannot trigger anything near underwater volcanoes and landslides, he asserted – observing that “the carbon footprint for seabed mining is way less than [mining] on land.”

Another audience member, also a geologist, talked about “the responsibility of the consumer,” and the overwhelming impact of what he called “the influencer culture.” He works in the extractive industry but is also concerned about the environment. “Try to reduce your footprint,” he said, and young people should be taught this. He supports lab-grown gems and recycled gold.

Meanwhile, the ISA Council meets next in Kingston from March 16 – 31, 2023. As Jamaicans like to say, “These are interesting times.” Here are some comments I noted from the “Deep Sea Matters” event…

“There’s a reason we have conversations with experts and persons who are close to the subject matter – to be guided…but there must be a willingness to have the conversations to move forward,” asserted Dainalyn.

“We have always discussed what is our role,” stressed Dahvia – that is, during a wide range of discussions on social media over the past year at least. The JCCYC believes that Jamaicans should aim for a circular economy – use less, consume less.

“We have over-exploited our land, and we are thinking, where shall we go next? But is deep sea mining the only choice we have for minerals?” questioned Christopher Corbin.

“We have not answered the questions” on deep sea mining, mused Laleta Davis Mattis.

Geasean doesn’t like the word “passionate” that is often rather condescendingly used to describe the JCYCC. They are serious advocates and we are scientists. “We are not anti-development,” he added. There are options and alternatives. Back to the circular economy.

Dahvia Hylton stated: “You ask how it [deep sea mining and climate change] affects Jamaica? It is affecting our very soul…It affects us, everything. And the youth know it.”

Footnote: Did you know that the ghost octopus actually lays its eggs on sponges that grow on the coveted polymetallic nodules? asked Robyn.

Let’s just think about this.

One of two brooding octopods observed in the Peru Basin (4,150 m). The octopod was observed hanging underneath the brood of ~30 2.0–2.7 cm-long eggs, each attached to the sponge stalk on a manganese nodule. (Image made by AWI-OFOS camera system; SONNE expedition 242) (c) AWI-OFOS Launcher team

4 thoughts on ““Deep Sea Matters”: Young Jamaican activists take a dive into the issue of deep sea mining

  1. “Underwater mining cannot trigger anything near underwater volcanoes and landslides, he asserted – observing that “the carbon footprint for seabed mining is way less than [mining] on land.”” Check out what fracking has done in Alberta, Canada. Never underestimate the effects of mining. Because the environment is everybody’s and affects everyone, decisions even about well-intentioned and well-planned mining on land or under the sea must be agreed to by all stakeholders through a patient, honest, collaborative process. It is far better to take more time up front and have a decent agreement from all stakeholders, than to push ahead and later run into blockades, strikes, lawsuits etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree! But then the young man, who has benefited from training at ISA, had to make the case for mining. I would never, ever underestimate the effects of any kind of mining, anywhere.


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