After days at sea with the Cook Islands PM, here’s what I learned

The South Pacific nation plans to mine the seabed for metals needed in the green energy transition. But could the fight against climate change put our oceans at risk?

Mark Brown
The Cook Islands' Prime Minister Mark Brown holds polymetallic nodules aboard a research ship in the Pacific [Lucy Murray/Al Jazeera]

The ship was rocking from side to side and I was struggling to find my sea legs as I stumbled into the queue for dinner.

I was standing in the mess hall of an exploration vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

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Ahead of me in line was Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown.

He held onto the buffet table with one hand as he used the other to scoop spaghetti bolognese onto his plate.

I took a few slices of pizza and sat at a table bolted to the floor.

“Cutlery?” came a voice from above.

It was the prime minister, offering me a knife and fork.

A seemingly ordinary question coming from anyone but a world leader.

As gracefully as possible in four-metre swells, Brown sat down next to me without a security guard or member of his entourage in sight.

“These exploration vessels are going to be doing so much work in our ocean, I wanted to see firsthand what it was like,” Brown said.

Teenagers jump off a pier
An exploration vessel is seen in the background as teenagers jump into the ocean at Avatiu Harbour, Rarotonga, the Cook Islands [Lucy Murray/Al Jazeera]

When we flew to the Cook Islands to film Mining the Pacific Ocean, a 101 East investigation into deep-sea exploration and climate change, I had tempered expectations about an on-camera interview with the country’s leader.

We certainly hadn’t expected Brown and his wife to come onboard the ship for three days as VIP guests.

“It may be unusual for a prime minister, but it’s not unusual for me. I like this sort of thing. I guess I’m pretty much a hands-on type of person,” he remarked.

We were onboard to observe a team of surveyors who were mapping the ocean floor using sonar technology.

The crew from resource company Moana Minerals were searching for “buried treasure”, in the form of potato-sized rocks known as polymetallic nodules.

The pebbles are highly sought after because they contain metals needed in the green energy transition.

The copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese found in these nodules can be used to make batteries for electric cars and storage cells for home solar units.

It’s believed there are trillions of these rocks in the waters surrounding the Cook Islands. To resource companies, it’s an untapped gold mine.

Moana Minerals has been granted an exploration licence to investigate what lies on the ocean floor. The company’s exploration area only covers one percent of the Cook Islands’ territory, but it’s estimated to contain about $10bn worth of minerals.

“These minerals not only provide an opportunity for income for our country, but it also provides an opportunity to contribute to the world’s push to green energy and to reducing carbon emissions,” Brown said.

“We can do our part to help the world.”

An untested industry

The Cook Islands is on the front line of climate change, experiencing rising sea levels, increased droughts and cyclones.

This nation of 15,000 people is also suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tourism, the country’s largest industry, ground to a halt in 2020 when borders closed and resorts were shuttered for two years.

The country has since reopened, but its economy has declined by 25 percent.

These challenges are contributing to mass migration, with four out of five Cook Islanders moving overseas, often for higher-paid jobs.

The Moana Minerals research ship
The Moana Minerals research ship at Avatiu Harbour [Lee Ali/Al Jazeera]

Dozens of houses now sit abandoned in villages across the islands.

The prime minister is acutely aware that his country cannot function without a sizeable workforce and with limited options in a country that’s 99 percent water, he has turned to an untested industry: deep-sea mining.

His government has issued exploration licences to three resource companies, including Moana Minerals.

The permits are not a green light to mine, but allow companies to determine if the industry is viable.

“If we develop an industry here in our country that is viable and sustainable, we will attract back those people and we will keep people in the country,” Brown said.

“There’s no doubt, if a country is to prosper, it must also have people.”

But deep-sea mining carries risks as well as possible riches.

It involves dredging the seabed 5km (3 miles) below the surface – a process scientists say can cause underwater dust storms that drift on currents and choke marine life.

And that’s just one of the known repercussions. What alarms scientists even more is what they don’t know.

The deep sea is one of the least explored places on Earth.

Only 25 percent of the world’s oceans have been mapped, and biologists estimate that less than 10 percent of deep sea creatures have been discovered.

‘Drunk on the idea of riches’

Before boarding the exploration vessel, I took a smaller boat into the azure waters surrounding the main island of Rarotonga.

The skipper was a Spanish backpacker, who thought he had the best job in the world.

It was easy to see why. When I dived below the surface, the clarity in the coral lagoon was extraordinary.

Jacqueline Evans
Jacqueline Evans gazes toward the ocean [Lucy Murray/Al Jazeera]

Swimming beside me was environmental scientist Jacqueline Evans, one of 700 experts to have signed a petition calling for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining.

The group wants more independent research done before mining begins, arguing that the ocean already faces a raft of problems, from plastic pollution to acidification and overfishing.

“To have deep-sea mining, it’s just going to compound all these issues,” she told me as we bobbed up and down in the water.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to solve an environmental issue by creating another environmental issue.”

The longer I spent in the Cook Islands, the clearer it became; the ocean is entwined in every aspect of South Pacific life, from livelihoods to cultural traditions.

There is a joke here, that only lazy people starve. The ocean has always provided food – you just have to catch it.

Evans argues that deep-sea mining threatens to destroy this way of life.

“It [a healthy ocean] is really important for tourism, but also in terms of our subsistence fishing and our industrial fishing. There’s a lot of economic benefit to having a beautiful, pristine environment,” she said.

But Evans fears the government has already convinced many Cook Islanders that mining could turn the country into the Dubai of the South Pacific.

“They’ve been talking to communities all around the country and only giving one side of the story,” she said.

“I think there’s definitely a portion of our community that are drunk on the idea of riches from mining.”

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown sits with reporter Lucy Murray
Mark Brown and reporter Lucy Murray in the ship’s mess hall [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera]

Back at the swaying dinner table onboard the research ship, the prime minister maintained that the government would not issue mining permits unless resource companies prove it can be done without significant environmental impact.

But how do you define significant impact? That’s the one question he couldn’t answer directly.

But Mark Brown is prepared to accept some risk, if there is a pay-off that benefits his country.

“Pragmatism is, by nature, a necessity when you live in a small island state,” he said.

“We are a country that has very limited resources… to get ahead in this type of environment, we have to make bold decisions sometimes and we have to lead the way.”

His view is not shared by everyone across the region. Seven other Pacific nations oppose mining, arguing that because they share the ocean, they also share the risk of sustaining environmental damage.

The taro farmer

The morning after this discussion, the cameraman, producer and I loaded our equipment onto a barge and motored to one of the nation’s 15 islands.

Back on solid ground, we came across an old man, a taro farmer tending to his property.

A grave outside a home in Cook Islands
It is common for Cook Islanders to bury their loved ones at home, to keep them close [Lucy Murray/Al Jazeera]

I asked him to explain the graves that lie in front of each house in the village.

He told me it’s common for Cook Islanders to bury their loved ones at home, to keep them close.

Detecting my Australian accent, he told me his children had left the island to work in Melbourne.

Pointing to two graves that lay in front of the abandoned house next to his, the farmer said, “They’re the parents.” Their children had also left the island for opportunities abroad.

A question that had been lurking in my mind for the entire trip resurfaced: If deep-sea mining goes ahead, will it be the golden ticket that draws young people home? Or could it be the nail in the coffin that destroys the pristine marine environment that has sustained generations of Cook Islanders?

It’s an enormous question for one of the world’s smallest nations.

This story is produced in collaboration with SBS Australia and supported by the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.

Source: Al Jazeera