Minerals, Climate Change and the SAMOA Pathway

The United Nations Small Island States conference (UNSIDS 2014) held in Apia Samoa in early September this year was a momentous gathering of international donors held after 10 years to focus global attention on the predicament of countries most vulnerable to climate change. The attendance of UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon as well as the heads of several UN agencies such as UNDP and UNEP gave particular weight to the meeting. However, the pre-conference private sector forum deserves additional attention with regard to climate change adaptation strategies for small-island states. This forum was attended by notable multinational players such as Google Inc. as well as natural resource companies. Of particular note in this regard was the presence of deep sea mining company Nautilus Inc., which recently received permission from the Government of Papua New Guinea and has advanced exploration in Tonga.

Mining often does not figure prominently in the public’s perception of a resource base for small island states but in reality some of the world’s most concentrated mineral deposits are to be found in island regions because of geological factors. Massive volcanic eruptions that often form islands bring forth minerals from the bowels of the earth in quantities that might not be found in continental geology. It is thus no surprise that islands such as New Caledonia have an estimated 10% of the world’s nickel reserves. Jamaica has enormous bauxite deposits which have been mined for decades alongside its tourist economy.

Although the SAMOA Pathway document does not explicitly mention mineral development, there is little doubt that given the resources available for mining in numerous SIDS, mining either on land or in the surrounding seabed will be a significant feature of the investment trajectory. As coral systems and coastal tourism opportunities become more vulnerable to climate change, mineral resources could provide greater resilience to SIDS economies. Even SIDS with minimal history of mining such as Mauritius have now started a process of engaging with mineral extraction prospects through their ocean economy initiative.

Any mining activity must be undertaken with great care and the revenues received invested wisely to prevent the dire fate that befell phosphate mining island states like Nauru that squandered much of their revenue due to errant planning of sovereign wealth funds. The potential for conflict caused by resource nationalism (as occurred in Bougainville Island in the 1980s) must also be considered.  Despite these cautionary tales, gradual consideration of the role of minerals in providing economic resilience against climate change vulnerability is now being seriously considered.