Australia’s first people had farming savvy
On the verge of destruction

The cost to the Pacific of plundered resources

Plunder (Ben Sanders)
Plunder (Ben Sanders)

PACIFIC PROJECT TEAM
| The Guardian | Edited extracts

Link here to view the entire article together
with interactive maps and data sets

SYDNEY - Millions of tonnes of minerals, fish and timber are extracted from Pacific island nations each year, generating massive profits for foreign multinationals.

Across the region, mining, fishing and logging industries have shored up the budgets and stabilised the economies of Pacific countries, sometimes making and breaking governments.

Done well, these industries bring jobs to the Pacific and bring in much-needed revenue for development.

But there are also cases where companies have started mining, logging and fishing projects without regard for environmental or social harms of the work they do.

The region is covered in the scars of mining projects, deforestation and illegal fishing.

A global audit of Pacific resource extraction undertaken by The Guardian’s Pacific Project has revealed that:

  • China dominates resource extraction in the region, taking just over half the total tonnes of the minerals, timber and fish exported. 
  • In some industries, Pacific communities see less than 12% of the final value of the resources being extracted, with little paid in royalties or reinvested in the countries which own the resources. Despite their collective natural resource wealth, GDP per capita remains low for many Pacific Island states. 
  • The extraction each year of billions of dollars’ worth of minerals, oil, gas and timber – US$11.8bn in 2019 - is causing environmental devastation, poisoning rivers and forests, and degrading food security. 
  • The scale of these extractive industries is also having significant social and health impacts on Pacific people.

A few countries take the vast majority of the Pacific’s natural resources

China is the Pacific’s biggest customer whether measured by weight or US dollars. But Australia is close behind when measured in value – $2.8bn to China’s $3.3bn in 2019.

This is due to the fact that while China takes a lot of wood and fish from the region – which are heavy but relatively inexpensive – Australia imports valuable minerals, such as gold.

China’s lack of laws against importing illegal timber, and poor accountability for environmental or social impacts mean the impact of their resource extraction is often worse than for companies from countries like Australia, which are subject to more scrutiny.

“China’s mineral, timber, fossil fuel, food and other imports from Pacific Island nations are staggering in magnitude,” says Prof Bill Laurance from James Cook University. “They’re creating enormous challenges for sustainable development in the region.”

Logging

Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are among the largest exporters of tropical logs in the world. But the forestry industry is dominated by foreign companies, with some of the logging done illegally and often at unsustainable levels.

By some estimates Solomon Islands exports more than 19 times a sustainable amount of timber every year. On current rates, the archipelago could exhaust all of its natural forests by 2036.

Already there is evidence that logging in Solomon Islands is impacting the country’s coral reefs, a vital part of the food ecosystem.

Logging projects have also been linked to significant internal migration and increasing food insecurity through localised inflation and the destruction of mangroves and food gardens.

Many communities across the Pacific have been left with little to show for decades of logging _– despite the fact that forested land is mostly under customary ownership.

Corruption and poor processes mean that landowners and governments are often shortchanged. In PNG, the reported annual revenues from forestry are between US$200m and $300m, but the industry claims to make only between $8m and $9m in profit.

Mining

Mining has dominated Pacific economies for decades but ownership and operations have mostly been a foreign affair.

Every year nearly 11m tonnes of fuel and oil are extracted from the region, 2m tonnes of copper, nickel, manganese and aluminium are mined, and gold worth $2.6bn is quarried.

But despite the minerals and wealth pulled from the Pacific’s mountains, valleys, oceans and rivers, communities often have little to show for it.

Huge gold and copper mines like PNG’s Ok Tedi and Panguna have delivered millions in royalties for fragile economies but they have also wrought devastating impacts upon the lives and livelihoods of the people who live with them.

Oil and mining accounted for approximately 90% of the value of all PNG export in 2018 but just 10% of government revenues.

Promises for infrastructure or royalty payments for local communities are often broken. And concessionary terms or exemptions are often granted to win projects, with the result that many mines – including the Lihir goldmine – have paid almost zero corporate tax for years.

In Solomon Islands, a bauxite mine on Rennell Island has been the cause of catastrophic spills of oil and bauxite into the island’s fishing grounds, endangering a World Heritage site – while enjoying multi-million dollar tax exemptions granted by the country's government.

And the island of Nauru once had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world because of a booming phosphate mining industry in the 1970s and 80s.

But the mismanagement of hundreds of millions in royalties caused the near-collapse of the country’s economy, fuelling a series of financial crises and ongoing political instability. Nearly 80% of the country’s small landmass is unlivable, having been strip-mined by foreign multinationals.

Fishing

The Pacific region exported 530,000 tonnes of seafood products in 2019, netting US$1.2bn. The biggest exporters were Papua New Guinea ($470m), Fiji ($182m), the Federated States of Micronesia ($130m), Vanuatu ($108m) and Solomon Islands ($101m).

The biggest consumers of Pacific fish in 2019 were Thailand, with seafood imports from the Pacific worth $300m, the Philippines ($195m), Japan ($130m), China ($100m) and the US ($100m).

In some ways the fishing industry is a success story for the Pacific region.

In a landmark moment of regional cooperation, eight countries signed the parties to the Nauru agreement in 1982, which allowed the tiny countries to negotiate as a bloc, the access to their waters by foreign fishing vessels, a move that has generated an additional $500m a year in revenue.

But the Pacific –– the world’s most fertile fishing ground, which supplies well over half of the world’s tuna –– also falls victim to illegal fishing, with an estimated one in every five wild-caught fish illegally caught.

Seabed mining

Negotiations are under way to open nearly half the Earth’s surface to mining. The International Seabed Authority is finalising a mining code that would, for the first time, allow companies and nations to mine minerals from the ocean floor, up to 5km below the waves.

Proponents argue that seabed mining would be a well-regulated industry, one that avoids the mistakes of mining on land. The industry is potentially worth billions of dollars and could assist the transition to a renewable energy economy, supplying raw materials for key technologies including batteries, computers and phones.

But marine scientists who study the deep sea floor – an area of the world humanity knows less about than the surface of the moon – have urged caution. They warn that the world could lose whole species of marine life even before they are known to science.

Pacific nations are caught up in this nascent extractive industry, as many of the exploratory licences that have been granted have been sponsored by them and are in or near Pacific waters.

A coalition of some of the most significant civil society organisations in the region has launched a campaign for a ‘blue line’ to be drawn against deep sea mining.

The coalition says it represents the “most grievous violation of Mother Ocean, already exploited by those nations that have rejected the basic human responsibility to live in harmony with the fragile ecosystem of our planet for the financial benefit of a few”.

Link here to view the entire article together with interactive maps and data sets

Comments

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William Dunlop

Yes, indeed Paul - Ross Garnaut, who I knew years ago, first met him in Josephson Wright's stockbrokers in Brisbane on the formation of Keela Wee Pty Ltd. We were amongst the founder shareholders.

The main reason Ross was banned from PNG was his knowledge of what needed to be done.

In my recent comments, K72 billion in tax revenue foregone from forestry alone, not mentioning fisheries & mining. All the spivs received were literally a few crumbs off the rich men's tables.

Tell me, how's your chanter performing. I got a swag of great photos of the Morobe Show in 1969.

Paul Oates

A comparison of total value of the resources concerned is misleading. Looking at the website listed of the actual products being exported, while Australia may import very valuable gold from the Pacific, local people can't eat gold and stay alive or use it to build houses.

The loss of seafood and timber resources on the other hand will and are directly affecting the quality of life of those who are living where these resources come from.

The ethics displayed in this report are staggering. In nations like PNG where there is a huge population bulge of young people, primary resources such as these will be desperately needed by local people, rather than having them displayed on the wooden tables of relatively well off nations, where people are demanding high end quality food due to diminished protein from an ongoing and devastating swine flu epidemic.

The obvious disconnection between those leaders who are knowingly allowing this rape of resources and the real owners of these resources is hard to understand unless one looks at the intentional lack of education and media awareness that is allowing this process to happen. Those leaders responsible will undoubtedly eventually find refuge in safe havens to spend their ill gotten gains while those who inherit the result will wonder why they have nothing to live on.

While local leaders debate imminent Climate Change at high levels, their people's resources are allowed to be 'mumuted' under their noses. Opim ai lo yupela olgeta.

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