Dess-Seabed Mining
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Journal Article Review of Tilot, et al. (2021), “Traditional Dimensions of Seabed Resource Management in the Context of Deep-Sea Mining in the Pacific”.

Roxane de Waegh and Lucas Watt

The topic of deep-sea mining in Oceania has increasingly come into the forefront of regional consciousness. Multiple prominent media stories concerning deep-sea mining have been published in 2021. The Guardian’s article, Pacific Plunder: This is who profits from the mass extraction of the regions natural resources, identifies logging, terrestrial mining, commercial fishing, as extractive industries that not only degrade the natural environment of Pacific communities, but also leave them with very little of the profits. It argues that deep-sea mining is the next industry that will likely follow the same format, degrading the deep-sea natural habitat that we know very little about, and leaving Pacific communities with little of the economic benefits in return. Other media stories are being published about the granting of deep-sea mineral exploration licenses. Recently the Fiji Sun published an article on various new deep ocean sites that are being opened up for mineral exploration. Radio New Zealand (RNZ) have also covered an emerging “blue-line” movement initiated by church groups and NGOs which aims to prohibit deep-sea mining in Oceania.

It is amongst this upsurge in media coverage on deep-sea mining that we analyze how it is being covered in a piece of academic literature. Academic analysis of deep-sea mining in Oceania is not necessarily new (see, D’arcy, 2013, 2014), however a recent article by Tilot, et al. (2021), “Traditional dimensions of seabed resource management in the context of Deep-Sea Mining in the Pacific”, provides an additional level of depth to some of the current issues and concepts concerning deep-sea mining in the Pacific. It analyses how traditional knowledge and values are incorporated, ignored, or misrepresented in emerging deep-sea legal frameworks which mining companies must navigate. This review analyses how Tilot, et al. (2021) characterize and bridge the relationship between traditional knowledge/values and legal frameworks applied to the ocean.

Roxane de Waegh agrees with Tilot et al. (2021) that the lure of economic profits and development which deep-sea mining promises, are guiding the industry rather than traditional management of resources. Oceanic people have a collective holistic relationship to the environment that encompasses land and deep ocean spaces. Pacific relationships to environment however are currently being ignored or marginalized in deep ocean resource management. Tilot et al. (2021) recognize this, but do not go far enough to discuss how traditional Pacific regimes can better be incorporated into maritime law. Rather they leave this issue open-ended and unexplored.

Lucas Watt explores how deep-seabed mining companies are targeting deep water areas for operation outside of any nation’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This includes the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the north-east Pacific. Tilot et al (2021) effectively identify the legal frameworks that these deep-sea mining companies must navigate (and subvert) to operate in deep water areas, including the Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM) principle. They however miss an opportunity to analyze how new forms of deep ocean territoriality are being constructed through corporate-regulatory interactions. These new forms of deep ocean territoriality will potentially allow companies to freely extract ocean resources with little regard for traditional relationships to ocean. It may even disrupt how Pacific people interact with the concept of ocean in the broader social imaginary.

Traditional and indigenous knowledge must first be practiced, valued, and integrated locally – Roxane de Waegh

Tilot et al. (2021) commence this article by introducing deep sea mining within the context of conflicting interests between the increasing commercial interests of the Global North and the traditional and indigenous knowledge of the Pacific Island communities that fundamentally interconnects their socio-cultural, spiritual, and economic wellbeing to the Pacific Ocean. On the one hand, the international community, driven by large corporate businesses, keep advocating for seabed mining as an opportunity to support the long-term economic sustainability of Pacific Island States and the social development of the Pacific peoples – notably to limit their dependence on foreign aid (Tiloet et al., 2021). On the other hand, local communities of Oceania continue to be deeply rooted in social and moral expectations, which perpetuate an active indigenous relationship with history, the land, the ocean and each other, laying the foundation of their societies which is based on reciprocity and relationships. Tilot et al. (2021) argue that monetary and political power, and sovereignty and the urge for development are increasingly driving the traditional and indigenous treatment of resources rather than ancestral respect and local belonging.

Throughout history, the colonial commodification of nature has put pressure on traditional resource management practices, and the relationships indigenous communities have with their surrounding ecosystems. Childs (2019) draws an interesting parallel between internationally driven conservation initiatives, which try to integrate traditional resource management and cultural identities with modern ecological science, and deep sea mining projects – both have a fundamental dissonance toward Oceanian habitus (Childs, 2019; Tilot et al., 2021). In uncovering this intrinsic contradiction, Childs (2019) illustrates how global conservation projects (from private foundations, research centres, and governments) strategically drive environmental management. This is illustrated today by external organisations (international NGOs, United Nations projects, overseas development aid, etc.) supporting, or driving, environmental management through the use of customary practices. At first glance, the reconciliation of socio-cultural identities through the integration of modern ecological science and conservation appears to be the perfect solution to conserve cultural and biological diversity. However, the concept of habitus also emerges from the historically and socially conditions of its production (Bourdieu, 1997), which are fundamentally contradictory when comparing Oceanic societies with Western societies. For example, Oceanic cultures perceive the foundation of the universe as a continuous process of growth and expansion – where there is no god at the origin of the universe (Rigo, 2004). Another inherent contradiction can be seen in the modern privatisation of land, which enters in direct conflict with the concept of traditional extended family lands, which is still appreciated as common heritage and law in some countries of Oceania.

Hau’ofa (1994) demonstrates these opposing perspectives brilliantly by pointing out that it was actually the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982) that first induced territorial instinct to where there was none before. By labelling Pacific Island states as ‘large maritime states’ with incredible economic development potential, UNCLOS encouraged a shift of interest from a local sense of belonging, reciprocity and relationship to the land and sea, to a sense of ownership, sovereignty, and urge for development. Lastly, Oceanic societies do not separate the ocean from the land as Western societies do – the Oceania habitus tends to integrate the sea and land into a meaningful, holistic view of the relationship between nature and culture (Tilot et al., 2021).

Oceanic societies perceive the world as a vast kinship network, with dynamic interactions between mineral, plants and animals, and where reciprocity and relationships are the founding pillars of society. It is this cultural understanding of the world and traditional knowledge that Tilot et al. (2021) strongly recommend should be integrated into the management of deep sea mining activities. The very foundation of holistic custom-based relationships, rather than a mere participatory approach with traditional knowledge holders, is the predominant concept that needs to be applied as the guiding principle for the management of deep seabed mining activities in the Pacific region.  Tilot et al. (2021) argue that many science-based sectoral and top-down approaches for managing marine resources have not always adequately protected species, habitats and ecosystems. Contrarily, the authors of the article argue that customary marine management practices of the Pacific Island States were generally effective since they were locally designed and protected the long-term interests of the resource users i.e. the local communities (Tilot et al., 2021). In conclusion, indigenous knowledge and traditional resource management practices have a central role to play in reaching national, regional and international conservation targets (Tilot et al., 2021). However, the article fails to illustrate how customary laws and traditional knowledge can provide more diverse and culturally appropriate approaches for the sustainable use of biodiversity.

The majority of the article focuses on international, regional, and national legislation and policies with regard to sustainable seabed resource management. The analysis on the existing legal frameworks demonstrate the tensions that exist between science-based approaches and traditional perspectives , thereby complicating the potential for effective policies that respect indigenous and traditional knowledge. However, the article overlooks a critical and necessary component for traditional resource management practices to be effective at the local community level. Tilot et al. (2021) briefly state, ‘’…the effectiveness of traditional practices is often a reflection of the strength and the viability for the customary law regime…and there may also be issues regarding enforcement…and the roles taken by governments, communities and traditional leaders.’’ However, the paragraph ends there, and there is no further discussion around customary law regimes or how the devolution of power from local traditional leaders to centralised and westernised governance regimes may be impacting the effectiveness and enforcement of traditional practices. A discussion that links local governance and issues regarding effective enforcement of traditional practices would have strengthened the article. Shockingly, there was almost no consideration on how traditional practices can be integrated at a local level, in contrast to the elaborate discussion around how to integrate indigenous knowledge on an international level. Knowledge must first be practised, valued, and integrated locally by effective customary law and respected traditional leaders. Only then can it be considered and integrated into international, regional, or national legislation.

Emerging Forms of Deep-Ocean Territoriality – Lucas Watt

While reading Tilot et al (2021) I was drawn to his analysis of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, in an expanse of ocean outside of any nations exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the northeast Pacific. The zone is drawing an intense amount of interest from international mining companies as it holds three main types of mineral resources; ferro-manganese polymetalic nodules, Colbert Rich Crusts (CRC), and Seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits. There have been various mineral exploratory missions in the zone. A number of exploration zones can be seen in a full breakdown provided by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) below. Tilot et al. (2021) point out that the Cook Islands government, in collaboration with a foreign mining company and capital, are conducting mineral exploration missions in parts of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. They are not the only Pacific Island conducting such missions however. Tonga and Nauru are also included on the ISA breakdown and they are similarly allied with foreign mining firms and capital. Tilot et al. (2021) point out that foreign technical assistance and guidance is provided to Pacific nations and their associated companies by the the Secretariat of the South Pacific (SPC) through their SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (Image Credit: The International Seabed Authority)

The amount of technical support and capital behind Pacific fronted investment firms is indicative that foreign mining interests are using Pacific nations as a legitimizing symbol to expand outwards to the open sea. The technical support and capital is coming from a variety of sources, but European companies feature heavily. The Cook Islands in particular are obtaining assistance from the Belgian mining company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR). There are also other European companies involved in mineral exploration in the Clarion-Clipperton zone who are not aligned with any Pacific nation. Such companies must find alternate ways of acquiring public legitimacy, or hope to fly under the radar of the Pacific public. Broadly speaking, European involvement in deep-sea mining aligns with the emerging Blue-Growth paradigm which targets the ocean as the next frontier for economic growth and resource extraction (Voyer et al, 2018).

To be clear, this scramble for the ocean is not restricted to western powers; other countries such as Korea, Japan, and China are also included in the ISA breakdown. These countries are equally involved in targeting the ocean as a source of economic growth and extraction, that align with their own emerging oceanic resource paradigms. In particular, China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative aims to better connect spaces of resource extraction, coastal trade hub cities, and the Chinese market. This has similarly opened the ocean up for resource extraction for China, equal to the euro-centric blue-growth paradigm.

The emergence of multiple oceanic resource paradigms, the establishment of oceanic resource investment companies, and the increased number of exploratory missions in the Clarion-Cliperton zone, all made me immediately question the degree of legal jurisdiction these governmental and corporate entities have to extract resources in these proposed areas. In strictly formal legal terms (not socio-ecological terms), this question applies to Pacific and foreign nations/corporations alike, as deep-water spaces like the Clarion-Clipperton zone are located in international waters outside of any nation’s jurisdiction.

Tilot et al. (2021) contextualize the international legal framework related to deep ocean spaces well. They highlight that the deep ocean spaces and their natural resources are designated under the Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM) principle. Through this CHM designation Tilot et al (2021) explain that “it is tasked to the international community to manage it (deep-seabed resources) for the benefit of all countries and to preserve it for future generations”. It would be reasonable to assume that the CHM would designate deep-seabed minerals as off limits to any government or company eyeing it for economic profit. The untouched natural integrity of the ocean floor would be the logical “benefit” alluded to for future generations. Looking at the genesis behind the CHM however shows that this intuitive reading would be mistaken.

The CHM was created to prevent scenarios where a few industrial companies with the capacity to invest in deep-sea mining would be able to economically benefit from it (Tilot et al, 2021). It was not designed to make the ocean floor untouchable for the preservation of the environment. What the CHM actually does is provide a legalistic hurdle whereby mining interests must convince the “international community” that the benefits of deep-seabed mining will be fairly and equitably distributed. Building off the concerns of the monopolization of the ocean embedded in the CHM, the idea of “benefit” and “equity” are skewed more towards the economic and not the ecological.

Tilot et al (2021) allude that to date the extent to which fairness and equity are being considered in deep-sea mining are as follows:

  • A) Pacific nations are adequately included in the economic benefits of mining ventures. Establishing joint mining ventures with Pacific governments seems to be a rather conscious strategic move by foreign companies as it allows them to argue that they are sharing the economic benefits adequately. It is yet to be seen if these economic returns will be shared equitably however. There are various historical precedents which show that Pacific countries rarely acquire a good proportion of profits from resource extraction. It is also clear that some of the proposed ventures are not explicitly partnered with Pacific nations. This may be justified on the notion that “common heritage” applies to all nations not just local or regional ones.
  • B) Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to mine the ocean floor is being acquired from indigenous and local communities. Tilot et al. (2021) argue that the process for obtaining FPIC seems to be easily manipulated or bypassed for deep ocean spaces as they are far away from local communities.
  • C) Acknowledgement of traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities are considered in deep-seabed mining practices. How traditional knowledge is, or could be, considered in deep-sea mining is dubious at best. Tilot et al (2021) establish that Pacific people have a socio-ecological connection to the Ocean which is antithetical to the degree of marine resource commoditization proposed.

In response to these narrow economic parameters and easily subvertable guidelines for the “international community management” of the “fair distribution of benefits“, it is clear to me that the CHM will do very little to prevent a process whereby companies from developed countries will be able to claim sovereign ownership of ocean resources. We are already seeing this with a tetris-like division of the Clarion-Clipperton zone. The establishment of sovereign ownership of deep ocean resources will also occur in ways that conflict with the more fluid conceptions of ocean spaces which are characteristic of Pacific cultures. The willing inclusion of some Pacific island nations in this process does blur Pacific positionality in this context. However, it must be understood that national governments are not always representative of broader Pacific ideologies, especially as there is a weak sense of national affiliation in the region.

As important as the natural integrity of the seabed is, the implications of foreign interests claiming sovereignty over ocean spaces may be even further reaching. I argue that the corporate-legalistic interactions that are taking place in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, are forming new deep ocean territorial categories. While the areas of Ocean within 200 nautical miles of land are classified as the sovereign territory of the nation that own that land; ocean beyond this has been typically classified as “empty”, or as mare nullis. The deep ocean has typically been considered a lawless space external to society. Steinberg (2001) argues that this “emptiness” of deep-sea ocean spaces is not a natural category however. He argues that this “emptiness” is socially constructed by developed society to serve its own ends.

Historically, the notion that the deep ocean is “empty” has allowed foreign powers to define places across it to be distant, isolated, inferior, and therefore conquerable. For instance; it allowed direct military/imperial domination of island societies in the colonial era; it allowed the reproduction of the image of island societies as economically periphery to core developed countries in the post colonial era; and to this day it limits, but not extinguishes, local social imaginaries that holistically connect land and vast ocean spaces. The corporate-legal interaction involved in deep-sea mining exploration, however, reverses this notion of mare nullis. It re-categorizes the deep ocean as a space where there is something material to be capitalized on.

This begs the question; is the deep ocean empty or not? If not, should we not recognize the everyday and academic Pacific voices who have been asserting that there has always been an enduring Pacific connection to deep ocean spaces? Recognizing that the ocean is not “empty” entails recognizing the many other discourses that have laid claim to the ocean well prior to oceanic resource paradigms such as the Blue-Growth paradigm and the renewed Maritime Silk Road. Ignoring Pacific socio-ecological connection to space in favor of new foreign geographic models designed to ignore and marginalize pacific society will certainly undermine other emerging Pacific political, social, and economic movements based on a collective identity and holistic connection to ocean. As a result, this is more than a niche conservation issue. It is a struggle over the discourse of the ocean which invariably affects how Pacific people and the ocean will continue to interact.

*This is a an article review where the authors express their interpretations of the article, supplemented with their own academic and personal knowledge. Any clarifications or other points of discussion are welcomed in the discussion section below*

Banner Image by Dusan Reljic

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 236. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511812507

Childs, J. (2019). Greening the blue? Corporate strategies for legitimising deep sea mining. Polit. Geogr. 74:102060. doi: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2019.102060

D’Arcy, P. (2013). The nourishing sea: Partnered guardianship of fishery and seabed mineral resources for the economic viability of small Pacific island nations. Sustainability, 5(8), 3346-3367.

D’Arcy, P. (2014). The Lawless Sea? Policy Options for Voluntary Compliance Regimes in Offshore Resource Zones in the Pacific. Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, 1(2), 297-311.

Hau’ofa, E. (1994). Our sea of islands. Contemp. Pacific J. Island Aff. 6, 148–161.

Rigo, B. (2004). Altérité polynésienne, ou les métamorphoses de l’espace-temps. Paris CNRS Éditions 2004:350. doi: 10.4000/assr.2460

Steinberg, P. E. (2001). The social construction of the ocean (Vol. 78). Cambridge University Press.

Tilot V, Willaert K, Guilloux B, Chen W, Mulalap CY, Gaulme F, Bambridge T, Peters K and Dahl A (2021) Traditional Dimensions of Seabed Resource Management in the Context of Deep Sea Mining in the Pacific: Learning From the Socio-Ecological Interconnectivity Between Island Communities and the Ocean Realm. Front. Mar. Sci. 8:637938. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.637938

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982). Available online at: (accessed March 11, 2021).Voyer, M., Quirk, G., McIlgorm, A., & Azmi, K. (2018). Shades of blue: what do competing interpretations of the Blue Economy mean for oceans governance?. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 20(5), 595-616.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

  • roxanedewaegh

    My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

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