Nov. 8, 2022

‘Social licenses’ for deep seabed mining?

Author: Thaissa Meira

There are many voices raising environmental and social concerns about deep seedbed mining, yet the historical and cultural value of the Atlantic Ocean floor is too often overlooked. This post raises awareness of how this historical and cultural value, if formally acknowledged, could impact a potential social license for ongoing and future deep seabed mining.

The Atlantic seafloor: historical and cultural aspects

Let’s consider the history of the colonial European routes between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In this triangular trade dynamic known as the Middle Passage, Europeans forcibly transported kidnapped African people to the American colonies, where they traded the enslaved Africans for local commodities (e.g. sugar, tobacco, and cotton) that they then sold in European markets. The shortest route from the African to the American continent was known as the Middle Passage. In geographical terms, the Middle Passage corresponds to the sea route from the West Coast of Africa (territories that today comprise Angola, Benin Congo, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Nigeria), to the Americas, primarily to what is now known as the Caribbean States, the northeast and southeast of Brazil, and the United States.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, 40,000 European slave ship voyages took an estimated 12.5 million captive Africans from their homelands, to be enslaved primarily on plantations in the American colonies. Most of the slave ships held between 200 and 400 enslaved people in close and squalid quarters, located below deck. Confined spaces, disease (e.g. scurvy, dysentery, and smallpox), torture by the crew, "revolt, suicide, and ship wreck" caused the deaths of approximately 1.8 million African captives onboard these slave vessels. As described by the authors of a 2020 article on memorializing the Middle Passage, "The Atlantic seabed is the final resting place for those cast overboard, those who sought freedom in the Atlantic Ocean through suicide, and those who were lost with a ship."
This past of European colonial terror gives tangible and intangible meaning to the Atlantic seafloor. In early colonial times, references to the Middle Passage (also known today as the Maafa, a spiritually significant term for the holocaust of enslavement) were made in poetry such as the Brazilian-Portuguese poem “Navio Negreiro” (“Black Ship”) by the Brazilian Castro Alves. The impact of the transatlantic slave trade and its routes on the African diaspora in the Americas is also reflected in contemporary cultural expression of the African diaspora. For example, the myth of the Drexciyan inspired the actor and rapper Daveed Diggs, known from the musical Hamilton, to write the song “The Deep” with his hip-hop group, Clipping. It also inspired a novel by Rivers Solomon, also entitled The Deep, and Abdul Qadim Haqq’s and Dai Sato’s graphic novel.
The Atlantic is also a potential site for artifacts of historical importance, which could help us better study this historical era that affects the global present in frequently unacknowledged ways. This aspect of the Atlantic seafloor as a potential ground for African diaspora studies is translated into its tangible or material cultural value. Even though it is highly unlikely that human remains could be found on the Atlantic Ocean floor, experts aim to find evidence of the transatlantic slave trade, such as shipwrecks and metal tools used by Europeans aboard slave ships to imprison and torture slaves. There are even estimations that artifacts such as gold, coins, musical instruments, and jewelry could be discovered at the sites of slave shipwrecks. Technology has developed to the point of enabling archaeological investigations on the international Atlantic Ocean floor.


The Middle Passage Memorial

Memorials are meant to keep the memories of the past alive so that lessons are learned and atrocities are not repeated. There are memorials scattered throughout the European continent that keep the remembrance of wars and the Holocaust (Shoah) alive. In Africa and the Americas, a few memorials exist to remind us of the exploitation and genocide that the native people of these continents suffered in colonial times.
Initiatives to build awareness of transatlantic slave trade and its consequences gained traction at the beginning of this century (UNESCO). In 2013, the General Assembly proclaimed the International Decade for People of African Descent commencing 1 January 2015 and ending on 31 December 2024. A milestone for global awareness was the Movement for Black Lives. Colonial transatlantic slave trade history has been considered by scholars previously ignorant of relevant debates. Historians have noted the importance of shedding light on this shared inheritance in an attempt to address the current inequality and injustice faced by African people across the world. Against this background, a group of experts from Duke University has called the international community’s attention to the historical, cultural, and archaeological importance of the Mid-Atlantic Ocean floor.
The Middle Passage Memorial, if acknowledged, would raise awareness not only of this violent past but also of the current inequality, racism, and injustice suffered by African people worldwide.


Deep sea mining interests and the Middle Passage Memorial

In face of ongoing deep seabed activities, i.e., exploration and exploitation of mineral resources, in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR), experts from Duke University have raised awareness among the international community of how these activities may put historical artifacts yet to be uncovered there at risk. According to these experts, there could be nearly a thousand slave shipwrecks yet to be found. Against this background, and in light of the intangible and tangible historical-cultural value of the Atlantic seafloor, the authors of the Middle Passage Memorial suggest formally recognizing the Middle Passage ocean floor as the final resting place of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade by putting “virtual, memorial ribbons” on the virtual charters and maps produced by the International Seabed Authority (ISA).
The ISA is the international organization responsible for administrating deep-sea mining activities on the sea floor out of national jurisdiction. In recognizing the Middle Passage ocean floor as the final resting place of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade with “virtual, memorial ribbons,” the ISA would remind mining operators of the cultural and historical significance of the Middle Passage and of their legal duties to cautiously carry out their activities in order to preserve any archaeological artifacts that have not yet been found. The authors of the Middle Passage Memorial proposal have not asked for a ban (permanent prohibition), nor have they asked for a moratorium (temporary prohibition) of mining on the international Atlantic Ocean floor. Instead, they have asked that mining companies be aware of and act cautiously to protect the underwater cultural significance of the Middle Passage. Currently, there are three ongoing mineral exploration licenses close to the proposed Memorial site. The ISA has granted permits to contracts sponsored by France (2014-2029), Russia (2012-2027) and Poland (2018-2033) to explore Polymetallic Sulphides in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR).


Underwater heritage in international law

Generally, when finding sunken ships or historical artifacts, those who engage in the exploration of mineral extraction in the MAR must notify, consult, and stop their activities until further deliberations are received from the competent organization(s). Additionally, the law provides for inter-bureau (mainly the ISA and UNESCO) cooperation, each one contributing their own mandates. The law on the protection of underwater cultural heritage also mandates inter-state collaboration and consultation for the preservation in situ of artifacts that may be discovered during an archaeological campaign conducted on the international sea floor. Flag states and their nationals are legally obliged to preserve underwater cultural heritage in international waters under the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Nonetheless, there is a need for further ratification of the later Convention. Most notably, ratification is needed among states with a potential vertical link to the Mid-Atlantic Ocean site and to the archaeological artifacts that have not yet been found there (e.g. Brazil).
A reasonable point that an expert on the Law of the Sea would raise is the question of law enforcement in international waters: should it be left to the discretion of flag states? An interesting suggestion has already been made by the group of experts from Duke University: cooperation between marine archaeologists and actors engaged instead in mineral exploration, with the former onboard mineral exploration vessels surveying the mineral deposits of the Atlantic Ocean floor. Within this ideal onboard cooperation picture, the marine archaeology expert(s) would know exactly which measures should be immediately adopted in order to preserve an underwater historical artifact in the aftermath of its discovery during mineral exploration activities.  They would also notify the ISA and the UNESCO about the conditions of the artifact(s). Additionally, one should note that marine archeologists onboard licensed mineral exploration vessels could also help overcome issues of financial restrictions faced by archeological campaigns of developing states—specifically, the financial restrictions regarding the high costs associated with the deployment of high-seas vessels during archeological investigations. Within the ISA, West African or Latin American states could use the Assembly to call for further support and debates on: 1) a formal recognition of the Memorial through a virtual charter; and 2) means of cooperation between mining actors and marine archaeologists. 


How could the proposed Memorial add to the ‘social license’ in deep seabed mining?

The idea of a ‘social license to operate’ within the context of deep seabed mining includes the acceptance of society by democratic participation (inclusive of all stakeholders in decision making), and transparency. Regarding transparency, the ISA would address it by acknowledging the Middle Passage Memorial and publishing its charters on the organization’s webpage, thus raising awareness. In doing so, the ISA would also have the opportunity to bring another group of stakeholders into mining discussions, thus it would address democratic participation within the idea of a social license to operate. It would do so by engaging in efforts to establish the virtual Memorial through dialogues with experts in marine underwater heritage protection, i.e. marine archaeologists and UNESCO. Within this cooperation context, further means could be found for addressing both deep seabed mining and underwater heritage preservation interests through cross-disciplinary dialogues.