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From the Middle Passage to Deep Sea Mining: Extractivism of the Undersea

The Middle Passage in the Atlantic Ocean is a terrain invisible and a horrific reminder of the forces of extraction.

Author: Samir Bhowmik

Fig.1. Left, Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. (Public Domain); Right, Fossil Fish Tooth containing Rare Earth Elements (Image Copyrights: Ohta et al).

The relocation of large populations from Africa through forced re-settlement and transatlantic slavery is remembered as the Middle Passage. This is the experience of enslaved African people as they traveled across the Atlantic Basin to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. In one of the most horrendous examples of extraction – the transatlantic slave trade, 12.5 million Africans were held captive on one of more than 40,000 voyages., starved within confined spaces below deck in slave ships, with limited opportunity for personal hygiene. Illness, insanity, hunger, dehydration, torture, revolt, suicide, and ship wreck led to the death of approximately 1.8 million Africans at sea. 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.[1]

The Middle Passage is also a place where there is growing interest in the exploitation of mineral resources. Turner, et al. advocate a memorial ribbon on maps to “remind mining companies and others working on the seabed of the historical importance of the Middle Passage and the possibility that culturally significant artifacts might be found there”.[2] They argue for establishing procedures to respect and preserve human remains, shipwrecks and artefacts that may be discovered during mining-related activities on the seabed. 

Naturally, the invisibility of the seabed is a boon to deep sea mining. Just as offshore oil rigs, despite their superstructure effectively hide what’s going on underneath. As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. This is quite understandable, given what run under depths of hundreds of meters might hardly concern us, the ordinary citizen and our daily lives. Hence, subjugated bodies and shipwrecks remain under the radar. “The ocean was regarded as nullius, and the sea floor as desert, and is still described as such by some dissenting voices even after the discovery of deep-water reefs and thermophile colonies endangered by the practice.” [3]

The enormous depths have not hindered the progress of mapping the seabed and initiate drilling operations to exploit the resources. Deep sea mining draws on the experiences of the offshore energy industry, where operations at depths of 3-4 km are routine. As we transition to post-oil global economies, metallic ores vital to produce electric-vehicle batteries, solar panels and wind turbines (that are currently sourced from depleting surface mines) the economic case for deep sea extraction (for REEs and metals for the digital industry) simply strengthens. Increasing demand justifies the exploitation of the ocean and the emergence of a new multi-billion-dollar industry. Many countries view the development of deep sea mining and secure access to its mineral resources as strategically vital.

Recently, the myth of Plato’s lost fabled island collides with an actual deep sea mining venture: Atlantis II Deep basin,- a depression in the Red Sea floor, formed as the African and Arabian tectonic plates diverged. Situated 100 kilometers offshore, it is home to rich deposits of copper, zinc, silver, gold and cobalt, present in high density concentrations (exceeding those of normal seawater by about 1,000 times). The caveat: Atlantis II Deep lies 2 kilometers below sea. Similar but somewhat smaller basins are known to exist in the Red Sea such as the Chain Deep and Discovery Deep, with maximum depths of 2,066 and 2,220 metres respectively. 

Similarly, 1,700m below the surface of the Bismarck Sea, the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, mining has begun to commercially exploit a deposit of sulfides, a metal-rich crust containing copper, zinc, gold and silver. Japan has been involved in deep sea mining off the coast of Okinawa, at depths of 1,5 kilometers. In the Western Pacific Ocean, on a seamount 3 miles below the surface, scientists have discovered a treasure trove of Rare Earth Elements or REE – in a super deposit of fish fossils. The Japanese team calculated that there are 16 million tons of rare earth oxides south of Minami-tori-shima, enough of REE to supply the world for 420–780 years at current rates of consumption, and that the deposit “has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world.” [4]

“The real difficulties begin when one tries to align that with the firm commodity prices, structured regulatory framework and environmental understanding of each area to be mined that are required to take the plunge. And then there is the small matter of the social contract: sufficient agreement that the deep ocean should be exploited at all.” [5] “The deep sea, that is, ocean depths below 200 m, constitutes more than 90% of the biosphere, harbors the most remote and extreme ecosystems on the planet, and supports biodiversity and ecosystem services of global importance”.[6] Currently, the development of environmental regulations for seabed mining is hampered by profound gaps in basic knowledge about deep-sea ecosystems. Regardless, the rush is on to drill into the depths.

Today, we see extraction as something conducted by machines and software. Earlier it was the human body, especially the black and brown body that did the work of machines. The extraction of metals and minerals to the movements of people, plants and animals, all eventually folded into the mine and the afterlives of its geomorphic acts. Slavery folded itself to railroad work, coal mining, on through to mechanized oil drilling and now automated deep sea mining. According to Kathryn Yusoff, those subjugated bodies were the bodies that came to greatest harm by the historical geographies of extraction [3]. The point of origin: the Middle Passage, a terrain invisible, is a horrific reminder of the forces of extraction. Memorializing the Middle Passage will be a delayed but necessary act, albeit as two dimensional symbolic markings on nautical maps.

Notes

1. Bates, Karl L, “Group urges Atlantic Seafloor to be labeled a Memorial to Slave Trading,” Duke Today, 10 November 2020, https://today.duke.edu/2020/11/group-urges-atlantic-seafloor-be-labeled-memorial-slave-trading.; 

2. Turner et al., “Memorializing the Middle Passage on the Atlantic seabed in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction,” Marine Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2020.104254.

3. Yusoff, Kathryn, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

4. Frazer, Jennifer, “Mining Rare-Earth Elements from Fossilized Fish,” Scientific American, 21 September, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mining-rare-earth-elements-from-fossilized-fish/; Ohta et al., “Fish proliferation and rare-earth deposition by topographically induced upwelling at the late Eocene cooling event,” Scientific Reports: June 18, 2020, https://doi:10.1038/s41598-020-66835-8.

5. Murray, Louise, “Deep Sea Mining: Plundering the Seafloor’s Minerals,” Engineering & Technology, 18 February, 2019, https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2019/02/deep-sea-mining-plundering-the-seafloor-s-minerals/.

6. Smith, et al., “Deep-sea misconceptions cause underestimation of seabed-mining impacts,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 35, no. 10 (2020): 853-857, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2020.07.002.

7. Ringius, Lasse, “Environmental NGOs and regime change: the case of ocean dumping of radioactive waste,” European Journal of International Relations 3, no. 1 (1997): 61-104, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1354066197003001003.

Ecological Thinking

This is the course blog for Ecological Thinking. Topics of discussion include the Black Anthropocene, Extraction Histories, Extractive Landscapes, Media Ecologies, and Artificial Intelligence.

Header image credit: “Salar de Atacama, Chile” by Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra / INPE / CC BY-SA 2.0.

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