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Hidden in plain sight

Seabed Authority celebrates 20 years, struggles to build public awareness

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, July 14, 2014    

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THE Jamaica Conference Centre and its location on Kingston's waterfront are not unfamiliar to most people. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) secretariat, on the other hand, although it's on the same compound and sits right next to the centre, is Greek to most people, even Kingstonians.

It's almost as if it were hidden in plain sight. Take my most recent visit to the ISA, for example: The driver had no clue where I meant or what I was talking about until I said the words "conference centre".

Ironically, the conference facility was built with the express purpose of hosting the preparatory meetings of the ISA, but over the years the centre has somehow eclipsed the Authority in terms of public awareness.

The poor visibility has been a sore point for members of the Authority for a long time, but it is a hurdle the 20th session, the Assembly of which opens at the conference centre today), is determined to overcome.

For one thing, there will be an entire day dedicated to celebrating the 20th anniversary, which will feature some of the Authority's founding fathers, who include current Secretary-General Nii Allotey Odunton; Singaporean ambassador-at-large to the ISA Professor Tommy Koh; special representative of the UN secretary-General for the Law of the Sea and former secretary-general of the ISA Satya Nandan; former chairman of the Preparatory Commission for the ISA (1987-1994) Judge Jose Luis Jesus; and former member of the Indonesian delegation to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1973-1982) and the first president of the ISA Assembly (1996) Professor Hasjim Djalal.

Among the Jamaicans who played integral roles in the preparatory years are former permanent representative of Jamaica to the ISA the late Kenneth Rattray -- in whose honour the main conference room is named; Dr Allan Kirton; Justice Patrick Robinson; Jeffrey Mordecai; Coy Roache; and the late Dudley Thompson.

Among the other plans to observe the 20th anniversary are a reception to be hosted aboard a Japanese vessel in the Kingston Harbour, and two other soirées to be hosted by the Singaporean delegation and the ISA secretariat, respectively.

Over the medium-term, the ISA said its strategy to create a public profile includes plans to create a better relationship with the media, partner with the island's universities, and position its staff of highly trained technical personnel. Also included in that is a plan to establish a US$500,000-museum on the ground floor of the headquarters building where the now defunct Century National Bank once stood. It will cover an area of 6,344 square feet and is expected to have an annual maintenance cost of US$150,000.

The 20th session is expected to give the nod to that proposal.

In an interview at his office recently, Odunton told the Jamaica Observer that the museum will not only promote the ISA, but will serve as an educational tool for students, as well as add to Kingston's tourism product.

"One of the things we're looking forward to doing is a model of the HMS Challenger -- the British cruise vessel which toured the entire globe in the 19th century. It was the very first scientific research tool of the deep sea.

"When I think of the time period and the technology available at that time that they were able to bring some of these things up is awesome to me," Odunton said.

The ISA is tasked with determining the legal, financial and environmental framework for exploiting the seabed for minerals such as gold, copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and rare earth minerals. It has 166 members to date, including the European Union and excluding the US.

It was established in November 1994 when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) -- which was originally signed by 119 countries in Montego Bay, St James in December 1982 -- came into force.

"No other convention or treaty has had as many signatories as this," Odunton boasted.

The reason behind establishing the ISA, as explained by Professor Koh, was to ensure that there is an equitable way of sharing the vast resources that lie outside the borders of jurisdiction of any one country.

"As we begin to deplete resources on land, inevitably people will look towards alternative sources," he told the newspaper, adding that resources underwater appeared to be richer than those on land.

Like Odunton, he is dissatisfied with the level of public awareness of the Authority's work, but he says that much has been achieved in the 20 years of the ISA and the 32 since the UNCLOS was first signed. As an example, he listed the exploration contracts that have already been awarded, with the possibility to begin mining as early as 2016.

"It was a big dream," he said of the early years and the plans to set up the Authority. "At that time it seemed like science fiction. Nobody knew whether it would be economically feasible or not," Koh continued.

Odunton, a mining engineer who hails from Ghana and who is serving his second term at the helm of the Authority, also had examples of the progress the ISA has made.

"When the Authority was established there were no rules, regulations or procedures that governed any kind of activity for mineral resources in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. At the time we were only aware of one mineral resource in the area that could be mined and commercially mined -- polymetallic nodules. Since then, we have become aware of polymetallic sulphides which contain gold, zinc, platinum as well copper, nickel, and cobalt. Also important are cobalt-rich crusts," he explained.

"We have managed to write three sets of regulations that govern prospecting and exploration for these minerals. On the basis of these regulations you can enter into contracts with international entities. We now have 19 contracts for the three minerals exploration. By time this session ends we could be at 25 and we would hope that by [the] next two to three years we would complete this exploitation code," the secretary-general continued.

One challenge to getting there, however, is that none of the existing contract holders have yet undertaken feasibility studies to determine how much money they stand to make and how much the ISA will get in royalties and fees.

Odunton agrees with Koh that what is ostensibly holding back that process is the relatively limited knowledge about the deep seabed.

"What we know about the sea bottom is so minuscule... it is far less than we know about the moon. We've been to the moon, but the ocean is so far and so remote. Another thing we know very little about is the animals that inhabit the ocean bottom," he said, telling of animals resembling leaves and lamps, for example, that live as deep as 5,000 metres underwater close to the volcanic vents that spew forth some of the minerals in question.

"Whatever we are doing we are trying to ensure that the damage to this fauna is minimal," Odunton said.

Assessing the Authority's work to date, the secretary-general said the organisation has done "extremely well". As for the future, he foresees the ISA growing in capacity to fill physical and human resource needs, especially as mining begins.

"There's no doubt in my mind that our services are going to expand and our facilities are going to grow and the staff will increase. It's an evolutionary process that is going to unfold the closer we get to mining when we do have mining. These numbers will increase because ultimately, what we want is for the member states not to pay anything for membership," the secretary-general said.

The governing bodies of the ISA are the Assembly and the Council. The Assembly, which comprises all members of the Authority, meets once a year to set general policies and review the work of the Authority. The Council is the executive body that sets specific policy and approves applications for exploration or exploitation rights, while the Legal and Technical Commission meets twice a year.

The 20th session opened in Kingston last week, but was restricted to meetings of the Legal and Technical Commission and the Finance Committee.

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