The race for minerals in the seabed in the Pacific including Fiji is well underway.
Leading the race in Fiji is Nautilus company an Australian-dominated but listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and now leading the charge in the Pacific.
The Nautilus official website confirms that it holds more than 370,000 square km of licences and exploration applications in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and New Zealand along the western Pacific Ocean's Rim of Fire.
However surfacing in the debate or race for minerals is the United Nations law of the sea convention regarding boundaries for three countries and the fact that Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand share Minerva Reef to the South of Fiji as a common boundary mark.
It is an inherited issue so to speak and one that many Fijian Foreign Affairs and Tongan Foreign Affairs officials speak of with caution.
While officials on both sides of the Tongan trench are shying away from the issue the Tongans have engaged both Nautilus and a Korean company to explore minerals in the Valu Fa Ridge something that may rake in millions of dollars for both countries.
Top Foreign Affairs officials said that discussions were continuing on the law of the sea issue as they had cordial relations with Tonga on the boundary issue.
Interim Foreign Affairs Minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau is a first cousin of the late King of Tonga King Taufa'ahau Tupou and uncle to the present King George Tupou and is a member of the chiefly Vunivalu clan in Bau.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Luna Wong confirmed that Nautilus had applied to explore minerals in the Fiji basin.
He said exploration had found high concentration of such minerals on the Fiji side of the Fiji-Vanuatu border of the Economic Exclusive Zone.
"The area in question has high content of lead, silver zinc and copper deposits and with some traces of gold," Mr Wong said.
Acting Director for Mineral Resources Venasio Nasara said according to scientists there is a likelihood that minerals found in Tongan waters are also found here including manganese nodules and some gold.
Currently he said Fiji does not have any laws that govern underwater and seabed exploration and mining.
He said to date two companies have expressed an interest in exploring Fiji waters.
"For exploration, there is minimum benefit since it may just involve compensation issues during the conduct of exploration work," he said.
"As I have mentioned earlier, there is a moratorium on the grant/processing of offshore exploration licences until such time Government is able to put in place the relevant policies/legislation to cater for these."
Former Fijian Affairs and Lands Minister Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu said a team of officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted a survey of the controversial yet sensitive continental shelf between Tonga and Fiji.
"There was a cabinet paper on the issue as far as the United Nations law of the Sea is concerned and there was a time element attached to it.
"We managed to do the survey but after the coup I do not know how far that had gone.
"We had to determine our continental shelf boundary there was a particular point not surveyed."
His revelations were backed up by the United Nations website on the Law of the Sea where Pacific Island Forum countries as a group asked the UN to extend a deadline to 2004 to determine boundaries as various technical issues needed to be verified.
Ratu Naiqama also confirmed that initial surveys detected minerals near the Exclusive Economic Zone border with Vanuatu.
"I was fortunate to attend a meeting between Papua New Guinea and Australia where an official presented a paper on the minerals found within Fiji waters.
"We were looking forward to explore more on those particular findings. They said gold and other mineral deposits existed within our boundaries.
However, what was more interesting close to home was the fact that minerals exist in the Nakorotubu area Bligh Waters especially where oil has been found in another shelf.
On a recent trip to Verevere Village in Nakorotubu in Ra village headman Sakiasi Nakara claimed that in 1948 they found certain fuels on their beaches springing up from a pool in the sand.
"In 2000 when we found our fish and sea birds that exploit the area started dying and we could see traces of fuel on the sea, we realised it was oil," Mr Nakara said.
While South Pacific Geoscience commission only has records of mineral deposits discovered in the neighbouring village of Saioko, Ratu Naiqama acknowledges the Nakorotubu finds.
Ratu Naiqama who was close to the controversial Qoliqoli Bill said the Bill would have given them a lot of leeway in terms of ownership.
"The law would have meant that anything coming out of land the first right or royalty and all the benefits that goes with ownership would go with that
"Right now in the present state of our laws its just a qoliqoli right and it does not give traditional owners ownership.
"Her Majesty the Queen wanted to give back that ownership to the Great Council of Chiefs but the government at the time said it should go back to the State."
Website Chosun.com reported on April 3 that Korea had secured the rights to dig up $US100 million in raw minerals a year, from beneath the waters of the South Pacific in Tonga's Exclsuive Economic Zone.
Korea's Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said that Korea has won exclusive exploration rights from the South Pacific island nation of Tonga to develop mineral resources in a 20,000-sq.km area within Tonga's exclusive economic sea zone.
However, while Fiji ponders over its boundary dilemma it is not the only country to have faced the question of mineral rights and boundaries in the region.
The website Multinational Monitor stated in its 2006 edition that the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS), signed between Australia and East Timor (now known as Timor-Leste), provisionally resolves the maritime boundary dispute between the two nations.
The deal allows Australia to exploit oil and natural gas under the Timor Sea oil and gas that, absent CMATS, international law experts say would belong to Timor-Leste under current international legal principles and case law.
Ironically Australia turned a blind eye on atrocities in Timor Leste by Indonesian invaders for 24 years.
Ron Crocombe states in his book Asia in the Pacific Islands that while seabed minerals are the most ideal way to go for some Pacific countries they are still vulnerable in the sense that they will need external finance, technology and skills to be able gain reasonable leverage.
He also talks about how an Asian ambassador related his experiences of selfish gatekeepers (foreign affairs officials) of the Pacific who negotiated deals for their own benefit.
The Fiji Government website quotes former Foreign Affairs Minister, Kaliopate Tavola in 2004 highlighting the importance of negotiations of the relative EEZ boundaries of the two countries.
"That work in itself will lead, hopefully, to resolving the current dispute on the ownership of the Minerva Reefs in Southern Lau. That will have direct benefits, of course, to the country's fisheries resources," he said.
"The bigger fish of course, if you will excuse the pun, is the extent to which we can claim the outer limits of the continental shelves originating within our EEZ. This will open up new economic opportunities in increased fisheries resources, unprecedented mining potential of new minerals and natural gases, etc.
Mr Tavola said this will require both bilateral and even sub-regional discussions, especially as regards the area of the Lau Ridges in the waters of Southern Lau.
"For this area in particular, discussions will have to take place with Tonga and New Zealand due to our overlapping and competing claims.
In the absence of laws regarding minerals in the seabed and an unresolved treaty on boundaries the race for minerals is interesting but like the currents under the seabed we may underestimate the effects of the unsettled boundaries.
In that instant the vulnerable and poor Pacific island states, some with unstable political climates (Like Fiji and Tonga), may have to strengthen their gatekeeping or lose more than they bargain for.
* Robert Matau is a a postgraduate student of media studies at the University of the South Pacific. This article was part of his assignment in his course on Asia/Pacific Journalism.
Sources of information
* Chosun website
* Luna Wong Ministry of Foreign Affairs
* Venasio Nasara Ministry of Mineral Resources
* Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu - Turaga na Tui Cakau
* Sakiusa Nakara - Turaga ni Koro Verevere, Nakorotubu, Ra.
* Multinational Monitor website
* Nautilus website
* Law of the Sea website
* Ron Crocombe Asia in the Pacific Islands.