President Marcelo on his visit to the Ilhas Selvagens, where he extolled "the wealth" within the sea...

Portugal steps up battle for the sea

National media is suddenly full of references to Portugal’s latest maritime battle – a bid to extend the country’s continental platform to just under four million square kilometres. Without going into any real detail, reports have made oblique references to the gamut of opportunities lying within Portugal’s grasp. The buzzword is “riqueza” (wealth). But if experts are to be believed, the short-term benefits could hide devastating long-term consequences.

For a country that boasts just 92,000 square kilometres of land, the thought of extending territory by over 3.6 million square kilometres into sea sounds intriguing. What can we possibly do with all that water, one wonders. Well, it is really very little to do with water. It is much more to do with the sea-bed itself – and therein lies the clue to this accelerating ‘race for the sea’.

Freeze here, and look to the international press for what is really powering Portugal’s campaign to recover economic validity: in National Geographic magazine early this summer, journalist Brian Clark Howard put it very simply: “There is enough gold on the seafloor to give every person alive nine pounds, scientists estimate. That would be worth about $150 trillion, or $21,000 a person.”

Deep-sea mining is the issue here – though, of course, Portugal is not focused simply on deep-sea mining.

Público explained in a long article in August that there are also “energetic resources (oil, natural gas, methane…) and biological and genetic resources (like bacteria for new biotech products, including medicines)” to be discovered.

But deep-sea mining is an integral part of the drive for new wealth, and Portugal’s minister for the sea Ana Paula Vitorino was in Washington last week for talks with Lockheed Martin, a firm which Correio da Manhã described in a 60-word brief as “specialising in offshore engineering”.

Lockheed Martin “is just one of the firms interested in investing in Portuguese maritime resources”, said CM, concluding with: “just like Nautilus (from Canada), which should be going forwards next year with mineral prospecting in the Azores”.

No mention at all has been made of criticisms surrounding deep-sea mining – nor the fact that a European scientific project is right now quite desperately collating data at sea in a bid to “gain a good picture of what damage might be done by mining” before it actually starts.

Hopes are that the MIDAS project can “inform regulators of what needs to be put in place to protect the deep-sea environment”, wrote Euronews website earlier this month, stressing that MIDAS “fears that mining will greatly damage fragile seabed habitats, although it is hard to be certain since deep-sea organisms remain so poorly studied”.

Early in September, marine biologists working on MIDAS’ research vessel, located above the mid-Atlantic ridge, were “focusing on how exactly corals react to damage associated with mining”.

Inês Martins of the University of the the Azores was “also looking at copper pollution, an unwanted by-product of deep-sea mining”.

Martins and her colleagues were putting a section of damaged coral and a section of undamaged back on the seabed “to monitor how they survive and grow in the future”.

As fellow researcher António Godinho explained, the research is “crucial, as corals are the basis of the deep-sea ecosystem … the whole of the rest of the ecosystem depends on them”.

A month before MIDAS’ researchers talked with Euronews, marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle was writing about deep-sea mining in the National Geographic, saying that “after decades of being on the back burner owing to costs far outweighing benefits”, it is now “emerging as a serious threat to the stability of ocean systems, and processes that have yet to be understood well enough to sanction in good conscience their large-scale destruction”.

“The rationale for exploiting minerals in the deep sea is based on their perceived current monetary value,” she explained, adding that “the living systems that will be destroyed are perceived to have no monetary value”.

Asking whether “decisions about use of the natural world (should) continue to be based on the financial advantage for a small number of people despite risks to systems that underpin planetary stability”, her report, like that of Euronews on the MIDAS project, was not ‘mainstream’, nor was it translated into Portuguese.

In other words, on a national level citizens are only being told about the importance of extending Portugal’s continental platform.

In August, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa joined the gathering PR machine, riding rolling waves to the Ilhas Desertas and then to the Selvagens – ownership of which is still under contention with Spain.

Accompanied by RTP, President Marcelo used the buzzword ‘riqueza’ once again, but this time tagging “nacional” in front of it – turning Portugal’s race for the sea into an issue of national sovereignty and pride.

We cannot tell where this will lead. President Marcelo has admitted that the bid to extend Portugal’s continental platform is by no means assured.

It has been running for seven years, and this last minute scramble for yet more territory has to be lodged with the UN by next summer.

Even so, Público explains, it is unlikely to be decided before 2020.

And in the meantime, on social media at least, conservationists and environmentalists will be doing everything they can to highlight the potential dangers of the “invisible land grab” that experts like Dr Earle have dubbed “a campaign of wholesale destruction”.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, aboard a fishing vessel off Olhão coast in August