As we drive down the empty, two-lane highway, the clusters of seaside resorts, tin-roofed homes and finely manicured lawns on this Papua New Guinea island give way to lowland rain forests and palm oil plantations. The telephone lines eventually disappear as do the satellite dishes and, within hours, the team from the Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals is on a rutted, dirt road.

Beyond the occasional sprawling logging camps on New Ireland, there are few signs the modern world has touched this part of the Asia-Pacific nation that features 600 islands and 800 languages. Largely cut off from the outside world, villagers earn a few dollars each week farming small patches in the forest for sweet potatoes and coconuts and catching the occasional fish with flimsy, dugout canoes. There is no electricity here, no toilets, no phone services, no cars and certainly no Internet. Big black pigs are a sign of status and community life revolves around ancient tribal rituals evoked by the spirit houses in most villages and shark calling, a dying tradition where villagers shake rattles made of seashells to attract sharks to the shores before snatching them up with their hands.


A villager taking a break from preparing the evening meal in one of a string of villages that are on the front lines of the mining project. (Credit: Mike Casey)

It’s in these two dozen or so villages that hug the coastline along the Bismarck Sea that Canadian-based Nautilus has spent several years pitching a simple message: We can make your lives better if you let us mine the seafloor beginning in 2018.

Villagers support the idea of new sanitation systems, homes and bridges. But they don’t fully comprehend what Nautilus wants to do at a site 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) off the coast out in the Bismarck Sea. Located about 1,600 meters (5,200 feet) down, the site is home to a network of hydrothermal vents and near an undersea volcano, a harsh environment where mineral-rich water as hot as 400 degrees Celsius (750 degrees Fahrenheit) pours through the vents, meeting icy cold water and forming the concentrations of gold, copper and other minerals that are 10 times what is found in traditional mines on land.

A race to the bottom of the sea

There is plenty at stake if the company goes ahead with its ambitions plans. Its success has the potential to set off a modern day gold rush to the seafloor, a prospect that troubles deep-sea scientists and environmentalists who fear this could lay waste to some of the world’s most diverse and poorly understood ecosystems.

Because of technological advances, difficulties of mining on land and growing demand for minerals like copper, gold and zinc, scores of nations and multinational conglomerates are rushing to lay claim to huge areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans – some sites the size of small countries.

Supporters see this as a chance to tap the 70 percent of minerals not on land and transform how we source these natural resources so critical to smart phones, computers and other electronic devices. It’s also an opportunity for the industry to shrink its environment footprint, which on land involves displacing villages, fouling rivers with mine waste and lopping off entire mountains to get to the minerals – none of which Nautilus says it will do.

A copper iron sulfide from the bottom of the ocean. (Credit: Michael Casey)

A copper iron sulfide from the bottom of the ocean. (Credit: Mike Casey)

“There are a lot of resources on the seafloor. It’s not inconceivable that ocean mining will be a similar thing in 20 years to what offshore oil and gas is for things like copper, nickel, cobalt and zinc,” said Nautilus CEO Mike Johnson, who spent decades gold mining including in PNG before joining Nautilus in 2006. “We have to treat the planet holistically. We can’t say we are only going to do this stuff on land … We have to look at the impact man has over the entire planet.”

Environmentalists counter that the technology is unproven and that risks to marine life are far too great to allow deep sea mining. Led by a consortium of groups under the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, they are calling for a moratorium until it’s proven safe.

At the same time, scientists fear the mining could destroy hundreds, if not thousands of miles of hydrothermal vents systems, undersea mountains and submarine volcanoes as well as seamounts containing deep sea coral. And in doing so, the world could lose scores of species before they are even described by scientists as well as potential resources for new classes of drugs, cosmetics and fuels.

“If you wipe out large areas of sea floor and cause species extinction, you actually change the future of life on earth, how it evolves if you do it on a large enough scale,” said University of Hawaii’s Craig Smith, a co-author on a paper in Science in July that called for implementing adequate environmental protections for deep sea mining.

“We are doing it on terrestrial environments clearly. So far, we haven’t done it on that scale in the deep sea but there is potential if things aren’t managed,” he added.

A century-long search

The idea of scooping up minerals from the sediments of the world’s oceans is not new.

Ever since manganese nodules were first discovered in the late 19th century in the Kara Sea during the expedition of the H.M.S. Challenger, geologists have dreamed of tapping riches of gold, silver, zinc, magnesium, iron, cobalt and copper in the deepest parts of the ocean.

One of the earliest attempts to mine them came in the 1970s, when a consortium led by Lockheed Martin spent $500 million mining the nodules miles down in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ). Interest intensified further in 1977 when scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered the first hydrothermal vents in the Galapagos Rift, more than 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) down in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of South America.

But the sector has struggled since then to gain respect not only from suspicious governments, but the traditional mining industry.

“A lot of people laughed at us,” said Julian Malnic, an Australian exploration geologist who started Nautilus in the 1990s and has been described as the godfather of marine mining.

“One high-profile commentator suggested we were going to use explosives. They don’t even work down there,” he said. “There was a big ignorance factor which everyone was in a hurry to showcase but, in my experience, when you have a new idea, you haven’t got a friend in the world.”

While Anglo-American has a nearly 6 percent stake in Nautilus, none of the other big players have dipped their toes in the water. The sector is mostly dominated by tiny companies with names like Diamond Field International and Neptune Resources that fill their websites with glossy photos and videos of potential sites with a prospector’s air of excitement at the incredible minerals waiting to be mined. However, no one has yet to do it on a commercial scale.

Malnic attributed that to the cautious nature of the mining industry and the boom and bust cycle that comes with the territory. When mineral prices are low, exploration budgets dry up as does financing for riskier projects.

The lack of regulations also prevents mining in international waters. But even in national waters where the projects are far smaller and the sites shallower and more accessible, governments have grown increasingly alarmed.

In the past year, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Agency has twice rejected applications for deep-sea mining – one for phosphorite used in fertilizer and the other for iron ore sand deposits. Phosphate mining has raised concerns all over the world because it often takes place in vital fishing areas – in New Zealand, it would have overlapped with a critical nursery for hoki.

New Zealand also created one of the world’s largest marine reserves in September, a 620,000 square kilometer area that would ban a number of commercial activities including mineral prospecting and mining. Last year, President Obama protected 400,000 square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, banning commercial fishing, deep sea mining and other forms of resource extraction.

The Northern Territory in Australia, meanwhile, placed a moratorium on exploration and seabed mining off its coast in 2012. A year later, Namibia followed suit with an 18-month moratorium on mining in response to plans to mine the waters for phosphate.

“A lot of people are quite shocked to find out about deep sea mining,” said Helen Rosenbaum of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, a coalition of anti-mining NGOs from the South Pacific, Australia and Canada, noting that oceans are already under threat from pollution, over fishing and climate change.

“The general public aren’t aware of it,” she said. “This is another way in which our oceans are being hammered. They are already predicted to fail ecologically over the next couple of decades if we continue business as usual with the impacts they are already experiencing – let alone this new one.”

One company’s daring experiment

The companies themselves have had their own challenges, none more so than Nautilus.

Malnic first secured rights to the site off PNG’s New Ireland in 1997 after attending a presentation at Australia’s premier scientific institution, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, on the discovery of seafloor massive sulfides at the bottom of the Bismarck Sea.

So, he did what any good mining prospector does. He reconstructed the seafloor maps and quickly secured exploration licenses in PNG for Solwara 1 and another site in 1997. From there, he started scouring the South Pacific for other sites, recognizing that most were within the 200-mile economic exclusion zone of these island nations.

Deep sea mining in Solwara 1 (Courtesy: Nautilus)

“Here were these beautiful high grade sulfides coming out of the box,” said Malnic, recalling the lecture when the high-grade ore from the Bismarck Sea was put on display.

“I could see immediately the great potential. From my point of view, there was tonnage and grade and that is what miners need,” he said. “I’m still totally excited. This is the frontier for copper and zinc production in the future.”

The excitement, however, would give way to more than a decade of frustration and delays.

Traditional mining companies wouldn’t touch the project and efforts to raise capital came up against “the second half of a nuclear winter of zero capital available for exploration and mineral projects,” Malnic said. The 1997-98 economic crisis was just beginning.

It would be another five years before the crisis eased and a metals market, driven by the emergence of the resource-hungry Chinese economy, started recovering. Soon enough, the suitors started knocking on Nautilus’ doors, with Anglo-American, the London-based mining company, taking a small stake. An Omani-based oil services firm and a Russian metals company have together taken almost 49 percent stake in the company.

Yet even as the financing began flowing, the company struggled. Malnic left in 2006 and the company went through two more CEOS before settling on Johnson. Its stock, which debuted on the Toronto Stock Exchange, reached a high of $4.38 in 2008 before falling rapidly to 28 cents at the time of publication.

At the same time, the company learned just how hard it can be to operate in a tribal society where minerals like gold and copper are abundant, but so is corruption, angry land owners and activists increasingly fearful about the environmental damage caused by mining.

It didn’t help that the company was arriving on the back of several high profile mining disasters in PNG, including tens of millions tons of waste from the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine that polluted a river on the island of New Guinea that some 50,000 people depend on for water.

“They spent $400 million and didn’t come up with a mine,” said Malnic, of money he claims mostly went to scientific studies and other fieldwork. “It was just catastrophic. They could have been mining twice over for that much and they came away with a bunch of studies and some contracts. It’s unforgivable.”

Nautilus and the PNG government fell out over the government’s failure to contribute its share of developing cost to the project, forcing the dispute into court and almost killing the project. The unstable government – at one point featuring two dueling prime minsters – didn’t help matters.

But last year, the two sides resolved their differences and the government got a stake in the project’s potentially lucrative intellectual property. The settlement has the easy-going Johnson – a New Zealander who often favors a dress shirt and jeans to a suit and throws in the occasional cuss word when making a point – more bullish than he has been in years.

“When we were in the dispute with the government, a lot of people were sitting on sidelines watching,” said Johnson, who has been credited with repairing relations between the two sides. “Now that the dispute is finished, there is a lot of interest again. A lot people want to see us go a little bit further. We are very confident once this first mine is up running, people are going to go, wow, this actually works.”

A rush to get a piece of the action

Some of the greatest interest in seabed mining in the past few years has been around the CCZ, an area about 80 percent the size of the contiguous United States in the Pacific between Mexico and Hawaii. But some estimates, it contains an estimated 62 billion tons of nickel, copper and cobalt in bowling ball-sized nuggets littering the seafloor.

Because they are in international waters, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a tiny U.N.-affiliated body with offices in Jamaica, is tasked with issuing licenses to explore these and other areas. Just in the past four years, the number of exploration license has jumped from 7 in 2006 to 27 – 18 for polymetallic nodules in the CCZ, five for polymetallic sulfides and four for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts – in an area that encompasses 1.4 million square kilometers.

Increasingly, companies backed by the likes of Russia, Japan and China as well as tiny island nations like Tonga and Kiribati are taking out permits to explore huge sections of the seafloor. One of the biggest private firms, UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin UK, is prospecting for minerals in a 22,300 square mile area of the CCZ and says that could bring $60 billion to the UK economy over a 30-year period.

“What we have seen in the past few years is a huge explosion in activity,” said Michael W. Lodge, the deputy to the ISA’s Secretary-General and Legal Counsel.

“It shows an increasing interest in the sector and prospects for the sector. There are two or three things converging – developments in technology that makes it more realistic and the cost of traditional mineral projects is becoming more expensive and difficult to source,” he said. “You are reaching a point of equilibrium – although seabed mining is terribly expensive and very high risk – it’s competitive with the cost of setting up a source on land. Also, people are looking for long-term sources of very high grade minerals.”

More than just minerals in the deep

The prospect of a mining boom in the deep sea worries scientists like Stace E. Beaulieu, a biological oceanographer at Woods Hole who has spent the past 20 years studying the biodiversity and abundance of life on the ocean’s seafloor. She got onto her first research cruise in 1990, a few years before Nautilus even opened its doors.

Wiry, funny and full of energy, Beaulieu acknowledged she gets an e-mail a week fretting about deep sea mining and the unknowns that come with it.

“Right now, we don’t know what will happen when mining starts,” she said. “We do know the animals living at the sites that are mined will be eradicated but we don’t know whether or how quickly those communities can become reestablished. That uncertainty is why a lot of deep-sea scientists have great concern about mining.”

Map of hydrothermal vents (Credit: S. Beaulieu, K. Joyce, and S.A. Soule (WHOI), 2010; funding from InterRidge and Morss Colloquium Program at WHOI)

Map of hydrothermal vents (S. Beaulieu, K. Joyce, and S.A. Soule (WHOI), 2010; funding from InterRidge and Morss Colloquium Program at WHOI)

Like the other scientists in Lauren Mullineaux’s lab at Woods Hole who study the world’s hydrothermal vents and other seafloor habitats, Beaulieu is passionate about the deep sea. If she isn’t gearing up for a weeks-long journey on a research vessel, the avid runner and biker is hunkered down in her tiny, cluttered lab filled with mementos of past trips including nets and foot-long bottles containing red-tipped tube worms and dozens of preserved samples in ethanol. Just down the road from the lab is the tranquil, ocean-side community of Woods Hole, with its lobster shack, organic coffee and a marina that looks out on Vineyard Sound.

But making your life work about a place you can only visit in a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) requires plenty of patience. Beaulieu gets brief glimpses of the seafloor via the cameras on these ROVs and the random samples she manages to pull up in plankton nets. The best is when she can get into a piloted submersible and take a trip to the seafloor, something she has done 14 times including a journey 4,100 meters or about two miles down off the coast of California.

“When you are in the submersible, you experience how remote, how far away the habitat is,” she said, describing a trip that can take upwards of two hours in the pitch-black ocean. “When you use a robot you are on the ship and looking at screen as if you are watching on TV. You don’t have the same feeling.”

One of her favorite dives took place in 2006 on the East Pacific Rise soon after a volcanic eruption. She had a front row see to the communities coming back to life, as the lava flowed forth.

“The surface of the seafloor had changed,” she said. “There were all these small-sized animals like juvenile fish, and tubeworms. I was experiencing the rebirth of a habitat.”

Unlike other scientists who may study the seafloor’s mega fauna like clams, crabs or tubeworms, Beaulieu and her lab mates are more concerned with the macro fauna – the benthic invertebrate communities including snails, smaller worms and crustaceans. They are among the most diverse animals on the seafloor and play a critical role in the food web.

“We want to find early life stages of animals that live on the sea floor,” she said, holding up a pinky-sized tube containing samples that came from a 2010 trip to the Mariana Arc and the site of an erupting submarine volcano. “Now, they are mostly transparent and white. In life, they have beautiful colors. They are much more beautiful alive.”

When the first hydrothermal vents were discovered in 1977, scientists were shocked with what they saw. Instead of flat featureless desert, they found vents were teaming with tubeworms, mussels, clams, crabs, snails and shrimp.

“The thing that caught everyone’s attention when they first discovered the vents was the large numbers and large volumes and large biomass in the animals and communities,” said Mullineaux, who has been on 30 cruises and made nearly 40 dives as part of her work studying the dispersal of larvae of benthic invertebrates and their return to the sea floor.

“This was a huge surprise because, at that time, we thought deep sea communities were being fed by small particles that drifted down from the sea surface where they were produce by photosynthesis,” she said. “Clearly, that production by photosynthesis was not sufficient to fuel these amazing robust communities that we found on the sea floor.”

As scientists began studying these vent communities, often near volcanically active areas, Mullineaux said they realized something else entirely was happening – a process called chemosynthesis, where microbes – fixing carbon and creating organic carbon and as endosymbionts in tube worms and mussels – converted chemicals that were dissolved in the vent fluids into usable energy.

“Instead of the fixed carbon coming in from plants at the sea surface, it comes from the microbes at the bottom of the ocean,” she said.

Mullineaux also said scientists became fascinated with “bizarre adaptions” that these creatures were making in environments that were not only toxic, but prone to landslides and volcanic eruptions. One of the strangest is a family of tubeworms called Siboglinidae that have no mouth or gut and “get all their sustenance by these endosymbionic microbes that live inside them.”

Hydrothermal vents are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. (Courtesy: MBARI)

Other creatures adapt to the pressure with membrane structures that “allow them to not turn congealed under cold temperature and high pressure,”  according to Cindy Lee Van Dover, another deep sea scientist who is the director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Then there is a species of shrimp, she said, whose eyes are withdrawn into its body and has “way more sensory pigment than most organisms” – possibly as a way to see the light from black smoker chimneys.

Hundreds of these vents – considered one of the hot spots for massive sulfides – have since been found and a thousand are believed to be out there, according to a 2010 study in Marine Policy led by several scientists at Woods Hole. In August, scientists writing in journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems announced they had discovered 20 underwater hydrothermal plumes along the Australian-Antarctic Ridge, an underwater mountain range that sits between Tasmania, New Zealand and Antarctica.

As more vents are found, scientists have come to realize these systems are some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems – defined by their topographic differences, tectonic activity and deep ocean circulation patterns. Age is also a factor, with Manus Basin that includes the Nautilus site featuring vents that are thousands of years old while those in the East Pacific Rise, a mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific, are much younger because they are often destroyed by volcanic eruptions.

As a result, the composition of the vent communities varies widely. Vents in the Eastern Pacific, for example, are dominated by tubeworms and clams, while those in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge feature shrimp. In the Antarctic, vents host sea anemones and bright yellow, flower-like crinoids.

Scientists are also identifying scores of vent species new to science – 200 so far by one count in vents, seeps and other seafloor environments. The yeti crab, a hairy crustacean with no eyes, was discovered near hydrothermal vents off Easter Island, while a new family of squat lobsters were found living in the vents along the Pacific-Antarctic ridge.

A similar process of discovery is taking place in other ecosystems targeted by the mining industry, especially in the CCZ, whose largely unexplored rolling seafloors have higher diversity than vents, but are mostly dominated by tiny creatures living in the sediment. Smith has spent much of his career in the area, including conducting several environmental baseline surveys for UK Seabed Resources.

“I’m just working on the data now and the samples are some of the most diverse, have some of the highest species diversity of samples ever collected from the sea floor,” Smith said, his voice rising with excitement, noting that each of these quarter square meter samples contain upwards of 60 species of polychaete worms, crustaceans, mollusks and snails.

“These are animals living in the sediment that you don’t normally see,” he said. “Every sample we bring up has dozens of new species. In fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of the animals, the species we bring up are new to science. People get all excited about the discovery of a new species in a terrestrial environment. We are bringing up hundreds of then on every cruise.”

To mine or not to mine

When he is not at sea, Smith is part of a group of scientists helping to shape environmental measures being drawn up by ISA. Unlike environmentalists who want an all-out ban, Smith and others are more pragmatic, figuring mining will happen at some point so they might as well help shape where it can and can’t go.

So far, nine marine reserves have been provisionally approved for the CCZ and a collection of scientists are helping shape ISA’s regulatory framework – a requirement before any mining can take place and which is expected to be approved in the next few years. In the Science paper, Smith and several scientists called on ISA to “consider suspending further approval of exploration contracts (and not approve exploitation contracts) until marine protected area (MPA) networks are designed and implemented for each targeted region” which includes the Indian and Atlantic oceans.


“I think slowing down is an excellent idea,” said Lisa Levin, who is with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and co-founded the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, which among other things advises on the use of resources in the deep ocean. “We should be slowing down and collecting relevant information that is needed to make a decision. In most cases, I don’t think we have it. If a moratorium is a way to slow down, that works.”

What makes drawing up these regulations challenging, Levin said, is that each type of mining would take place in ecosystems that “operate on different time and space scales.”

“Some are small and patchy. Some are heavily disturbed and recovery quickly. Some are vast and processes are very slow. Some animals for hundred or thousands of years and others live for 10 years,” Levin said. “So each system requires a careful look at the dynamics and the composition and the vulnerability of those ecosystems to mining impacts.”

Duke University’s Van Dover and other scientists have suggested staggering the mining activity in a certain area, as well as limiting mining to inactive vents that could be easier to mine, but also less important environmentally. Companies should also consider setting aside areas within their sites so the mining impacts can be evaluated and relocating species deemed ecologically significant.

But with no past experience to go on, it can be a struggle for scientists to know where to draw the line on where mining can take place and its potential impacts. Nautilus, for example, may be starting with Solwara I, but it has far greater ambitions.

It has more than 500,000 square kilometers (310,686 miles) of exploration acreage in the Western Pacific, including some 19 sites in the Bismarck as well as sites in Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands as well as international waters in the eastern Pacific.

“The cumulative impacts for any of the mining scenario is what is really critical,” Van Dover said. “If Nautilus only mines one site, no big deal. If they mine two sites, we don’t know. Three sites, we don’t know where the tipping is, where does it matter in terms of the connectivity of the animals and when will you lose not just species diversity but ecosystem function and services.”

Short of wiping out the tube worms, bivalves and gastropods living around the Nautilus vents, there also are concerns the project could change the chemistry near the vent sites and produce toxic plumes that could bury organism and clog the feeding apparatus of sea creatures.

“There is no way to know where the plume is going to go until they make it,” said Van Dover, who has in the past studied the Nautilus site. “We haven’t seen the mining tools in action. We don’t know how much sediment they are going to move.”

Islanders – Guinea pigs or pioneers?

Opponents, who for several years have waged a global campaign against the Nautilus project, paint a far grimmer picture. In a series of detailed reports, they warn that storms, spills or technical snafus could spark a disaster that could wipe out fisheries, destroy some of the world’s most diverse coral reefs and pollute the waters of coastal communities across the South Pacific.

“People are afraid because they know there will be damage on our reefs, affecting our marine life,” said David Bekeman, a primary school teacher in Komalu, a village near the mine site. “Nautilus is telling us there will be no damage. We definitely know there will damage but we don’t have the power to stop anyone from doing anything in the sea.”

While Nautilus is building latrines and handing out textbooks, a loose-knit, cash-strapped group of opponents that includes young activists, school teachers, church leaders and a retired army colonel have tried to raise awareness – Nautilus would call it scaring people – in the international community and in some of the impacted villages.

A young child in Komalu where villagers fear deep sea mining may disrupt traditional ways of life. (Credit: Michael Casey)

A young child in Komalu where villagers fear deep sea mining may disrupt traditional ways of life. (Credit: Mike Casey)

“We aren’t anti-development but we are saying to the government that it must act responsibly,” said William Bartley, a retired colonel who opposed the project. “Papua New Guinea is not ready for this. They have not even told us what actions they would take supposing an environmental disaster does occur.”

Johnson dismisses the criticism from “outside groups” that “don’t want this to happen” and insists his project will only cause harm to the fauna at the mine site. Sounding at times weary and frustrated, he said he has repeatedly gone to villages to tell them that the plumes won’t rise high enough to impact their fisheries.

“I’ve heard a lot of that stuff and a lot of that is misinformation. I’ve heard the one about poisoning the water. I don’t even know where that comes from,” Johnson said. “It makes me quite angry when I see outside NGOs telling villagers that is going to happen because the river is really important to them.”

In these villages of mostly bamboo huts surrounded by idyllic views of the rocky coastline, the villagers are left with competing versions of the future. Will mining activities bring development or destruction to their lands?

For now, much of the action is on building the mining equipment in places like the United States ad United Kingdom that has been adapted from technology already in use in the oil and gas, dredging and coal industries. Once it starts, the plans call for lowering several remote-controlled, robotic cutting machines weighing as much as 310-tons to the seafloor. Mineral-laced rocks will be carved from the seafloor and sent up through riser pipes and lifting systems to a tanker-like ship waiting on the surface. The excess water from the ore will be returned to the sea bottom and the minerals sent to China’s state-owned Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group.

The company plans to hire several dozen Papuans for its three-year project. But with villagers having little education and skills to qualify for the best jobs, the company will likely leave its mark on communities that have long been neglected by a cash-strapped and corrupt government.

As part of their plans, Nautilus is starting to provide funding for local schools. Many in this region lack even the most basic school supplies. (Credit: Michael Casey)

As part of their plans, Nautilus is starting to provide funding for local schools. Many in this region lack even the most basic school supplies. (Credit: Mike Casey)

But as the company expands its role to include that of a traditional NGO, the tiny Nautilus team appears overwhelmed. They talk of wanting to bring significant change, but they have little experience and the problems they encounter would be a test for the likes of seasoned veterans such as Save the Children or Oxfam International.

The schools are a classic example. They lack textbooks, water and toilets – forcing children to relieve themselves in rivers and exposing girls to sexual harassment and rape. The classrooms have almost nothing beyond a chalkboard and many students must walk hours, if not an entire day, to reach them.

The medical clinics – also hours away by foot – are often shuttered due to a lack of medicine. As a result, some of the most common causes of death in the villages are childbirth as well as treatable diseases like malaria and respiratory ailments, according to Nautilus.

In the villages, there are no shops or businesses, since the rock-strewn dirt mountain roads are often impassable during heavy rains. The only sign of tourism is an abandoned guesthouse built by an Israeli adventurer. Most farmers, meanwhile, have abandoned cash crops like coconuts in favor of staples like yams, since it can be such a challenge to get them to markets.

So, the talk from Nautilus of fighting diseases and easing hunger resonates with villagers like Jenny Gebo, who in her tattered blouse and skirt laments how it takes her all day just to gather enough vegetables to cook the evening meal. Standing over a smoky fire, she was preparing a traditional Papuan meal called mumu, in which the food is soaked in coconut, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over a pit.

“We are finding it hard now to help our families,” said Gebo, a mother of four from Komalu, one of the closest villages to the mining site. “The mining could help our families. But if the mining comes and the seas get polluted, we won’t get the fresh fish.”

Villager Henry Tabu hopes that improvements touted by Nautilus will help him and his family. (Credit: Michael Casey)

Villager Henry Tabu hopes that improvements touted by Nautilus will help him and his family. (Credit: Mike Casey)

Out in the forest a few miles from the village, Henry Tabu was tending to fires he had lit to clear his land. As the flames reached into the sky and the smoke seared his eyes, Tabu, bare-chested and wearing a cross, recalled how he didn’t earn enough money to send all his five children to school or buy them clothes. He complained that the tiny plot barely was enough to feed his family, as he tossed another tree branch on a growing fire.

He, too, worried about the environmental impact, but saw few alternatives.

“We are trying our best to look after our family,” Tabu said, as his children stoked the fire and a puppy whined in the background. “The project will come. It will help in some ways to make people live better. Maybe it will help me look after my family.”