A "new frontier" in mining is set to be opened up by the underwater extraction of resources from the seabed off the coast of Papua New Guinea, despite vehement objections from environmentalists and local activists.
Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals has been granted a 20-year licence by the PNG government to commence the Solwara 1 project, the world's first commercial deep sea mining operation.
Nautilus will mine an area 1.6km beneath the Bismarck Sea, 50km off the coast of the PNG island of New Britain. The ore extracted contains high-grade copper and gold.
The project is being carefully watched by other mining companies keen to exploit opportunities beneath the waves.
The Deep Sea Mining (DSM) campaign, a coalition of groups opposing the PNG drilling, estimates that 1 million sq km of sea floor in the Asia-Pacific region is under exploration licence. Nautilus alone has around 524,000 sq km under licence, or pending licence, in PNG, Tonga, New Zealand and Fiji.
"PNG is the guinea pig for deep-sea mining," says Helen Rosenbaum, the campaign's co-ordinator. "The mining companies are waiting in the wings ready to pile in. It's a new frontier, which is a worrying development.
"The big question the locals are asking is 'What are the risks?' There is no certain answer to that, which should trigger a precautionary principle.
"But Nautilus has found a place so far away from people that they can get away with any impacts. They've picked an underfunded government without the regulation of developed countries that will have no way of monitoring this properly."