It’s not about seabed mining, for Alex Herman. What drives her in her new role as commissioner of the Seabed Mining Authority is, incongruously, the welfare of her people.
“At the back of my mind, I’m thinking about how is this going to affect mama and papa on the street? I want to ensure that the work that I am doing is going to ultimately benefit our people.”
It is a passion instilled at a young age: Herman attributes her determination to her Papa Joseph and Mama Mikara Herman who had a “huge” influence on her life.
“They held very strong values such as integrity, honesty and hard-work. My papa, Joseph Herman also emphasized the importance of education to his children and grandchildren,” she says.
“My nana – Mama Mikara Herman was a very loving and compassionate person. She was very generous and caring towards other people. I am very grateful to my grandparents as they had a profound impact on the person I am today.
“I have always known from a young age that I wanted to contribute to the development of my country. I didn’t know then how I would do so, but that it was something I’ve cared about – I think that’s linked to my upbringing.”
It was at Auckland University that her attention turned to the marine space and seabed minerals. That fascination caused her to invest her training and education in laws of the seas.
After graduating with a conjoint Honours degree in commerce and law, the former Tereora College student did an internship in Fiji working on a deep sea minerals project – before returning home to Cook Islands.
“For me looking at the Cook Islands, we are such a small landmass but we are a huge ocean state of two million square kilometres,” she says.
“I’ve always known that the ocean is an important part of the Cook Islands so law of the sea for me seemed a natural area that I should develop in and it’s going to be an area that is highly relevant to the Cook Islands.”
Since returning to Rarotonga in 2013, she has held a number of roles in Cook Islands’ public service as legal officer for SBMA and Crown counsel, as well as internships on the International Seabed Authority and the United Nation’s division for ocean affairs.
“In terms of working at the international-regional levels, it’s important because it helps me to understand how things fit along the scales, so how what happens at the international level affects the practices and laws that we put in place at a national level” she says.
“It’s important to have a good understanding of those – what’s happening at those different forums because when we implement our own national standards and laws a lot of that is derived from what happens at those other forums.”
With the graduation of the Cook Islands to OECD developed status, Herman is optimistic for the future of her sector as the Cook Islands turns to its largest asset – the ocean – to explore news ways of sustaining its revenue.
“I do see the graduation of the Cook Islands’ to developed nation status as a signal to us that we do need to step up our efforts to diversify the economy.
“As we all know, we are heavily reliant on tourism as our main economic driver and the Government is aware that we need to invest more in our other sectors and developing our other sectors,” she says.
“I do see seabed minerals as a sector that is going to contribute to the Cook Islands’ economic wellbeing.”
And her four-strong team are just as optimistic. Right behind her is Caroline Tiria, admin and compliance officer, GIS specialist Rima Browne and legal manager and newest member Anna Glassie.
Browne, who handles geographical data collected from the seabed, has been on a number of surveys and expeditions.
She’s interested in exploring more of the environmental aspects of seabed minerals and with the data collected by the authority hopes it can influence policies moving forward, she says.
“I’m just hoping that moving forward especially in my field I want it to develop in a way that I can incorporate it into other sides of the authority, so not just the technical side of the data but also with the legal side,” Browne says.
But when it comes to exploring the potential of the Cook Islands’ seabed minerals, the authority is not alone.
Working in conjunction with them is the National Environment Service, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management, Foreign Affairs, Marae Moana, Cook Islands Investment Corporation and the Ministry of Marine Resources who together make up the Deep Sea Minerals working group.
Herman says: “It’s important to understand that the authority alone is not responsible for the development of the sector, a lot of different agencies have a role to play so we put together this working group so that there would be a coordinated effort around the work that we are doing.
“As far as the work plan that we have for this year, the short term to the medium term, that working group is an instrumental part of that work and we all have different areas that each agency is looking at,” Herman says.
Before mining of any kind begins, Herman says developing environmental considerations will be the key focus areas of the sector as well as developing good policy and systems for finances.
“I think as a Cook Islander, we all share the same concern, we are all concerned about what the environmental impacts are going to be if we go ahead with developing these resources” says Herman.
“As far as the work that we’re doing in the initial stages which is exploration and research, that’s the kinds of information that we want to get which is to better understand the environmental impacts and to mitigate those environmental impacts” she says.
“On the financial management, this is a concern that’s been raised by our people which is if this goes ahead and revenue starts coming in what happens to that revenue? How is it managed?
“That’s another area that we are prioritizing as far as developing good policy around that, setting up good systems to ensure that that money is used for the objectives that’s it intended for which is to benefit our people.”
It’s a new year and new direction for the Cook Islands and with a new leader at the reins of its Seabed Minerals authority, what might just be the next most important sector for the Cook Islands’ as a newly graduated developed nation.
“I’m here to do this work because I see the greater good in it. I see how it’s going to help our people and I want to do the best job that I possibly can in this role. It is bigger than I am,” says Herman.
“There are people that have done hard work before me and there are people that will be doing more work after me but for me while I’m in this role I will give it the best that I can and do what I can to make sure that ultimately our people benefit.”