Minerva Reefs: A Land Grab in the South Pacific

Looking at them from above in aerial images, the Minerva Reefs really don’t seem like much of anything. You can make out their atoll rings in the ocean, but they barely emerge from the water at all; a few centimetres, perhaps, when they aren’t covered completely by the tide. There are no natural resources on the reefs except for the fish swimming around it. And, yet, these two shoals have been a major source of territorial contention in the South Pacific for four decades.

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A NASA astronaut photograph of the Minerva Reefs (the two faint rings three-quarters of the way down the page). North is to the left. Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.” Source:http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/scripts/sseop/photo.pl?mission=ISS004&roll=713&frame=32.

The two reefs (named after an Australian whaling ship that beached on the southern reef in 1829, one of many ships claimed by the reefs over the years). Located 500 kilometres southeast of Tonga and 520 km south of Fiji, the reefs are certainly out of the way. The ovular North Minerva is 5.6 kilometres across and is considered safer to make anchorage at than the infinity-symbol-shaped, 4.8-kilometre-wide South Minerva, due to the southern reef’s open northern lobe, coral heads, and lower elevation. The Minerva Reefs are popular amongyachters and scuba divers who enjoy the novelty of travelling to such a remote location and exploring the various submerged wrecks and abundant sea life inhabiting the reef drop-offs and canyons (not to mention meeting up with other yachters and having a party – the reefs can attract dozens of boats a day despite their remote location). It’s a common anchorage for those making the 2 000 kilometre-long trip from Fiji or Tonga to New Zealand. The issue of what sovereign jurisdiction the reefs would come under never really popped up until the 1970s, precipitated by one of the odder international incidents in recent memory.

At the end of 1971, barges full of sand came from Australia and began dumping the sand onto North Minerva; enough sand to turn the reef into an island. The barge had been purchased by a real estate developer named Michael Oliver, leader of the ‘Phoenix Foundation’. Oliver was a libertarian activist looking to set up a new state based upon the tenet of extreme capitalism: ‘no taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism’. Income for the new country, to be called the Republic of Minerva, was to be generated from the registration of cargo ships. Independence was declared on 19 January 1972, and Oliver’s friend and fellow libertarian activist Morris ‘Bud’ Davis was named president in February. A small stone tower was constructed with a flag placed on top. Coins were minted to generate income to augment the contributions of 2 000 of Oliver’s fellow activist. That was as far as the republic went before the Tongan government caught wind of the project. On 15 June 1972, King Taufaʻahau Tupou IV declared his country’s annexation of Minerva, claiming them as traditional fishing grounds. The king also declared a 12-mile territorial exclusivity zone around the reefs. Tongan ships were then sent with 100 troops and the king himself aboard to dismantle the edifices of Republic of Minerva and raise the Tongan flag on the reefs. The South Pacific Forum formally recognised the claim that same year (Bud Davis did try again in 1982 to take back the island, and again was rebuked by the Tongans).

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A 1973 $35 Minervan coin, featuring the goddess Minerva. This is probably the only $35 coin you’ll ever see with geographic coordinates printed upon it. Or the only $35 coin, for that matter.

This failed attempt at forming a new country wouldn’t be the last time Oliver got involved in guerrilla nation-building; a few years he tried to lead an armed revolution on the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, and then co-opted a small political movement in Vanuatu into attempting to break away and forming a new libertarian state. All of these attempts failed.

The current conflict stems from 2005, when Fiji lodged a complaint to the International Seabed Authority on behalf of the residents of the island of Ono-i-Lau, who regard Minerva as ancestral fishing grounds. Tonga contends in return that it has been in possession of Minerva since 1972 under international law, during which time Fiji made no pretensions toward ownership of the reefs, and thus Fiji has no legitimate claim. More recently (including last month), Fijian patrol boats have been actively removing visitors that do not have Fijian government permission to be there (i.e. visitors that obtained permission from Tongans authorities), as the Fijian government continues to actively assert its claims to the territory, and thus the all-important exclusive economic zone surrounding it. The reefs themselves have little economic value beyond upscale yacht tourism, but whoever winds up with ultimate possession of the reefs gain special rights over thousands of square kilometres of ocean and the opportunity to exploit the marine resources therein. For small countries like Tonga and Fiji, that represents a considerable amount of potential income.

In the meantime, the islands remain a yachting and diving hotbed. Assuming troops don’t come and remove you, one can enjoy undersea adventure such as in the video below.

Further Reading

Bannerot, S. and W. Bannerot (2003). The Danger and Bounty of the Minerva Reefs. Ocean Navigator 2003(3). Available at http://www.landfallnavigation.com/minervareefs.html. Accessed 13 December 2010.

Johnston, C. & B. Johnston (2003). Minerva Reef. Voyages of S/V Sequoia, 2 November 2003. Available at http://www.svsequoia.com/minerva_reef.htm. Accessed 13 December 2010.

Latitude 38 (2010). Who Owns Minerva Reef? ‘Lectronic Latitude. Available at http://www.latitude38.com/lectronic/lectronicday.lasso?date=2010-11-24&dayid=509#Story4. Accessed 13 December 2010.

MacDonald, I. (2007). Republic of Minerva (Tonga). Flags of the World, 22 September 2007. Available at http://flagspot.net/flags/to_min.html. Accessed 13 December 2010.

Parsons, M. (1981). Ashes To Ashes. New Internationalist 101(7). Available at http://www.newint.org/features/1981/07/01/phoenix/.Accessed 13 December 2010.

Radio New Zealand International (2005). Fiji, Tonga Dispute Ownership of Reef. Pacific Islands Report, 1 November 2005. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20051103062959/http://pidp.eastwestcenter.org/pireport/2005/November/11-01-15.htm. Accessed 13 December 2010.

United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (1982). Part V – Exclusive Economic Zone. In Preamble to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Oceans and Law of the Sea, 10 December 1982. Available at http://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part5.htm. Accessed 13 December 2010.

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