The richest, riskiest tin mine on Earth

More than a river to cross

Can an ambitious mine make a difference in eastern Congo?

DEEP in the jungle of North Kivu, a lawless province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new road is being cut through the canopy. As birds chirp, hand saws cut noisily through trees. Men with shovels dig out roots and flatten the ochre-red earth. A sturdy new log bridge crosses a stream. On it stands Boris Kamstra, a South African in a plaid shirt and bucket hat. “This is great road-building material,” he booms, gesturing at the stones.

Mr Kamstra is the boss of Alphamin Resources, a Canadian-funded company that is trying to build perhaps the most improbable mine in Africa. The site, on a hill called Bisie, is about 60km (37 miles) from the nearest settlement of any size, a town called Walikale. Before Alphamin arrived there was no road connection: anyone hoping to reach it faced a full day’s hike. Getting to Goma, the nearest border crossing, would take another two days on a road lorries cannot use. In the immediate area are three armed rebel groups. The nearest government post is at Walikale—and consists of one rather squat office.

Congo’s soil is bursting with buried treasure. Its long civil war, which ravaged the east for the best part of a decade, was financed largely by metals extracted from hills like Bisie (see article). Congo’s tin, tantalum and tungsten are used in electronics around the world. Although some of these minerals come from big industrial copper mines in Katanga, Congo’s south, and a gold mine in South Kivu, there is not yet a single modern mine in North Kivu.

Tin, tin in the Congo

Until now the province’s metal has been dug out almost entirely by hand. Yet Alphamin hopes to show that it can run a modern industrial mine in a part of the world that scares other modern miners away.

Alphamin says that the investment is attractive—even at a time of low commodity prices—because the ore that it plans to extract is richer than that found anywhere else in the world. Behind the company’s camp on the hill are stacks of carefully ordered cylinders of rock drilled out to map the riches beneath the mountain. (Like almost everything else in the camp, the drill rig had to be lifted in by helicopter.) The ore they contain is 4.5% grade. That means that for every 100 tonnes of ore extracted, the firm will be able to sell 3.25 tonnes of tin (not all the tin can be extracted from the rock). Most other mines would be happy to produce 0.7 tonnes.

Such a rich deposit ought to make Bisie a very cheap producer, but its advantages are offset by the other costs and risks of working in eastern Congo. These are hefty, even before the first load of tin has been extracted. The helicopter “makes confetti of $100 bills”, jokes Mr Kamstra. Exploratory drilling costs more still (roughly $250 for every metre, of which the company has drilled 40,000 to prove to investors that it has lots of tin in the ground). Building a new road 32km through the bush is not cheap: it involves 450 workers. The firm is also rehabilitating an existing road to Goma so that it can carry lorries.

Once exploration is completed it will take some $135m to build the mine. Recouping that investment may not be easy in a place as insecure as North Kivu. Congolese authorities granted a permit for exploratory drilling in 2006. But the firm was not able to operate until 2012 because there was too much fighting nearby. Since then its base camp has been attacked by armed groups four times. In 2014 a police officer was killed and research work worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was wrecked. The camp now has 30 police officers living on site. UN peacekeeping helicopters sometimes keep a watchful eye on it, too.

If the gamble pays off Alphamin’s investors will make juicy returns. But to do so they may have to convince locals that the project is in their interest. If not, they risk protests and sabotage.

In 2007 some 18,000 people lived at Bisie, working the site with pickaxes and shovels. They produced some 14,000 tonnes of tin that year—or perhaps 5% of world production. To get it to market people carried concentrated ore on their heads through the jungle to an airstrip where small planes could land to carry it out. It was back-breaking work but lucrative for many Congolese. That era began to come to an end in 2011, thanks in part to an American law.

Under the Dodd-Frank act, a law aimed mainly at tightening bank regulation, firms operating in the United States must be able to show where the minerals used in their products came from. The idea was to stop rebels in poor countries from selling gold and diamonds to fund wars. The law all but shut down artisanal mining in much of eastern Congo.

Elsewhere in eastern Congo artisanal mines have gradually reopened thanks to a verification scheme under which the UN and the government check mines and allow certified ones to “tag and bag” minerals. The site at Bisie has, however, never been certified. And although Alphamin will provide some well-paid jobs to locals, as well as pay taxes to the central government, its mechanised operations will never employ anything like the thousands of people who once toiled there with pick and shovel. Alphamin has promised to fund local projects, such as a new school, that are intended to benefit 44 villages.

The mine could help local people indirectly, too, by bankrolling a cash-strapped government. When production begins a truck carrying tin ore will rattle every day from Bisie towards Goma. Each one will pay both a toll for the road as well as royalties to the provincial government. For the first time, the government will have a financial incentive (and some revenue) to provide security in the area. Insecurity is not just the biggest threat to Alphamin’s investors; it is also the biggest cause of suffering to the locals.

In much of Africa having natural resources has often proved to be a curse. Gems and minerals have funded rebel armies and kept conflicts burning. Governments that can raise big bucks from oil or mineral royalties, rather than by fostering broad-based growth and taxing people’s incomes, have had little incentive to govern well. The ruling class have devoted their energies to divvying up the easy money rather than actually governing.

In eastern Congo the state has all but collapsed, leaving vast tracts of territory lawless. The locals have discovered that even bad government is better than no government at all. It will take more than a tin mine to change that, but you have to start somewhere.

Source: http://www.economist.com