By Peart Siwale in Ndola
Mining in the Copperbelt faces a crisis and the province is feeling the effects of what they say that copper is a waste asset.
This crisis involves technical, economic, managerial and political issues.
I will try to explain the nature of that crisis and thereafter propose measures to mitigate adverse consequences.
Technical issues: What factors determine whether or not it will be profitable to continue mining in the Copperbelt?
Mining in the Copperbelt will come to an end not because of depletion of copper mineralisation, but because mining will become uneconomic.
Copperbelt mines are the deepest copper mines in the world because the parts of the orebodies that were near surface have been mined out over the years.
With increasing depth, Copperbelt orebodies become thinner, flatter and, in some cases, have lower grades.
These factors, plus increasing geothermal temperature, make mining very costly indeed.
In neighbouring Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Northwestern Province, the copper orebody formation comes close to surface and can be exploited by cheaper opencast mining.
At Tenke Fungurume in DRC, the copper orebody is part of a mountain.
Chilean copper deposits are massive porphyries that are amenable to low cost open cast mining or underground mechanisation.
Copperbelt mines are uncompetitive against Chilean mines and mines in DRC.
Over the years all Copperbelt mines have formulated projects to extend the life of each mine.
At Mufulira there was the mining at Depth Project, at Konkola, the Konkola Deep Mining Project (KDMP), at Nchanga, the Pillar Recovery Project, at Nkana, the Synclinolium Project and at Luanshya, the Muliashi Open Pit Project.
These projects have either failed or are way behind schedule and are hampered by indecision and undercapitalisation.
It is a fact that these projects are technically difficult and expensive and require focused strategic thinking with government participation.
However, the laissez faire attitude we see is not helpful. It is proposed that each project be thoroughly examined by a team of experts with the necessary experience of the Copperbelt and a tax regime formulated for each individual project.
In South Africa each gold mine is analysed in terms of geology, grade, mining and other factors and a formula computed for its taxation.
Political issues: There is a palpable and unhealthy mistrust between mining companies and the Zambian government.
Recently the minister of mines was reported to have said that a system of accounting had been implemented to ensure accurate reporting of production statistics.
This got me thinking, after 100 years of mining a reliable system did not exist for metallurgical balances?
Where were the metallurgists, engineers and accountants?
A number of NGOs have raised issues implying deliberate falsifying of information by mining companies.
Their reports seem to have been ignored or even derided by government.
Even more worrisome is the call by some union officials and some members of the public that the mines be renationalised.
Such sentiments are not based on a proper analysis of the situation.
It seems to me that the owners of Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) and Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) would be happy to offload these mines.
They have made their money and would be glad to divest in order to focus in more promising areas such as Chile and DRC.
Vedanta Mineral Resources is reported to have acquired a significant stake in Anglo-American’s Chilean mines.
Copperbelt mines are not as attractive as they were when they were sold in 2000.
For example, easily exploitable ores have been exhausted in the last 20 years.
Moreover, prospects for copper are far less bright now.
We cannot, like the ostrich, bury our heads in sand but must have the courage to accept that time is soon approaching when mining in the Copperbelt will cease.
Government must engage both KCM and Mopani to find a common approach to deal with issues that threaten to accelerate mine closures—problems such as inconsistency in the legal framework, taxation, labour and electricity tariff issues.
We have only tackled technical and political hurdles. Look out in the next edition when I handle economic and managerial issues.
The writer is a holder of BSc (mining geology), BSc (mining engineering), ARSM (Associate of the Royal School of Mines), MCIM, REng, Hon FEIZ.