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Tunisia :Maghreb Minerals: Productivity in North Africa

Tunisia :Maghreb Minerals: Productivity in North Africa

The Adviser Mag – Tunisie – Written by Alison Withers & Produced by Alex Smith

Minerals exploration in Tunisia

Executive Chairman Gordon Riddler tells us that as Maghreb Minerals moves towards production, it is finding that Tunisia is proving to be a happy hunting ground  

Maghreb Minerals Executive Chairman Gordon Riddler, 63, has a 40-year track record in exploration, mining and project evaluation and has held senior posts with Gold Fields Ltd and Rio Tinto plc. He was appointed head of Minerals Group at the British Geological Survey in 1993 in charge of Technology innovation and information dissemination programmes. He has also been associated with MIRO, the Mineral Industry Research Organisation since the mid-1970s and stepped down as its Executive Director in 2005. He is a visiting professor in the Energy and Resources Research Institute, at the University of Leeds, UK.

He is a founder member of Maghreb Minerals, which bought all the rights to properties in Tunisia from Consolidated Global Minerals in exchange for shares, then raised a further £2.56 million before starting trading on the London Stock Exchange’s Subsidiary arm AIM (Alternative Investment Market) just before Christmas 2004. Maghreb Minerals has agreements and rights over three past-producing lead zinc mines in Tunisia , as well as exploration rights over 9 other permits.

The company now  Maghreb Minerals holds twelve exploration permits in Tunisia , three of which cover past producing mines. Gordon Riddler reports: “Five permits result from recent applications covering areas which we discovered to be of real interest and significant potential, and were granted officially in January 2007. Since then we have been going flat out with our work programmes, particularly verification and evaluation drilling at the former Zriba-Guebli fluorite mine.”

Maghreb also secured agreement to earn in for 90 percent title to the rights on two of the past-producing mines. One of these, Gite de l’Est Mine at Bou Jabeur, is a significant deposit of lead, zinc, barite and fluorite, which extends into Algeria . This has just seen the completion of a verification drilling programme started in early 2007. In September 2007 assay results from this recent drilling at Gite de l’Est has shown deposits of high grade zinc and lead deposits where the best drillhole result over an interval of 42 metres grades 8.17% combined lead and zinc. High grade deposits of barite with associated fluorite were also confirmed there from previous Office National des Mines (ONM) drilling. The other, Fej Laudoum, has similar deposits to Bou Jabeur, and drilling is about to commence to assess this deposit. Maghreb’s exploration permit at Djebba, is fairly close to Fej Lahdoum and covers a near surface deposit estimated to contain around 3Mt grading around 10% combined lead and zinc.  

He says working in Tunisia has several advantages: “Tunisia is a secular country with a huge tourist industry and therefore quite prosperous.” It has a mixed Muslim and Christian population and good religious tolerance, but it also has a robust government with a highly competitive mining code and fiscal regime and none of the problems that are reported to face expatriate mining companies in negotiating for licenses in other mineral-rich countries in Africa, which makes it a very attractive place to do business: “As well as metals lead and zinc there are also significant quantities of associated and valuable industrial minerals. The country is a good place to be”, he says.

Gordon Riddler first became involved with minerals and mining in Tunisia when he helped to organize a conference there about exploration and resources in 1996. “In 2004 I got a phone call asking me to join the Maghreb board.” He had already built up a good relationship with the main players in the Tunisian government and says: “The government is very supportive and provides open access to a lot of data as an incentive so we don’t have to deal with unofficial or informal deals. I’m very comfortable working there.” There are seven members of the Maghreb Minerals senior management, the Board of directors comprising the executive chairman, finance director, for the last two months an executive director of geology (with an alternate) with one vote, and a non-executive director, in addition to the Tunisia country manager and the company secretary. Currently the company is building up its skill base and recruiting more geologists and field assistants: “We have provided computer data training and also training on new high tech equipment in-country. We have only one expat in-country with all the rest being Tunisian nationals. We plan to have another expat geologist with specific skills in the not too distant future. Otherwise all the labour is local, and most of the field assistants and field geologists are local.” Gordon Riddler says this is a positive policy: “It helps the Company activities to be totally integrated with the Tunisian community within the competitive fiscal regime provided. Tunisia therefore gets its share of revenue and employment. We would never dream of doing it any other way.” In any case, he says the leaders of local communities in the rural towns have a say in the provision of labour and as the company has been operating there for so long now, and is well known, there is local labour to hire as operations move from one area to another, so it all runs smoothly but, he says: “in any case it’s important to us in terms of governance and the future to ensure we build up the local skill base. Our policy has always been that in return for a lot of in country support the Company reciprocates by hiring where possible local people and services.” The company uses sophisticated internet techniques, including broadband and Skype, which allow it to communicate effectively with people on the ground and to send data from quite remote areas. It also means the company can get the data transferred by e-mail from satellite GPS and other ground surveys, field PDAs and laptops into its central data system at head office in London very fast. It also uses tele conferencing. The Tunisian government is investing heavily in improving its IT infrastructure and, almost uniquely for a small country, has its own Minister for Communications, a woman. It’s a far cry from the early days of his career doing airborne surveys when he flew over likely prospective sites at 200 feet using air photographs where recorders used pens and paper, and having to land the plane to change the ink in the pen when it dried out! He says there is something to be said for the digital age.  

Future plans The company does not expect to reach full production stage for lead and zinc until 2010 when it is aiming to re-open the mines Bou Jabeur or Fej Lahdoum. However, he says, it remains to be seen which will happen first and that will depend on drilling results: “It requires a degree of flexibility. If we find we’re not looking at viability in one area we’ll go to another that’s looking better. It’s a huge drilling project to get one of these deposits to mining viability stage and it’s always a bit of a gamble, but it’s advanced exploration and not what we call Greenfield stuff.” Now Maghreb Minerals is definitely at the stage where it knows where the deposits are and is assessing the practicalities of production.

He says professional assessments show first class prospects so it’s not a complete gamble: “There are about 60 Roman workings along the mineralized trend and one large mine which ran out of ore in 2005, at Bougrine, was found by drilling blind under the Roman workings.” The Bougrine mill and concentrator, currently on care and maintenance after closing in December 2005 is owned by a Canadian company, called Breakwater. Maghreb, which holds many promising exploration permits, some not far from Bougrine, will consider options for the best way forward, whether to buy out the Breakwater mill, which has processing equipment and production expertise, form some kind of partnership or build its own modern facility. It’s still early days for that though as the next two years will be spent on pre-feasibility, feasibility and production costings with a view to going into production within a five-year time frame, hopefully by 2010. Meanwhile the company’s projects will continue to be developed as fast as possible. Tunisian lead zinc deposits have historically provided clean concentrate and it is already established that there is a 100 percent demand for anything any Maghreb mine can produce, with lead prices reaching an all-time high on the markets on October 10 and going higher than zinc for the first time. Looking ahead Maghreb Minerals has definite ideas on future communication and provision for the local mining communities, such as local facilities to help clean up the environment around the old mines, education and medical facilities or other facilities that might be needed: “It makes sense to be developing a future workforce. In the middle of the country there’s a pool of workers who want to get back to mining and there’s no way we wouldn’t use them.”  

Maghreb Minerals Source:Energy Exec   http://www.ukenergydigital.co.uk

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