LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - At a mining conference in Democratic Republic of Congo’s mining capital, Lubumbashi, last month, government officials and mining company executives huddled around two big tables, brainstorming how to save a failing copper mine.
The mine was fictional but the scenario was all too real: Africa’s leading copper producer has shed thousands of mining jobs this year after global commodities prices tumbled, and analysts say further retrenchment is likely.
Investing in this unstable country has never been for the faint hearted, but while mineral prices were high many firms were willing to take the risk. That may no longer be the case for the world’s big mining companies as the commodities slump forces them to slash costs globally to reduce high levels of debt.
Glencore’s Katanga copper mine, one of the biggest in Congo, announced an 18-month suspension last September, but analysts expect this could now be extended.
Australia’s Mawson West Ltd and Kazakhstan’s Eurasian Resources Group also both put mines on care and maintenance earlier this year.
Chinese companies, taking a longer-term view and keen to invest in much-needed resources for China’s economic development, are picking up some of the slack.
China Molybdenum snapped up Freeport-McMoRan’s majority stake in the Tenke copper project in Congo for $2.7 billion in May, as the American company, in order to cut debt, pulled back on what was previously seen as a strategic investment.
Chinese investments, however, will not be enough to reverse the decline in Congo’s mining sector, which saw copper and cobalt output plunge by around 20 percent in the first quarter, while gold production fell by 8 percent, according to the central bank.
“There will be more job losses over the next six months,” said Serge Bilambo, head of mining and metals at Standard Bank Group in Congo.
At least 3,000 direct and 10,000 subcontractor jobs have already been axed in Congo’s mining sector since last year.
Sicomines, the mining side of a $6 billion infrastructure-for-minerals deal between Chinese firms and Congo, came on tap in November and may soon become the country’s largest copper producer. But Chinese companies’ preference for imported Chinese labour and supplies means they will contribute less to the local economy than previous big mining projects, analysts say.
China Molybendum and Zijin Mining, another Chinese investor, have invested heavily in copper-cobalt projects in the last year in an echo of when China snapped up cheap assets during the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
The outlook for cobalt, a byproduct of copper, is much more promising than for copper with cobalt prices forecast to rise 45 percent by 2020 owing to growing demand for electric vehicles.
The long-term forecast for copper is bearish. A Reuters GFMS survey in April said a global surplus would suppress prices until 2020.
Add in growing political risk in Congo — an election set for November to replace longtime president Joseph Kabila will almost certainly be delayed, which could trigger unrest — and the business case for pulling out looks strong for companies already under financial pressure.
Much of local investors’ anxiety is trained on Glencore’s Katanga unit (KCC) in the southeastern town of Kolwezi. The mine produced 158,000 tonnes of copper and paid over $300 million in taxes in 2014.
It announced an $880 million investment in upgrades, and says it plans to resume in late 2017, but Kolwezi residents are sceptical. Delphin Monga, regional secretary of the KCC workers’ union, said construction was going “in slow motion” and he thinks concerns Glencore has raised about theft by artisanal miners are “a pretext to close the mine.”
A Glencore spokesman said production is still scheduled to resume next year, but Ben Davis, an analyst at investment bank Liberum Capital, was doubtful.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep it off for longer,” he said.
Viviane Bakayoko, CEO of Citibank DRC, told Reuters that one or two more mines may suspend production in the coming months.
Mining and oil make up 95 percent of Congo’s export earnings and the government last month cut its economic growth forecast for this year to 5.3 percent, from an original estimate of 9 percent.
It has said it is unable to subsidize struggling mines.
In April, it suspended value-added tax reimbursements to mines in an effort to contain exchange rate pressures. The government currently owes mining companies $700 million, according to Congo’s chamber of commerce.
A finance ministry spokesman said the suspension has since been lifted but did not know when reimbursements would start.
Artisinal miners have as usual stepped in as big mining companies pull back, risking all to make a living amid Congo’s economic crisis.
At a former industrial open mine near Kolwezi visited by Reuters, workers had pitched tents at the bottom of a chasm and were filling bags with rock containing copper and cobalt to be sold to middlemen.
“For the diggers, it’s the same precariousness,” provincial governor Richard Muyej said. “The poverty is serious.”
Reporting By Aaron Ross; Editing by Tim Cocks and Susan Fenton