A Mine of its Own

I know what silence sounds like.

A radio static that leaves your tympanic membrane taut in anticipation of the slightest disturbance; a blowing wind, a slithering lizard or a falling stone. But the only emission is a dull buzz that irks and tantalizes.

I’d heard it once before many years ago in the valley of St. Katherine’s, and I was hearing it again now.

Abu Dabbab beach

Abu Dabbab beach

Sixteen kilometers eastward was one of the lesser known secrets of of the Red Sea, known for its dugong (sea cows), sea turtles and sandy reefs. In better times tourists flocked like seagulls. Many Egyptians had never heard of it. This was Marsa Abu Dabbab.

My destination, however, was a small campsite in the middle of the mountains where an Australian mining company, Gippsland Ltd., aimed to capitalize on Egypt’s vast reserves of the world’s newest conflict mineral; Tantalum.

The world’s demand for Tantalum had risen exponentially in the past decade, and no surprise there, as it is the main metal in the capacitors used in all modern electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptops, DVDs, gaming consoles, and digital cameras.

Endangered Dugong of the coast of Marsa Abu Dabbad

Endangered Dugong of the coast of Marsa Abu Dabbad

Its high melting point, ductility and malleability make it ideal for use in jet engines, and rocket parts. It is a main ingredient in iron based superalloys, and so is vital for the development of cutting tools and military-use armor. A chemical inertness and high resistance to corrosion render it the metal of choice for use in chemical vessels and orthopaedic implants.

And Egypt apparently had the fourth largest reserves in the world, mainly located in the country’s Eastern Desert.

Traditional sources of Tantalum in Africa were in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining processes helped conflate a war economy that benefited from perpetuating the ongoing conflict.

Corporate Social Responsibility advocates were quick to catch on to the pernicious nature of Tantalum mining, as they had previously done with diamonds and gold. In 2012 the US Securities and Exchange Commission began enforcing laws that would require digital device manufacturers to report their use of conflict minerals, and hence the hastened search for “conflict free” tantalum in countries where it is still relatively inexpensive to do business, and where there is practically no local industrial base that would utilize the element, thus freeing it up for cheap export.

Enter Egypt.

CD09-07__Ta_E__JSC__ABU_DABBAB_INFRASTRUCTUREGippsland ltd. has a history of operations in the Arabian-Nubian Shield, but its only current international operations are in Egypt and Eritrea. Mining concessions are not given in Egypt without explicit approval from both the army and the general intelligence agency, and it is a safe bet to say that a similar arrangement exists in Eritrea.

Gippsland’s connections to security establishments in Egypt are betrayed when it is learned that the company, in addition to its tantalum concession also holds a copper-nickel and eight separate gold mining concessions in Wadi Alaqi, measuring at an area of 144 kilometers square. Furthermore, the company was awarded another Tantalum-Niobium concession in the Nuweibi area of the Eastern Desert, where no operations have begun yet.

Cassiterite (Tin Oxide) being loaded for export in Abu Dabbab

Cassiterite (Tin Oxide) being loaded for export in Abu Dabbab

With the way the mining sector is managed in Egypt, there was no public bidding process for the concessions, there are also no unified concession contracts in the country, and details of these contracts are never made public. What we do know is that the tantalum concession also stipulates the right to mine for tin and feldspar, and that Gippsland, a small company with limited capital of its own, aimed to use its profits from tin and feldspar to begin its tantalum operations. Moreover, we know that 50% of the concession is held by “Tantalum Egypt”, a public sector corporation fully owned by the Mineral Resources Authority.

In light of the limited financial resources of both partners, additional funding is being sought. A local banking consortium made up of Banque Misr, Banque Du Caire, CIB, and Bank Audi has expressed willingness to provide some assistance. On the other hand, there is talk of a number of Arab Gulf investors, mainly from the UAE who are also looking for a piece of the action. If the figures being flouted are true, then Abu Dabbab along with the Nuweibi concession have the potential to provide the world with 25% of conflict free tantalum reserves in the near future.

I try to glean some answers from my reluctant hosts on the terms of profit sharing and whether any of their tantalum will be used domestically, but I receive vague and inconsistent answers.  I do learn however that the Abu Dabbad concession holds approximately 44.5 million tons of tantalum, and that the foreign company wants to set up a production rate that would place the lifetime of the mining pit at about 13 to 14 years. A logistics manager also mentions in passing that the mining operations and the camp site use up an average of 50 tonnes of diesel per month, and that unlike other industries in the area and elsewhere they have been “fortunate” enough to have had a steady flow of fuel for the past few months.

It is hard to imagine that any tantalum will be used in Egypt, as this requires a substantial investment in power-intensive smelting plants to turn tantalite ore into usable forms of the mineral; plants for which Egypt has no visible plans. It is most likely that slag from the pit will be exported to smelting centres in Asia, before being imported back as finished mobile phones, laptops and jet planes.

Egypt, it seems, is content on staying at the very lowest rung of the supply chain.

With this vast potential you would think that there might be a strategic drive towards building some sort of industrial base around the resource. But with all the rhetoric of untapping the hidden treasures of Egypt, and of the importance of gaining a foothold within global industrial supply chains; with all the talk of “creating technology parks” in the country, either independently or as part of the much hyped Suez Canal Corridor, there is hardly any mention at all in the local media about this mining reserve. And my only conjecture is that the junta that controls mining rights and that has a stake in profits thinks little about what the resource can do to change the face of the country, and more about the direct short term benefits to their own accounts.

Silence reverberates in a vacuum. And in this country a vacuum persists of vision, will and transparency.

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