Ecuador: the new magnet for copper explorers

With copper prices at two-year highs amid bullish demand dynamics and supply constraints, the major mining houses are once again focused on exploring for the world’s most widely used industrial metal.

The trouble is, many of the geographies with the best deposits of the red metal are under a cloud for political or regulatory reasons.

Indonesia, for example is viewed as a difficult jurisdiction because of widespread corruption and shifting regulatory goalposts. 

Until recently, Ecuador has been a hidden gem. But thanks to an active program of mining law reforms and investment, the South American nation is now in the sights of the major miners including BHP Billiton, Fortescue Metals and First Quantum.

SolGold, which has operated in the country since 2012, has a first mover advantage as it furthers its flagship world-class Cascabel copper-gold deposit in the country’s northwest.

With a potential multi-billion tonne resource, Cascabel (discovered in 2013) is seen as one of the world’s top five undeveloped copper-gold deposits.

Ecuador is located on the prolific Andean copper belt that accounts for almost half of the world’s copper production. Think of giant mines such as Chile’s Escondida, Chuquicamata and El Teniente projects.

While South America’s mining legacy dates back thousands of years, Ecuador has been underexplored for several reasons.

One is that unlike the barren Chilean copper belt, Ecuador is well vegetated so the rich mineralisation has been well hidden.

Other reasons are political and economic: until 2010, Ecuador was a closed to foreign miners because the government focused on oil revenues from the Western Amazon basin.

But with this income declining, president Raffael Correa’s government adopted a more mining-friendly stance. Even though Leftist candidate Lenin Moreno replaced Correa in April, the reform momentum continues.

Ecuador’s new mining push has been marked by increased investment in infrastructure, the creation of a discrete Mines Ministry (in 2015) and the ongoing development of a mining code including an amenable tax regime.

Since the ministry was formed in 2015, the government has issued 300 new exploration concessions. The government has also relaxed a 70% tax on windfall mining profits that was discouraging investment.

In what Mining Minister Javier Cordova dubbed a “landmark in industrial mining in Ecuador”, the government and Canada’s Lundin Gold signed a contract in December to develop the country’s first operating mine, Fruta del Norte.

Fruta del Norte, in the country’s south, is also among the world’s highest grade undeveloped gold projects. And Cordova has made it clear he wants the project to be the blueprint for other explorers to unearth similar deposits.

Ecuador is undergoing a broader economic transformation, with investment in new infrastructure including 5 ports, 10 hydro projects and 10,000km of new highways.

On BMI Research estimates, Ecuadorian mining investment is expected to hit $US4 billion by 2021. Over that time, the value of the sector is expected to jump from $US1.1bn to $US7.9bn.

As for SolGold, our title is somewhat of a misnomer because our key focus is on finding world-class porphyry copper deposits – and that’s what led us to Ecuador.

SolGold owns 85% of ENSA, the joint venture vehicle, and Cornerstone has the remaining 15%.

The Cascabel project lies just off the well-made main road, a 3-hour drive from Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. It’s also on a lower altitude to the major Chilean projects, which means easier operating conditions with aspects such as access to water.

The project’s potential was validated when Newcrest Mining (Australia’s biggest listed goldminer) paid $23m for a 10% stake in SolGold in 2016.

Overall, SolGold has 59 concessions across Ecuador, covering 2,500 square kilometres but our focus remains firmly on Cascabel, which consists of 15 separate targets – and 15 potential winners.