Notes From The Graceland Of Copper

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Interesting dichotomy in the news this week. With lawmakers in Argentina moving to attract new mines — while Philippines regulators are striving to shut them down.

Just shows how people are one of the most important aspects of any mineral project. Equal to geology, infrastructure and all the other things that go into making a profitable operation.

And people were one of the remarkable aspects I had the pleasure to witness these past few weeks — on a trip through one of the world’s most storied copper districts.

The place is Zambia. A part of the world I’d never been to before — but have read about nearly from day one as a geologist.

That’s because Zambia is host to the southern portion of the African Copperbelt. A geologic feature that, for rock hounds, is on the same level as Graceland is for Elvis fans.

The Copperbelt, as it’s simply known, is arguably the world’s most famous mining region. Being discovered over a century ago — and hosting the world’s go-to copper mines prior to the discovery and widespread development of the Chilean Andean deposits.

Today, the Copperbelt still produces nearly 10% of the world’s copper supply — from mines in Zambia and its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And for this geologist, getting to see these mines was a dream come true.

As I’ve written about in these pages, I’ve been working a great deal on African Copperbelt style deposits in other parts of the world, including South America. Which has led me to do a lot of research on this area, surveying the geology behind deposits and mines that constitute some of the highest grade-producers in the world.

But seeing these mines firsthand drove home the massive scale of development here — in a way that reports and papers simply can’t.

After traveling north from Zambia’s capital of Lusaka, the spirit of the Copperbelt immediately became evident. When we began driving past towering black tailings piles near the old Copperbelt capital city of Kitwe.

And even when you’re not at a mine, mining is all around you here. Just look at the snap below of trucks along the highway — hauling massive tires for minesite vehicles. A common sight on roads throughout northern Zambia.


Everything is big in mining country, including the tires sticking out the top of this massive haul truck

But as my associates and I learned, the Copperbelt has now expanded well beyond this ancient outpost. With copper mining having pushed west from the old mines of Kitwe — toward the Solwezi region, where we traveled to visit mines such as First Quantum’s Trident development.

New discoveries like Trident are revolutionizing the Copperbelt. With this mega-deposit found to contain not only copper, but also significant amounts of sediment-hosted nickel. A strange beast geologically, to be sure.

In fact, northwestern Zambia is becoming a hot locale for a number of other metals, like gold. With First Quantum also having pioneered the Kansanshi mine in this area — hosting an ore reserve of 3 million ounces.

As we continued west to the outpost town of Mwinilunga, we found that it’s actually impossible to out-drive the mineralization here. Right up to a few kilometers from the Angola border we continued to find showings. The photo below shows a remote village where the ground was literally covered in magnetite — a product of gold-bearing rocks the locals showed us.


Ground covered in black magnetite sands near a remote border village

There’s not much literature on this western-most extension of the Zambian mineral belt. But there’s apparently a growing amount of activity here — with locals reporting that “major” companies have been flying geophysics over the area of late. As far as I’ve heard, no one is officially working here, leading to the conclusion these players are operating on the hush-hush in order to get a leg up in this emerging play.

Of course, it’s not just gold that’s the target here. Copper is just as much a play here as in the more-established mining districts of Zambia — despite the facts there are no major mines in this region. Yet.

The big copper potential here was driven home in a funny way as we visited another local village. Where I glimpsed the home shown below — and happened to note a funny-colored rock being used to hold down the roofing sheets, circled at left.


I just happened to spot the odd rock circled at left from the window of our jeep

Getting out for a closer look, I found there was indeed something different about this piece of construction material. It was a massive chunk of copper-rich malachite, which the locals had picked up in a nearby field.


Not often you see high-grade copper ore used for the simple purpose of holding down a roof

With the homeowner’s permission I retrieved the “paperweight” for a closer look. Not a bad looking specimen.


After I took this shot, the owner asked me to put this high-grade copper back on his roof, so the metal sheets wouldn’t blow away

That’s a first for me, even after 20 years in the business.

I also had another first on this trip. My first visit to a gemstone mining operation — when we toured Zambia’s storied emerald district, home to the world’s largest emerald mine, Kagem.


The Kagem emerald mine (sign at left) is the world’s largest operation

Here’s a shocking fact for you. Emeralds are the best-performing commodity in the world, in terms of price. In 2009, a carat of high-quality rough emerald sold for just $4.40. But at the March/April auction this year held by Gemfields Plc — owners of the Kagem mine — sales hit an all-time high of $70.68 per carat.

That’s a whopping 1,506% rise in emerald prices over the last seven years. And to think investors are falling over themselves in gold right now because the price is up 30% this year.

As an interesting aside, it appears to be no coincidence that the world’s best emeralds are found next to the world’s richest copper deposits. Over the last five years, I’ve been working on unearthing a new copper district in eastern Colombia — where, coincidentally, emeralds are produced at a quantity that makes it the world’s number two supplier of stones.

But despite all these wonders, perhaps the most incredible thing I saw on this Zambia visit was the people. People who welcomed, supported and educated us. Who told us how mining has had a major positive impact on their communities — and who invited us, with literally open arms, to come and be part of building “the new Zambia”.

That’s a humbling and wonderful experience — my heartfelt thanks to everyone we met along the way on this incredible journey. If some of the wheels set in motion on this trip catch pavement, I hope to be back in Zambia very soon — and be back to all of you with more notes on detailed prospects in the Copperbelt and its emerging extensions, the gold belt, the emerald belt, and beyond.

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