Newmont Mining Corp., the world’s second-largest gold producer, is finding its biggest growth project runs through lakes and land belonging to some of the poorest farmers in Peru’s northern Andes.
Work has stopped at the Minas Conga gold and copper project four months after Newmont approved the $4.8 billion mine, following two weeks of clashes between police and demonstrators, who say the project threatens to deplete their water supply.
At stake in the dispute is Peru’s largest investment project, a mine that would yield $2 billion of metal a year at current prices in Latin America’s seventh-largest economy, a nation of 30 million where 7.3 percent are unemployed. The project shows how competing water interests from communities and industry threaten to derail the world’s next generation of mines and petroleum resources.
“This is a core growth project,” said Adrian Day, president of Adrian Day’s Asset Management in Annapolis, Maryland, which manages $190 million, including Newmont shares. “If it goes on much beyond a few months, I would think it is going to be very serious for Newmont.”
The mine is the largest component of Chief Executive Officer Richard O’Brien’s $7 billion plan to boost gold output by as much as 35 percent to 7 million ounces a year by 2017. If Newmont can’t proceed with its plans for Conga, it may switch to projects in Nevada, Canada, Ghana, Indonesia and Suriname, O’Brien said Nov. 30.
Billions a Year
Conga may yield 680,000 ounces of gold and 235 million pounds of copper annually in its first five years. That represents annual sales of about $2 billion based on current metal prices.
Omar Jabara, a spokesman for the Greenwood Village, Colorado-based company, declined to comment yesterday on when the project may be restarted. Newmont will seek talks with communities opposed to the project, he said in an e-mail.
Newmont, which owns 51 percent of Conga, is partnering with Peruvian partner Cia. de Minas Buenaventura SAA. The U.S. company also controls Peru’s Yanacocha, South America’s largest gold mine, which is forecast to produce 1.3 million ounces this year, down from 3.3 million ounces in 2005.
Newmont is also developing a mine in Ghana and expanding existing operations in North and South America, Africa and the Asia Pacific region.
Conga’s suspension is “a negative but it’s not a game-changer” for Newmont, said John Stephenson, who helps manage $2.7 billion including Newmont stock at First Asset Management Inc. in Toronto. “They can hit their growth targets with or without it.”
Newmont gained 1.2 percent to $67.15 at the close in New York. It has risen 9 percent this year, compared with the 10 percent drop in the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Gold and Silver Index.
Its output has climbed for three successive years and was at 5.39 million ounces in 2010, equal to about 6.2 percent of global mined output, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Industries. Newmont is the second-largest producer ranked by both sales and output after Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp.
Gold is heading for an 11th straight annual increase. The metal for immediate delivery in London has risen 20 percent in 2011 and traded Sept. 6 at a record $1,921.15 an ounce.
Peru approved an environmental-impact assessment for Conga in October last year. The project will include the construction of four reservoirs to replace four lagoons. The reservoirs will increase supplies of clean water to surrounding communities, according to Newmont’s Jabara.
Newmont’s plans failed to win over the farmers who started protesting last month. They blocked roads and destroyed Newmont installations. The demonstrations stopped after President Ollanta Humala on Dec. 4 granted the country’s armed forces extra powers for 60 days, including the right to make arrests without warrants in four provinces of the Cajamarca region.
The declaration of a state of emergency was important “because the next step was setting the entire country ablaze,” Carlos Galvez, chief financial officer at Buenaventura, said in a telephone interview from Lima. “It’s very difficult to counter political operators who are manipulating the population through the use of fear.”
The government will seek to restart talks with local protest leaders “as soon as possible,” said Daniel Abugattas, president of Congress and a senior member of President Ollanta Humala’s Gana Peru party.
“Social inclusion depends on the investment process continuing,” Abugattas told reporters in Lima today. “I believe Conga will go ahead, but it’s important that all precautions are taken.”
The city of Cajamarca, which lies near the deposit 560 kilometers (350 miles) northwest of Lima, reopened its airport, bus stations, schools and food markets after Humala sent 2,000 soldiers to guard highways, water and power companies and government offices, according to footage broadcast today by Lima-based Canal N.
Humala, a former renegade army officer who took over one of Southern Copper Corp.’s mines a decade ago, was elected in June on pledges to raise taxes and exert greater control over the mining industry.
Metals account for 60 percent of the country’s export revenue and half its tax income, according to the National society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy, an industry group. Humala signed a law in September that will create a windfall tax on miners to finance increases in public spending.
Conga will allow Peru “to carry out a great transformation,” Humala said Nov. 16. “We reject the extreme position of water or gold. We propose a sensible stance: water and gold.”
Humala is supporting Conga because the project could be part of as much as $40 billion of Peruvian mining expansions, O’Brien said at a Nov. 10 gold conference organized by RBC Capital Markets.
“You can’t just take the same size pie and redistribute,” O’Brien said. “You need to grow the size of it and mining is a key way to do that.”
The protests reflect the difficulties gold producers face in building mines and expanding output, Day said. Environmental protests by Peruvian farmers this year have halted projects by mining companies including Southern Copper, Anglo American Plc and Bear Creek Mining Corp.
Newmont was forced to shelve its Cerro Quilish gold project in the country in 2004 after opposition from environmental protesters. There were riots in 2000 after a spill of mercury, which is used to extract gold from rock, near Yanacocha.
“This is not an easy business,” Day said. “It never has been, but it seems to be getting progressively worse.”
Newmont can move some equipment that it bought for Conga to other assets if the project faces significant delays, said Tom Winmill, president of Winmill & Co. and portfolio manager of the Midas Fund in New York. Newmont has other mines and projects it could invest in to meet its 7 million-ounce target, he said in a telephone interview.
“I think it’s definitely doable,” he said.