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Roving Report – November

Our Roving Reporter Richard Dewhirst brings you his November update from Chile.

Our Roving Reporter Richard Dewhirst brings you his latest update!

Dear Member,

I might have to call this my “philosophy” edition, with only passing references to the world of mining, but I hope it may appeal to our readers at all stages of their careers as we seek to exploit (a rather pejorative word, to be sure) natural resources in a sensitive and sustainable manner and also as the nature of our own working lives changes over the years.

With the headline:

Which essentially translates as “Chuquicamata has started the interview process for reducing its workforce with a focus on 1,000 retirees”. Thus, Codelco's largest – and arguably the worlds' biggest and oldest – copper mine, which is making the transition to underground, is cutting down its employee numbers.

This is never an easy process in Chile as Unions are strong in the mining industry.

Anyway, it reminded me that humans, as well as mines, have diminishing reserves if more “exploration” is not done. For mines that is done by looking for interesting signs and often anomalies and then drilling and analyzing results. Seems to me that this is akin to what happens to us all. I started my career in the mining world after graduating and found myself in the middle of Africa two weeks after my 21st birthday and thrust onto night shift to learn what a real concentrator was like – a far cry from laboratory Denver Cell testing! I am now on the wrong side of my mid-sixties and after taking a difficult decision to reduce my full-on work commitment to about half-time and use the balance to both smell the roses and look to other things to exercise my, thankfully, still functioning brain (others may disagree!) with new challenges.

Honestly, I only took a little piece! Me enjoying a fine malt with “hielo milienario” (million-year old ice) that had calved off the beautiful Lago Grey glacier. In Torres del Paine National Park.

So, to celebrate that, career milestone I took some time out to head down to Torres del Paine National Park. This has been on my bucket list for some time but I never got around to visiting when previously in Chile. It's one of the downsides of the type of work that so many of us do that makes a mess of the work:life balance. Having spent so much time dashing from one study/project to the next, often overlapping, project, there never seemed to be time to see, let alone smell, those roses.

As you can see from the map, Torres del Paine is just about as far south as one can go. One flies to Punta Arenas, a three and a half hour flight from Santiago, and then drive five hours to the Park.

Spectacular views but at this time of year (early Spring) one definitely needs “winter woollies” to deal with the temperatures. Well worth the trip. Saw a condor wheeling effortlessly above the mountains on thermals and was fortunate to open the curtains of my hotel room on the last day to see a puma about 10m away. I took a couple of shots on my phone through the window and then rather without thinking through the possible consequences of the cold and a possibly rather hungry kitty, shot outside in my pj's to try to get a better foto. Unfortunately, before my autofocus could kick in, the beast took off. Most likely the poor thing will be disturbed for a long time at seeing me in my night attire!

Having been overwhelmed at the beauty of seeing my first glacier (and sampling its taste to be honest) I followed the recent debate in MinerÍa Chilena on the Government's proposed changes to laws regarding clarifying better what can and cannot be done in the vicinity of glaciers – particularly in relation to mining activities and to projects receiving environmental licences. The usual tension between development and protection. It will be interesting to see how practice develops. Of course, it's not just mining activities that affect glaciers. One only has to read recent articles on how badly Himalayan glaciers have retreated, creating drought in Pakistan in particular., and rendering huge areas practically desert. However, let's not add to the problem by thoughtless and careless exploitation in areas of great natural beauty.

In the Governmental debate, it was acknowledged that “…there is full consensus that we all want to protect glaciers (but) there is some ambiguity regarding the area around them .. there are times when work 100 m from the glacier does not disturb, and another that can be 5 km away and affects it… depending on the nature of the activity”. The Mining Minister noted that “Glacier protection is the guiding principle of the project because of its water contribution to the basins, but extending it to permafrost can generate a standstill of activities, …as the water supply of these can be zero ”.

Obviously, water supplies to local communities is a key issue, but I think there is a lot more at stake. I for one want my new grandchildren to be able to see glaciers for themselves as I was lucky enough to do and I hope that we will err on the side of caution in not putting these natural wonders at risk whatever we do.

Saludos cordiales from Santiago, Richard F. Dewhirst FAusIMM(CP)

Update:
Just before this “Roving Report” went to press, it had started to become clear that the current state of upheaval in Chile was indeed having a significant adverse effect on the Chilean copper industry. This, coupled with ongoing uncertainty on USA:China trade talks which have continued to depress copper prices as Donald Trump once more launches and tweets statements and policies to upset the Chinese, make for even tougher times in this part of the world.

A new Bloomberg News report stated that Codelco was likely to be dethroned as the world's top copper producer, with an 8% share. It's planned high capital investment modernisation programme was now at risk as the Chilean Government now wrestles with ever-increasing demands from its citizens for reforms of pensions, health care, taxation; scrapping of road tolls; and reductions in charges for fares, water and power. All demands on the Government's purse that leave less for State-owned Codelco to cope with diminishing grades and rising costs. 

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