Every Robert Friedland story has one thing in common: huge, huge grades.
Ten years ago, Friedland decided to hot step it out of Myanmar. He rang David Boehm, an Australian accountant in Hong Kong, and a copper mine that Friedland's company Ivanhoe co-owned in Myanmar was sold to a Chinese group. The mine's office was left empty and defunct, so Boehm rang David Forest, a geologist in Vancouver.
Boehm asked Forest to fly to Myanmar to look through the office's geological library, which was based on Ivanhoe's work and intel it had gathered in country. The library included “about $70m of work all told,” Forest says. “I went over there and spent two days in the office, looking through the data.”
Some figures “jumped out”, Forest says. Mining records from the early 1900s showed grades pushing on for 50 per cent. “Five-zero!” There was also a JORC resource from the 90s with 105 million tonnes grading 8 per cent zinc-lead, plus large quantities of silver. Similar deposits, like Escobal in Guatemala, prop up companies worth billions of dollars.
“There was phenomenally high grade stuff,” Forest says. “I went back to Boehm and said, let's go for it.”
The private company that Boehm and Forest co-founded, Asia Pacific Mining, is one of several outfits hoping that Myanmar will turn into a hot new destination on the mining industry's world map, as the country comes out from under US sanctions, lifted last year.
ASX-listed companies have already made tentative moves into Myanmar, whilst larger groups, including Newcrest, First Quantum and a Canadian mining finance firm, have all sent scouts “to look around”, according to sources in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
For fifty years, the country has been under the grip of a military junta, making it un-investable and leaving its mining potential untapped. All its mining pits are either controlled by the junta, or by favoured conglomerates, spanning construction to timber. But Myanmar is sitting on a rich mining history.
One zinc mine in the country was first opened by a British company around 1908, complete with its own golf course and railway line. The mine was originally managed by an American engineer, Herbert Hoover, two decades before he became US president. “When the British left, if you look at the production records, it has been declining and declining,” Forest says.
The world's view of Myanmar then turned on a dime in 2015. Three-quarters of all parliamentary seats were handed over to free elections and were won in a landslide by democracy activist groups. US sanctions were
lifted and overnight, Myanmar has flipped from pariah state to backpacking destination.
“Rapid political change is driving a major reassessment of Myanmar,” says Credit Suisse. “If you can find ways to invest in Myanmar you will be very, very rich,” echoes commodity bull Jim Rogers, who has called the country “probably the best investment opportunity in the world right now... In 1962, Myanmar was the richest country in Asia. They closed it off and now it’s the poorest country in Asia.”
“Myanmar's kind of neat in that it's vastly under-explored,” Forest says, yet Friedland's former mine sits “right in the middle” of an “arc” of porphyry deposits, cutting through Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. Versus some of
its neighbours, Myanmar's politics look suddenly attractive. “You know what you're looking for and you've got all this room to run.”
The obstacles are hefty. One former banker from SocGen, who now runs a mining boutique, says there are two paths companies can follow going into Myanmar. They can either free-carry a general, or apply for a new mining license and be the first to test the country's new codes.
Gemstones are the juiciest target. Hidden by thick jungle, Myanmar's ruby pits are the world's most coveted, with stones fetching up to $1m per carat. The jade trade is meanwhile estimated at $12bn to $31bn each year, equal to nearly half the country's GDP. But the gemstone sector remains “tightly controlled” by a small group of former ministers, who are “creaming off vast profits”, according to Global Witness, the lobbying group.
“We have been out that way,” one gemstone executive told Global Mining Observer, but new
governments tend to “hold on to their gemstone assets” for as long as possible, as a ready source of “undeclared” cash flow. Decisions are also endlessly handed around, so that no one official can be blamed if things go wrong.
“Whilst they're not technically in control, the military still has massive sway,” another investor says. Coca-Cola, for example, operates in Myanmar under the guise of a joint-venture with a pension fund for military veterans.
As the army edges out of politics, gemstones may be the last sector it gives up, but base metals targets are up for grabs. In 2011, the country held a mining show to drum-up interest. “There was a big rush, all these people showed up and everybody was really excited,” Forest says. “People thought they could fly in from Perth or Vancouver, have some meetings with the government, put in a letter and get the license. It really doesn't work that way, so people got frustrated and most people left.”
“Things move slow and it's very bureaucratic.”
Asia Pacific, which boasts a former deputy mining minister as a “Special Advisor”, is the first Western company to be granted an exploration license. Soil samples it has taken have returned outlandishly high readings and the company is beginning to drill test targets. PanAust, an Australian mining company controlled by a Chinese group, is another early license holder and others are looking to follow.
“I got obsessed with gemstones and followed them to where they were,” says Jamie Keech, 31, a mining engineer on Vancouver's mining scene who has looked at raising capital to pick off mining assets in Myanmar. “I bought a plane ticket and I had no plans, I just set out to go and figure out what was there.”
The World Bank has feet on the ground, helping the new government update its mining laws and the “opportunities”, Keech discovered, are in copper, zinc and lead. “The politics are opening up for the first time, they've got a proper mining law in place, the government's been very pro-investment. They've done a lot of work to modernise the mining code and they want modern companies to come in and mine properly.”
All it takes, says David Forest, is for one large company to sign a deal in the country and it will gain the mining industry's “stamp of approval.” When Forest first went to Myanmar, he couldn't access Gmail, people would whisper in restaurants to avoid being overhead and telephone sim cards cost $1,500. All that, he says, has changed.
“It's not an entirely free country, but you can really see the change. It's starting to happen. It's game on now, in terms of being able to do business there.”