By Eugene Gerden
Central Asia (a territory of the former Soviet states that includes Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc) may provide good opportunities for growth for global mining companies in years to come, due to their rich minerals base and the liberalization of national legislation for mining that have been initiated by local governments in recent years.
With a population of about 72 million, the region stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China and Mongolia in the east and is characterized by large subsoil resources.
So far, the interest of Western mining companies in this region has been relatively low, which resulted in the almost complete dominance of the Chinese. Since the collapse of the USSR, the Chinese government, together with some of the country’s largest state-affiliated mining companies, have established good relations with the governments of almost every country in the region, providing them relatively cheap loans in exchange of an access to local mineral reserves.
Still, the beginning of the pandemic and stagnation of the Chinese economy has led to a significant decline in Chinese investments in the Central Asia mining sector, forcing the regional authorities to consider some alternative investment options.
For example, the government of Kazakhstan, the most economically developed state, is ready to attract investors to participate in the development of the country’s rich uranium fields.
At present, Kazakhstan already has a status of one of the world’s leading uranium producers, with the annual volume of production of 18,000-20,000 tonnes per year.
As part of the plans of Kazakh government, the attraction of additional investments will allow to start more active development of some of the country’s major uranium fields, particularly the Central Mynkuduk and Zhalpak in the Turkestan region of the country.
Kazakhstan holds vast mineral reserves which are largely undeveloped. The country has 30% of the world’s chrome ore reserves, 2% of manganese ore, 10% of iron ore, 5.5% of copper, 10% of lead and 13% of zinc, according to official estimates.
Uranium One Inc., an indirect subsidiary of the Russian state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom, is directly owned by the Amsterdam-based Uranium One Holding N.V. (89.07%) and Moscow-based Uranium One Group 10.93%. Uranium One is a joint venture partner with JSC NAC Kazatomprom, the Kazakhstan state-owned atomic energy company, in six major producing uranium mines in Kazakhstan – Akdala, South Inkai, Karatau, Akbastau, Zarechnoye and Kharasan.
In the meantime, in Uzbekistan, another major country in the region, the biggest hopes of its government are placed on further development of its gold mining sector. In recent years, Uzbek gold mining has faced an acute shortage of investment, which has resulted in stagnation of the entire gold mining sector of the country.
In terms of gold reserves, Uzbekistan currently ranks as the world’s fourth in output with annual production of about 90 tonnes of gold. Most Uzbek mining analysts believe the country has big gold mining potential; however, much will depend on the ability of the state to attract investments in the industry.
As in the past, the Muruntau mine – one of the largest gold mines in Uzbekistan and the world, with estimated reserves of 71.4 million oz of gold – will probably remain the most attractive gold mining asset of Uzbekistan for years to come.
In the meantime, in neighboring Tajikistan, the biggest hopes of the local state are related with the development of Bolshoi Konimansur, one of the world’s largest silver deposits, located in the Sughd region of the country (Northern Tajikistan). Total silver reserves at the Bolshoi Konimansur exceed 70,000 tons. According to preliminary estimates, investment in its development is estimated at US$3 billion.
Finally, in Kyrgyzstan, the fourth largest country of the region, most analysts consider the country as one of the potentially largest producers of rare earth elements in the entire region.
As Omurkul Kabaev, a former Director of the Institute of Mineral Resources of the Kyrgyz Republic said in an interview with the Kyrgyz Azattyk business paper that the country’s mineral reserves contain over 20 different REEs and rare metals. According to him, most of these metals are located at the Kuttesaya mine.
In the meantime, in addition to REEs, the mineral base of the country consists of some other strategically important metals, among which are antimony, tungsten, molybdenum, copper and some others.
Overall, according to estimates of Kabaev, there are more than 16,000 mines and deposits in Kyrgyzstan, which makes the country one of the most geologically promising mining destinations in the entire Asian region.
However, the situation in Kyrgyzstan has dramatically changed recently. On Friday January 29, 2021, Kyrgyzstan banned foreign companies from developing large mining projects; however, existing licenses are unaffected. This was the first major order by new Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov. He was inaugurated on Thursday and the next day signed the order which only allows the development of “subsoil areas of national importance” by a state-owned company. Kyrgyzstan relies heavily on gold mining,
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, only a few dozen mines continue to be developed in the country, among the largest being the Centerra Mining Corp. [CG-TSX] Kumtor gold mine, the Kadamzhai antimony mine and Aydarken mercury plant. Kenadyr Mining (Holdings) Corp. [KEN-TSXV; KNDYF-OTC] is exploring its Borubai gold project in north Kyrgyzstan.
Glencore, Cameco, and Rio Tinto are also active in Central Asia. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, there appear to be opportunities for mineral explorers and mine builders awaiting them in Central Asia.