FT: Spain and Portugal on the brink of mining renaissance

The Financial Times has a look at mining on the Iberian peninsula that dates back to pre-Roman times.

The world's number three miner has its origins in the Andalusian town of Rio Tinto; so called because the nearby river flows red due to its high mineral content.

The mines were sold by the Spanish government to a British firm in 1871 and Rio Tinto Mining Company mined there until 1984.

According to the FT, Rio Tinto Plc still says it is “the greatest copper deposit ever found.” The paper spoke to TSX-listed Emed Mining which hopes to re-open the mine soon:

Encouraged by high commodity prices, mining companies have been reopening abandoned pits or exploring afresh in long-neglected parts of western Europe – Greece for gold, Spain and Portugal for copper – though by far the biggest operations remain in Africa, South America and Asia.

Aristidis “Harry” Anagnostaras-Adams, Emed’s Cyprus-based managing director, is enthusiastic about the trend. “It’s quite a wave of capital and people moving into Europe to resuscitate what was a strong mining sector that went into hibernation about a generation ago,” he says.

“In the last two years, more than 20 companies have moved into Spain for exploration.”

Similar moves are under way across the border in Portugal. “We have enormous potential and the government is now negotiating contracts for copper, gold and iron, and also for uranium and wolfram [tungsten],” said José Maria Espírito Santo Ricciardi, head of the investment banking arm of Banco Espirito Santo, in an interview in Lisbon.

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Tourist site Andalucia.com paints a picture of the rich history of the mines:

According to myth, these are the fabled mines of King Solomon, and a section of the area is still known as Cerro Salomón today. The nearby villages of Zalamea la Vieja (now called Nerva) and Zalamea la Real are also named after the biblical king. It was tales of the Iberian Peninsula's mineral wealth that drew Phoenician merchants to its shores, laying the foundations for a succession of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman invasions. The Rio Tinto mines they worked so intensively were among the most prized rewards that control of Iberia yielded.

For all this, the region was inexplicably abandoned after the Roman era and in time was all but lost to collective memory, until it was rediscovered in 1556. It was, however, to take until 1724 for the mines to be reopened, and even then frustration and inefficiency dogged their exploitation. Fed up with this situation, the Spanish government finally sold the mines to a British syndicate in 1871 for a sum well below their real value. In true Anglo-Saxon style, the company's British managers soon had the mines running at full steam, making this one of the most important sources of copper and sulphur in the world.

Also true to form was the way in which they built Bella Vista, a purpose-built village for British employees only. Known as the 'colonia inglesa', the British style houses, neatly trimmed gardens, tennis lawns and social club of Bella Vista can still be visited. This 'British' village in the middle of the Andalusian countryside also features a Presbyterian Church and mining museum. Several kilometres away is the Spanish town of Rio Tinto, built to replace an older settlement that was swallowed up by the mine's expansion.

In its heyday, the Rio Tinto Mining Company was quite an innovator. The football pitch and golf course built here were among the first on the European continent, and the half-timbered bungalows built for company employees at the Punta Umbria, on the Huelva coast, are the forerunners of the modern Costas.

Continue reading at Andalucia.com

Image of Rio Tinto river courtesy Wikimedia Commons.