Governments from Mongolia to Mali seek to reopen mining deals

Situated in the southern Gobi desert of Mongolia, about 550 km south of the capital, Oyu Tolgoi is one of the largest high-grade copper deposits in the world. (Image courtesy of Oyu Tolgoi LLC)

Some resource-rich developing countries are seeking to rewrite mining contracts and accelerate dividend payouts, which can take years to materialize under deals that experts said are tilted in companies’ favor.

Any move to renegotiate agreements will trigger pushback by miners wary of threats to their profit margins, experts said, and previous attempts have caused protracted disputes.

Mongolia became the latest country to demand better terms, asking for more tax revenue from Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine while it waits for dividends. In West Africa, Mali has said it would try to reopen mining contracts that leave the state waiting years for dividend payments.

“What we’re asking for today is for African countries to be able to benefit more from their mineral production,” said Abdoulaye Pona, president of Mali’s Chamber of Mines.

The historical power imbalance between mineral-rich but cash-poor countries and multinational mining companies has left a legacy of bad deals that have been overly generous to investors

The historical power imbalance between mineral-rich but cash-poor countries and multinational mining companies has left a legacy of bad deals that have been overly generous to investors, said Alexandra Readhead, tax and extractives lead at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The financial strain governments are under from the covid-19 pandemic could lead to stricter implementation of existing tax laws and closer scrutiny of deals, Readhead said.

Governments are pushing for speedier payouts as prices for metals from gold to copper scale multiyear highs, signaling what investment bankers said is the start of another commodity supercycle.

Glencore remains at odds with the Democratic Republic of Congo nearly three years after the country signed a new mining code into law, CEO Ivan Glasenberg said on Tuesday. The 2018 code hiked royalties on cobalt, copper and gold.

“We are still in discussions with the government… we have not accepted the change from the old code to the new code,” Glasenberg told investors on a call.

‘Not likely to change’

Mongolia, which owns 34% of the Oyu Tolgoi mine, is unlikely to get dividends until 2051 based on Rio’s latest cost estimate for an underground expansion, a source familiar with negotiations said.

Delays and rising costs have eroded the expected benefits of the project, the state argued.

Rio, whose majority-owned Turquoise Hill Resources owns the rest of the mine, declined to comment.

Some are skeptical Mongolia’s government will win better terms under a new pact, given that previous agreements limit its taxation powers.

“It’s not likely to change to their benefit,” said Vincent Kiezebrink at the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations.

In Mali, the transitional government is reviewing mining deals after the auditor general last year identified problems including “non-distribution of dividends” in the contracts.

In September, Barrick Gold unit SOMILO paid its first dividend to Mali, 15 years after production at the Loulo mine started and a year after the auditor general criticised the firm for not paying dividends.

Barrick did not respond to questions. The Loulo mine is part of the Loulo-Gounkoto gold-mining complex, West Africa’s biggest, and Barrick said the project generated $240 million in dividends for 2020.

CEO Mark Bristow has said he does not expect major changes to mining deals in Mali.

Last year Mali’s auditor general demanded Resolute Mining pay dividends to the state, a 20% shareholder in the Syama mine which started producing in late 2008.

Resolute’s Mali subsidiary SOMISY will begin paying dividends to the government once it reaches profitability, the company told Reuters.

While pushing for reforms, countries in need of investment must still tread carefully, Pona at Mali’s Chamber of Mines said.

“You can’t create a (mining) code which will make mining companies avoid your country,” he said.

(By Helen Reid and Jeff Lewis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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