Gabon still in talks with China over Belinga mine
Gabon is still negotiating with its Chinese partner to develop the giant Belinga iron ore deposit, a project key to diversifying the country's oil-reliant economy, but it will likely bring in other miners and could break up the vast concession. Deputy Minister for the Economy Desire Guedon also said economic growth will slip to 7.0 percent this year, from 7.3 percent in 2012, and crude oil output will decline half of 1 percent.
Copyright Reuters, 2013
Guedon, whose portfolio also includes employment, said that a recent deal with union leaders to end a strike of oil workers would not lead to the expulsion of thousands of foreign employees - as the union demanded. "The (Belinga) negotiations are not finished. We haven't broken with them in the sense that we've told them to relinquish it," Guedon said of China's CMEC, which secured rights to the iron ore deposit in a 2007 deal.
"But we've asked them to agree to a revision of the shape of the dossier. They're still interested in the project. We haven't named our partners yet," he said. The deal with CMEC was signed by the late president Omar Bongo, but his son and successor, Ali Bongo, called for a review of the agreement after he came to power in 2009.
The government has ordered a reassessment of the iron ore deposit, and the mines minister has said new partners may not be chosen until results are known in 2014. "Belinga is vast. And it's not just iron. And that was one of the problems," Guedon told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
"Before, the mine was mainly linked to iron. However, we have since realised that there are other mines in this zone that do not necessarily fall within their area of expertise," he said. The area of the concession has already been altered to exclude protected park lands that had originally been included, and Guedon said there was a possibility it could be broken up between several operators.
"We're looking at 7 percent (2013 growth). Last year it was 7.3 percent," Guedon said. "Last year we hosted big events and we had to invest a lot. And it was that investment that increased growth," he said, referring to Gabon's co-hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations alongside Equatorial Guinea.
The tiny Central African nation of about 1.5 million people depends on revenue from oil production dominated by majors Total and Royal Dutch Shell for around 60 percent of the state budget. Guedon said that crude production was forecast at 12,262,000 tonnes (89,880,460 barrels) for 2013 - down slightly from 12,323,000 tonnes (90,327,590 barrels) last year - with an anticipated price per barrel of $96.
Members of Gabon's powerful ONEP oil workers' union went on strike earlier this month to demand the application of a 2010 agreement, signed by the government, guaranteeing better labour terms and greater use of Gabonese staff. The union suspended the week-long strike on March 17 after it said the government agreed to improve working conditions for Gabonese staff and expel about 3,000 undocumented foreign employees. However, Guedon said the government had no plans to deport foreign oil workers. "I was involved in these negotiation. There was no agreement by the government to expel anyone," Guedon said. "It's true it was among their demands. But the government didn't grant it."