Algeria’s lush hills a new home for zinc mines?

MEED – 18th January 2008

Nestled among the rolling hills that straddle the Soummam River in the Berber region of Kabylie, two small teams of men work 12-hour shifts searching for underground deposits of zinc.

Around them, the hills are so lush, green and thick with woodland that it is difficult to believe this is Algeria, a country almost entirely covered by desert. But in just a few years, the site could be transformed into one of the largest zinc mines in the world.

Western Mediterranean Zinc – a consortium of Australia’s Terramin Resources and two Algerian state mining companies – plans to extract millions of tonnes of metal ore from the hillside, exporting it to international markets from the port of Bejaia, 12 kilometres away on the Mediterranean coast.

For now, apart from two drill rigs and the small corrugated iron sheds where the workers take their tea, a winding network of red dirt tracks is all that disturbs the forest. A few hundred yards away, the nearest village, Merdj Ouamene, is derelict; the only sign of life the cats and hens that pick at the waste lying by the roadside.

“We are looking at options to put the plant in one of three valleys,” says Andrew Robertson, Terramin’s head of operations. “The issue is finding a piece of land flat enough.”

The drill rigs work around the clock, bringing up rock samples from 600 metres below the surface. One, a new rig worth about $500,000, is manned by contractors from Turkish drilling company Spektra Jeotek; the other, more than 20 years old, is staffed by the state mining authority, Office National de Recherche Geologique & Miniere.

Security is a massive issue in a country whose recent history has been punctuated by terrorist attacks since the civil war in the 1990s. A security guard, armed with a machine gun, idles near the upper drill site overlooking the valley below.

“The site is completely within a volcanic complex,” explains Charlotte Hy, Terramin’s principal geologist, who is supervising the drilling on one of her regular visits from Adelaide. “The western limit is the Soummam river. To the north, the deposits are increasingly complex, with faults and fragments to the geology.”

Although Terramin recruited Swiss geologist Dominique Petroons as technical manager in December to lead the on-site team, the majority of workers are from the local area. Each driller has three helpers, recruited from the nearest village.

The helpers on the Spektra drill team are paid about AD23,000 ($340) a month, which is a substantial salary in Algeria. “Most of the team come from within 30 kilometres of Bejaia, and most are in their first job,” says Kamal Baziz, director general of Western Mediterranean Zinc, himself Algerian.

A short truck-ride away, the rock core is analysed and stored in corrugated iron sheds. The smell of olives permeates the air from the surrounding groves, a reminder of what drove the local economy before hydrocarbons took over.

There is a small office on the site, supplementing a suite of rooms at the Cristal Hotel in Bejaia, from where Maria Bennallak, another local hire with a degree in chemical engineering, handles the project’s administrative challenges.

Bejaia, sitting on a natural harbour on the northeast coast, has a rich history. Shielded to the south by towering volcanic mountains 16 million years old, it is flanked to the east by the 2,000 foot Mount Gouraya, and to the west by the Cape Carbon headland.

An important trading hub and centre of learning in the Middle Ages, Bejaia has survived violent occupations by both the Spanish and the French, and was at the forefront of resistance against the French colonists during the 1954-62 war of independence.

Two stone arches, once gateways to the city, are among the few remnants of its once powerful fortifications.

Today, Bejaia is one of the largest deepwater ports in the country and a focal point for oil exports.

“There can be 20 or 30 container ships off the port waiting to dock,” says Robertson. “It is the country’s fourth-largest port, but I expect it to go from fourth to second quickly.”

Transporting ore from the mine to the port will be one of the project’s largest challenges. Twenty minutes into the journey from Bejaia to the mine site, the two-lane highway – RN12 – gives way to a single lane of rough gravel, lined with cactus plants. Cars frequently slow to walking pace to navigate deep potholes.

Even in the town centre, recent work to surface the highway as it begins its steep descent down to the port have been undone by heavy rainfall.

“There is a plan to upgrade the highway,” says Robertson. “What they decide to do will certainly impact on our logistics.”

This article was originally published by MEED. To see the original article, click here.

For more photographs from Algeria, please click here. All photographs are for sale, and can be downloaded online.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.