The Veracity of Chinese Mining Statistics

by Jack Lifton on December 28, 2009 · 26 comments

in China, Rare Earths

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In February of this year I gave a presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME 2009) entitled “An Assessment Of The Reliability Of The Present Determination Of The Rare Earth Resources and Reserves Of The People’s Republic Of China“. The following is drawn from that presentation.

Laissez-faire capitalism is alive and well in the rare earth mining sector of the economies of the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Republic of South Africa. None of these top-tier industrial economies issues or funds government mandates for the exploration for, production of, or production of end-use products of the rare earth elements and/or thorium. Thus the world’s most competent, experienced, and educationally qualified mining exploration and engineering groups, have only the “free” marketplace to look for funding for such endeavors.

The governments of some other nations, particularly, China, but also now including Korea and Japan as well as, most recently, the central governmental regulatory bodies of the European Union, take a more pro-active role in securing for themselves, for their domestic use, supplies of materials that they consider critical to their heavy and high tech industries and to their military-industrial complexes. The rare earth elements and thorium are at the top of everyone’s list in the pro-active countries. The same is true for the “reactive” countries, such as today’s USA, Canada, and Australia, but the strength of the reaction has not yet been effective in producing civilian or military sector funding for rare earths or thorium.

The National Academies is the current name for the combined single successor to the former United States’ National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. It is responsible to the U.S. Congress, from which it receives its funding, for advising the legislative branch and any other branch the legislature designates, on matters within its purview as requested by members of the House or Senate, most often in regard to legislation being proposed to regulate an area of science, engineering, or medicine.

In October of 2007, the National Academies published a book entitled “Minerals, Critical Minerals, And The U.S. Economy,” which was an analysis of a two year long study by a group consisting mostly of academics but which also included some selected representatives of the U.S. mining and manufacturing industries. The study identified not only which minerals and metals were critical, i.e. which ones were the bases of technologies that could not be actualized as practical devices without them, but also set out criteria for assessing the impact of the interruption of their supply on U.S. industry, the general economy, and, in an additional volume, “Managing Materials for a Twenty First Century Military,” on the capability of the U.S. military to be effective in the event of the interruption of the supply of critical materials. For this article, I want to reproduce the Mission Statement designated as the “Statement of Task” for the first study:

Statement of Task
Understanding the likelihood of disruptive fluctuation in the supply of critical minerals and mineral products for domestic applications, and making decisions about policies to reduce such disruptions, requires thorough understanding of national and international mineral sources, mineral production technology, the key uses of minerals and mineral products in the United States economy, and potential impediments to the mineral supply.

This study will:

  1. Identify the critical minerals and mineral products that are essential for industry and emerging technologies in the domestic economy (addressed in Chapters 1-3 and in culminating discussion in Chapter 4);
  2. Assess the trends in sources and production status of these critical minerals and mineral products worldwide (addressed in Chapters 3 and 4);
  3. Examine the actual or potential constraints, including but not limited to geologic, technological, economic, and political issues, on the availability of these minerals and mineral products for domestic applications (addressed in Chapters 3 and 4);
  4. Identify the impacts of disruptions in supply of critical minerals and mineral products on the domestic workforce and economy (addressed in Chapter 2);
  5. Describe and evaluate the current mineral and mineral product databases and other sources of mineral information available for decision making on mineral policy issues (addressed in Chapter 5); and
  6. Identify types of information and possible research initiatives that will enhance understanding of critical minerals and mineral products in a global context (addressed in Chapter 5).”

I want to address item 3 above, because when it is analyzed in further detail, it exposes a serious flaw in strategic planning, which is that prior to assessing the impact of geological, technological, economic, and political issues on the availability of critical minerals it is first necessary to assess the credibility of the numerical data, which is the basis of one’s analysis. In layman’s terms it comes down to:

  1. Is the data accurate,
  2. Is it complete,
  3. Is the provider truthful, or
  4. Is the provider truthful but incapable of being correct due to ignorance, lack of the appropriate scientific background, incompetence, or inability to assess or measure the credibility of either the data or its provider of that data, and
  5. In any of the cases above is there any hidden agenda coloring the transparency of the data?

In the case of the rare earth metals the simple fact that, it is commonly stated, and it is true, that more than 95% of their total global supply today is produced in the People’s Republic of China should be enough to set off alarm bells in the strategic planning offices or departments of governments and private businesses. Even if you ignore, for the moment, the issue of whether or not the world of trade is “flat,” i.e. whether or not China will always sell and deliver its resources to the highest bidder, which is the free market capitalist ideal, transparency has never been a hallmark of China’s dealings with outsiders, and when we accept data on resources and reserves from the PRC not only are we facing an unknown degree of data filtration for reasons of commercial competitive advantage, with which we are all, or at least should be, familiar, but also we are facing the filtering imposed by a government that mandates that if a resource level has been declared to be present by a mining operation, then that operation will be required to either produce a certain minimum amount or be faced with losing its access to markets and finance through a reduction in its next production allocation.

The simple fact of life that failure to meet government imposed production allocations may lead to loss of position without any hope of redeeming one’s economic (job) status or social status is far more important to a Chinese manager, than accuracy in reporting the reserves upon which that allocation was based.

In China, if you set your goals lower by fudging what you think you have, or can actually produce, and then meet your goal, set for you by and in the five year plan, you have been successful.

As recently as 1993. today’s situation – China as a the ultimate monopolist in rare earths – was far from obvious, and was not even considered likely by western observers. In a joint survey of the rare earth’s industry published in 1993 as “International Strategic Minerals Inventory Summary Report- Rare-Earth Oxides, U.S. G.S. Survey Circular 930-N” it was stated after a detailed analysis of the-then known data on rare earth resources and reserves that:

“The country having the greatest potential for REO (rare earth oxides – the commonly used identifier for this category) production is South Africa, which could produce 41,280 metric tons per year as compared to an actual production (1993) of 700 metric tons per year; this would be an increase of approximately 59 times the present production. The United States has the capacity to produce about 32,764 metric tons per year, which is a 50% rise over the 1989 actual production of 21,875 metric tons per year. China could undoubtedly produce more REO than is reported, especially if Bayan Obo steel slag could be successfully treated. Australia could produce 11,462 metric tons per year, about half again the present rate, if Olympic Dam and some of the placer operations introduced REO mineral recovery plants. REO output in Brazil could be raised by a factor of five with little trouble”.

The difference in the quality and credibility of the data apparently was enough to cause the authors of this study, financed by the UN and the most credible commodity mineral data reporting agencies in the USA, Canada, Australia, The UK, and Germany to not state or estimate, quantitatively, their conclusions about future Chinese production in 1993.

But even before that, it was clear to Western-educated and -trained geologists familiar with mining in the Soviet Union, that China was far too unsophisticated to provide reliable data on its potential mineral resource. A geologist colleague of mine told me that as he traveled across that part of the Soviet Union’s mining landscape where it was permitted for a foreign (Canadian) visitor to see, he was struck even thirty years ago by the quality of the data being obtained as deposits were mapped meticulously while, in stark contrast, his conversations with Russian and other Soviet mining exploration personnel revealed that plate tectonics was not “officially” taught in Soviet universities that were training geologists. Soviet era geologists were thus not very good at the theoretical bases for exploration, he said, and to advance in the political hierarchy one did not disagree with official geological “doctrine.” Those who advanced the use of new or foreign ideas rarely got the resources to test those ideas. No one could benefit officially, for example, from discovering or developing a gold mine, so those mining cooperatives that did find easily fungible resources were engaged in a constant battle with bureaucrats and corrupt officials for scarce equipment, supplies, and skilled labor for all of which they traded with other similarly situated enterprises outside of the official economy. It goes without saying that “official” data on Soviet mineral resources and reserves were a total fabrication, produced in Moscow to showcase Soviet “progress”, frequently with scant regard to the data even for proven resources.

When Mao Zedong succeeded in overthrowing China’s literally mandarin bureaucracy and its last outright autocratic successor to the Ming dynasty, Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949, it stands to reason that in the much more unsophisticated and sparsely populated Chinese mining space, as we would now call that industry, data on resources and reserves was non-existent on a public or survey level. Mao welcomed “fraternal” Soviet geologists who came to “help.” In fact we now know that these Stalin-era geologists were thoroughly politicized and that they came to map out Chinese resources, as a source of cheap raw materials for Soviet industry.

In surveying the iron ores of Bayan Obo for the purpose of setting up a contained, vertically integrated  (and thus hidden from prying Western eyes) steel industry, it seems that Soviet geologists familiar with deposits in the Kola peninsula of the Soviet Union noted and brought to the attention of the fraternal colleagues they were training in Soviet style exploration, the fact that Bayan Obo iron was a rich source of bastnaesite, the most common hard rock ore of the rare earth elements. The rest is a convoluted history of fraternal cooperation and is best left for a spy novel featuring Chinese students at Kola trying to fit Russian mining, extraction, and separation techniques from there to the operations at Bayan Obo, where rare earth production was primitive, labor intensive, and subject to the whims of the commissars overseeing the planning and operations of the Baotou Steel Works, a great showcase of the strength of the people and the party under Chairman Mao and not to be interfered with lightly.

By 1997 when Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that “The middle east has oil, we have rare earths” had filtered to the local level in Bayan Obo, a short lived cooperation allowed an American survey team from the USGS in concert with China’s Ministry of Metallurgical Industry, to go to Bayan Obo and issue for public consumption: “The Sedimentary Carbonate-Hosted Giant Bayan Obo REE-Fe-Nb Ore deposit of Inner Mongolia, China: A Cornerstone Example For Giant Polymetallic Ore Deposits of Hydrothermal Origin.” I am certain that this title was first written in Chinese, to emphasize that theirs was a lot bigger than any of ours; it is traditional in the orient to write like this.

That 1997 study concluded that:

“on the basis of reported estimates of total reserve(s) of 48 million metric tons (average grade 6 wt. percent Re2O3 , Drew and others, 1990) to as much as 100 million metric tons of Re2O3 of unspecified average grade (unofficial estimate from Chinese colleagues, oral comm.., 1987), Bayan Obo is the world’s largest known REE deposit.”

The report concluded that

“although the [total] size has not been disclosed in the Chinese literature… [it has been acknowledged based on unreported drilling data] that Bayan Obo is China’s largest niobium deposit.”

What don’t we know about Chinese resources and reserves of REOs? We’re on the way to finding out. The point I am making, is that Western businessmen who base their long term supply requirements for rare earths, not only on continued access to Chinese production of rare earths, but on Chinese produced studies of resources and reserves as well as the idea that Chinese miners and refiners are economically competitive with Western operations, are walking on thin ice.

Recent Chinese actions in the non-Chinese rare earth mining space, make it suspiciously likely that China itself needs rare earths from the outside. We need to start thinking about what that means for the future of technology-based products in the West.

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1 John Petersen December 28, 2009 at 3:18 am

It’s easy to see how fixed production quota’s could lead to suboptimal resource development practices – e.g. high-grading deposits to meet quotas. It would not surprise me to learn that Chinese REE production over the last several years has already extracted the bulk of the easy ore bodies leaving them with less attractive future production prospects. It’s all speculation but clearly speculation that fits nicely within a public position that China’s going to need the substantial bulk of its future production to satisfy domestic demand. Capitalists are not the only ones who have motivation to sacrifice long-term potential for short-term results.

2 Edmund Brooke December 28, 2009 at 9:35 am

“The country having the greatest potential for REO (rare earth oxides – the commonly used identifier for this category) production is South Africa, which could produce 41,280 metric tons per year as compared to an actual production (1993) of 700 metric tons per year; this would be an increase of approximately 59 times the present production. …..”

Jack, I now understand the interest of certain parties in SA.

More information please.

3 Vladimir Seredin December 28, 2009 at 10:46 am

Dear Mr. Lifton,
Thanks for useful analysis. However, as the Russian geologist I cannot agree with your opinion that «Soviet era geologists were thus not very good at the theoretical bases for exploration …».
(1) Plates tectonics theory have started to teach in the Moscow State University still 35 years ago in 1973. It is the absolute truth as I was the student at this time and took myself this course which was read by professors Sorokhtin and Ushakov. Moreover after 5-7 years the plate tectonics became the official geological doctrine in the USSR.
(2) History of opening of mineral deposits in the USSR and Russia shows, there is no direct correlation of frequency of opening of the deposits with development of any global theories, also as with change of a political regime. The majority of large deposit discoveries in our country has been made for 1950th-1980th. This period many scientists name «a gold era of the Russian geology». During this period which has begun long before development of plate tectonics, in the USSR it has been found and prospected more oil, gas, diamonds, uranium and many other deposits including REE, than in other countries of the world. By the way, Russia owing to the works of those years and now occupies the second (after China) place on measured REE resources and the first place in the world on inferred reserves of these metals. Giant Tomtor deposit (154 million Mt TR2O3), and such large deposits as Katuginsky (28 million Mt), Chuktukonsky (7 million Mt), Beloziminsky (~7 million Mt), and Karasugsky (4 million Mt) in Siberia, and also Mushugai Khuduk in Mongolia have been found by the Soviet geologists these years. Obviously it would be impossible without a high scientific level of “Soviet era geologists” regardless of how well they knew the global plate tectonics theory.
I hope you understand, that my explanations are provoked not by the Soviet patriotism, and is exclusive aspiration for objectivity.
Best wishes,

Vladimir Seredin

4 Jack Lifton December 28, 2009 at 11:34 am

Professor Seredin;

Thank you for your informed and insightful analysis of the reality of geology during the Soviet era . I apologize to you and to those Soviet era scientists whose integrity I may have unintentionally impugned. My remarks are targeted at government-think, which prevailed in the former Soviet Union, and its dependencies. Although I never visited the Soviet Union I did spend significant time in “fraternal countries” in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period, and I saw for myself how institute directors became horse traders in order to get the simplest (for a Western lab) supplies. Clearly influence with central planning officials was not to be gained by disagreeing with the scientific theories of leading academicians who were in favor. Mining was no different. A connected director could get all of the excavation machinery he needed for a low grade deposit, while the director of a high grade deposit, who was not in favor in Bucharest or Sofia, got nothing but delays.

It was the same in China after its revolution of 1949. It may have improved today in China but old habits and old communists die hard.

Today, unfortunately, in the USA and Europe we see governments adopting for political purposes a scientific theory, man-made global warming, as if it were a consensus or something proven as if it were a natural law. Those who in the finest tradition of science have doubts that the evidene is confirming, are denounced as “defiers” by so-called scientists who must toe the government-think line or risk not getting money.

I think that Chinese government officials have for years been setting production goals, and that the mining engineers have had no choice but to try and reach those goals (or lose their jobs). Mine managers who are competing for favor are unlikely to listen to those of their professional mining engineers who are telling them that they cannot do it. Those who can do it are favored no matter what they have to do. As I said above, I saw this type of thinking frequently in Romania and Bulgaria. I remember well the lunar-like landscape at the Pirdop copper complex in Bulgaria, for example, which upon the fall of communism became immediately inoperable due to its inability to find a way to pay for environmental remediation and keep running. I believe that a large Western mining company moved in, cleaned it up, and resumed operations.

We in the West would certainly like to hear more about Russian and Asian deposits of the rare earth elements of the size you are mentioning. In the, hopefully, near future, when cowboy capitalism subsides in Russia, I think that Russia could well add rare earths to its domestic treasury of natural resources, and for the Russian consumer economy to go green this is a necessity.

Thank you for your comments.

Jack Lifton

5 Tim Starns December 28, 2009 at 12:51 pm

The inability to accurately assess the Chinese deposits is possibly as much a problem for the chinese as it is for those outside of china? That is as seriously problematic for everyone who relies on Rare Earths. It seems too that Mr Serendin’s analogy of the copper mine in Bulgaria might possibly be appropriate to OboBayan, that they have literally dug themselves so deep into the hole, that they have little option but to keep digging. From a few months back, Mr. Xu of China proposed an estimate that they had already expended more than 1/3 of all their projected reserves, and they were now being cautious about future exports. That would seem to tie in quite neatly with what Jack has published here about not really knowing exactly where they are.
Then, Mr. Serendin’s comments about the Russian REE deposits open up a whole new area of consideration. If these deposits are as large as suspected, how long would it be before they are brought to market? Are we likely to see a “rush” to degradation of the environment through the same types of practices in China, or is it more likely the Russian government will temper the exploitation with some real long range thinking?
I too would like to hear more about the Russian side of the industry as well.

6 Vladimir Seredin December 28, 2009 at 1:57 pm

To Jack
Thanks for your detailed answer. I think that we discuss different problems of Soviet time: you are speaking on ineffective of the mining industry, while I am attracting attention to the successes of prospecting and exploration geological works. These are different spheres, aren’t these?
To Tim:
The mentioned deposits are not mining now and during “cowboy capitalism” will be mined hardly. Only one old REE deposit (Lovozero, Kola) with annual production about 2000-3000 Mt LREE is mining in Russia now.

Vladimir

7 robert Mackay December 28, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Jack

I am heading to Russia in mid January and I invite you to come with me so you can see for yourself the quality of the Russian geological data. I will take you to some of the finest Geological Institutes in the world.As Vladimir said one rare earth deposit alone Tomtor would supply the world for the next 100 years.
I was also skeptical in 2005 when I first travelled to Moscow to look at a gold project. I remember saying to my host, the Chairman of a major bank in Russia that the perception of Russia courtesy of CNN and 40 years of the Cold War is that it run by the Russian Mafia and investors would get screwed. The banker listened politely then said to me, “Robert, if I went to Houston Texas and stood on the street corner with money overflowing my pockets saying I wanted to get in the oil business how long do you think it would take for the Texans to empty my pockets”? His point was, in business it is all about who you do business with and Jack I can tell you the Russian mining people I have met are as good and honest as any in Canada.
Lastly, the primary geological data I have seen in the former Soviet Union is first class and the most important thing is it is all there, every report , map, assay sheet, plan, section, EVERYTHING! Can you say that about the US or most countries in the world?

Robert

8 Tim Starns December 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

Robert,
Are you going to Russia to investigate REEs geology? Perhaps you could keep in touch with this forum to keep us all up to date with your experiences there.

Vladimir said the REE site would be mined “hardly”, I took that to mean “very little”, though he could have meant “a great deal”. Vladimir, could you clarify please? Do you think there will be really big increase in the amount of REE mining in Russia? What about processing and separating the elements?

Thank you both for your insightful comments.

9 Vladimir Seredin December 29, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Excuse for my English. I had not practice in this language for some years. I kept in mind that it is a little bit chance, for development of the Russian large deposits (discovered by the Soviet geologists) in the nearest future. The reasons are the same that Jack Lifton noted many times in his papers for other large REE deposits in other countries: complex composition of the ores for effective extraction of REE, absent necessary infrastructure, and high concentration of ecologically dangerous elements. These are the real problems, typical for all classical REE deposits connected with carbonatites and alkaline granites worldwide. Don’t worry about possibility including these deposits in world producing REE in our crisis time as I think.

Vladimir

10 Robert Mackay December 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Tim

We have been looking at rare earth deposits in Russia for 2 years starting with Tomtor. I can send you information on a few deposits if you like. Vladimir is correct in saying most of the huge deposits are in non accessible locations similar to ours in Canada and the cost of putting them into production would be huge.
The issue I see is the governments will have to mandate their permitting to production like they did in the 1950’s for uranium and I am skeptical of that happening.
We picked up a past producer today Kutessay II at an auction in Kyrgyzstan and it has a 50/50 LREE to HREE composition. We have looked at most of the deposits in the former Soviet Union and there are a few more that interest us and that is why we are travelling there in January.
My view on rare earth deposits is only deal with the ones that have good HREE’s.

11 Tim Starns December 29, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Thank you both, very much for your information. I had encountered this post today, which is partly why I asked, and you have now confirmed the report. “Stans Energy (TSX: V.RUU, Stock Forum) shares climbed 50% to 18 cents on Tuesday after the micro cap explorer reported that it has acquired a mining licence for the former producing Rare Earth Elements (REEs) mine, Kutessay II, in Kyrgyzstan” There’s going to be an explosion of profiteers, who will use every scrap of information to entice investors into schemes all over the planet. Russia with its huge untapped reserves, no matter how remote, will come into vogue as the” Latest and greatest discovery to make the world green.” for a few unwary investors.

Vladimir, were my Russian as good as your English, I would be fluent in two languages. ??????????? ??? ??????? ????

12 Tim Starns December 30, 2009 at 10:44 am

The question marks at the end of the last post are in lieu of Russain text for “Thank you good friend” to Vladimir, but the site apparently won’t post the cyrillic text.

13 Tim Starns December 30, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Robert,
What is the current status of Kutessay II? Has Stans acquired the license as reported above? What is Stans’ relationship with Moscow?
It seems Russia and the US have a similar situation of needing the REEs, but have recently made no provisions for producing them from their own deposits.

14 William Traster December 30, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Jack: Some of the best comments I’ve yet read about REEs. I especially liked Vladimir’s comments in that it is a rare chance for some of us westerners to gain insight from someone inside Russia.

Vladimir: Thank you for taking time to comment, and then follow up with more comments. Hopefully, you will revisit here frequently!

Though I would like to see things move along more quickly, it is good to note the the US military is at least making a study. In and upon itself, that a study is being made by the military is in my mind the first step, or rather, leap toward the western hemisphere understanding the immediacy and importance of REEs.

15 Robert Mackay December 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Tim

I will restrict my comments to discussions on rare earth government policy and directions as I see it. This is not the place to discuss my company or any others.
Russia did a study 2 years ago and the recommendations were the same as I expect the US Governments will be in a few months from now. The difference I see is once it is mandated in Russia the mine planning and construction begins. I hope I am not shot with this opinion but I suspect once the report comes out in the US the lawyers and environmentalists start their mining of the mining companies.

16 Vladimir Seredin December 31, 2009 at 1:59 am

I regret that because of my comments we have deviated of the main theme of Jack’s article. May be it is necessary to return to it?
Happy New Year all.

Vladimir Seredin

17 Tim Starns December 31, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Vladimir, your comments were quite appropriate and welcome, so far as I am concerned. I think this diversion in the discussion really demonstrates how important it is that credible and verifiable information is presented BY THE PROFESSIONALS IN THE INDUSTRY, because it is upon these informations that national and international strategies will be founded. This is why I have been following Jack Lifton, the Rare Metal Blog, Mineweb, conferences , geologists and many other sources, to acquire the very informations that are revealed by those who are at the center of world, in this area.
The only thing I find more astounding than my great good fortune to be able to converse with the true professional sources on these subjects, is the incredibly small number of people, in critical positions of national and international importance, who ARE NOT HERE , listening and consulting. Jack has been adamant about the urgency of how important it is to get the right information to the right people, and discussions such as this are simply indispensable when comprehensive information is so scarce.

18 Pat Triggs January 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Question regarding the Kutessay II mine – is there an exisitng mill with processing equipment ?
Thanks

19 Robert Mackay January 2, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Pat

Out of respect to Jack this is not the place to discuss my company. Send me an email and I will do my best to respond.
mackayrj@gmail.com

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