TBY talks to Darren Bowden, CEO & President of Minesa, on major mining projects, illegal mining, and new models to change the perception of mining in Colombia.

Darren Bowden
Darren Bowden has been the CEO of Minesa since December 2015. He has more than 22 years of experience developing and managing mines. Before Minesa, he served as the vice president of operations of Nyrstar USA Inc., with seven underground mining projects in six countries in his portfolio. Bowden received his bachelor’s in engineering with honors from the University of New South Wales, Australia. He is a graduate of the Australian Defense Force Academy.

In 2015, the Soto Norte project was acquired by Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala. How do the assets in Soto Norte fit into Mubadala's global portfolio?

Mubadala is positioning the UAE in fast-growing resource markets by supporting the creation of industrial champions in critical value chains such as aluminum, copper, zinc, and gold. Mubadala took full ownership of the project in 2015 and has focused the project so it can be executed in line with world-class community relations and environmental sustainability values. We adjusted the project metrics, reduced capital investment required, and designed a project with a significantly lower impact on the environment. This reduced the risk for us and increased the overall value. Now, it is a robust project that can go forward and has a 20, 30, or 40-year lifespan once we start operations. It will be one of the top five largest underground gold mines in the world once in operation, with about 450,000 ounces a year in production.

Roughly 80% of the gold currently produced in Colombia is mined illegally. What is Minesa's strategy for combating this issue?

I recently received a report from the University of British Columbia estimating that illegal mining in our area produces about three-quarters of a ton of mercury each year. However, we cannot just come in and force the local communities to all work for us. Traditionally, they have been mining here for hundreds of years and have a right to do what they have always been doing, just not in harmful ways; that has to change. If we create a coexistence model and build them a mine and a treatment plant with the same technology we are using, then buy that product off them we can remove this impact. We can also now start looking at sustainable industries around eco-tourism, as it is a beautiful location and the history of traditional mining is also an important culture whose cultural importance should not be overshadowed by its impact on the environment. We are there to work with them and be a part of their community, value their rights and those of their children to understand how the impact can be mitigated or be beneficial, and work toward that goal.

How does Colombia rank in its ease of doing business in the regional mining sector?

Colombia is difficult, but no jurisdiction in this day and age is not. In Colombia, it is different because popular participation and the vote have more influence over the outcome than the national government. Tolima municipality just had a referendum in which 98% of people said no to mining. There are 39 other municipalities looking to hold a similar referendum, so there is a whole groundswell against mining. Colombia has a jurisdiction and technical permitting requirement that, if managed structurally and institutionally, would be in line with that seen in other countries in the world. The constitutional court keeps changing the rules, which has led to participation at the local level, which is then done without the full knowledge of what they are talking about. This is where the mining industry is failing to show them how things can be done right, given that Colombia has two types of mining. There are mega mines, which are operated by multinationals and are responsible, but which operate in areas far from the sensitive environmental regions. There is then illegal mining and nothing in between. The perception is either one of illegal devastation and the pouring of mercury and cyanide into the rivers, or a mega-mining project. But there are examples of mines around the world working harmoniously in sensitive areas without significant problems because they operate in a proprietary fashion. In Colombia, we need a flagship project that can prove to Colombians that this can be done. I truly hope that we can be that model.