Indonesia’s Rule No. 24 likely to embolden other nations to grab more from mining

Indonesia surprised the global mining community last week after a new rule –  Government Regulation No. 24 of 2012 – was quietly announced on the mining ministry’s website.

The country – southeast Asia’s largest economy – will now require all foreign mining companies to sell majority stakes in their mining operations to locals by the tenth year of production.

Indonesia, with a population of 240 million, is the world’s premier thermal coal exporter, a tin powerhouse and is also rich in gold and copper.

Freeport McMoran’s Grasberg mine in the west Papua, a province of Indonesia, is one of the world’s biggest mines. It has the globe’s richest gold deposit and is second in copper.

Grasberg has been the site of violent clashes, sabotage and strikes over many years. Mining makes up roughly 12% of Indonesia economy and Grasberg is the country’s largest taxpayer.

Freeport and other miners operating in Indonesia are currently locked in royalty discussions with the government and some in the industry have speculated that the new regulation is not much more than a ploy to strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations.

An editorial in the Jakarta Post argues that Rule 24 should not have come as a surprise, but nevertheless takes the Indonesian government to task over its timing which “seems to make things even murkier and heightens uncertainty as, over the last few months, the government has been strong-arming foreign miners over contract re-negotiations [...] and [to] submit concrete business plans to build processing plants or smelters as they can no longer export unprocessed minerals after 2014.”

A growing list of nations – and not just radical fringe territories such as Zimbabwe or Venezuela – but stable jurisdictions including Poland, Ghana and Botswana are pushing for greater control and ownership of the resource sector on top of higher taxes and royalties.

South Africa recently stepped back from nationalization, but is nevertheless tightening its grip on the industry. Other countries, including Indonesia are putting a stop to raw exports and requiring domestic processing and beneficiation of mining output.

Last year according to an Ernst & Young survey of the world’s 30 largest miners, resource nationalism jumped to the top of the risk list in 2011 from fourth in 2010, after 25 countries announced their intentions to increase their take of the mining industry’s profits and others contemplate outright nationalization.

The Vancouver Sun reports smaller operators would be hurt much more than major projects and sums up the situation this way: “Cash-rich mining companies, raking in profits from metal prices that are well above historical levels, have emerged as easy targets for governments. Higher taxes and royalties on big miners are often used by politicians as populist moves to help rally the public and serve as platforms ahead of elections.” reported in January as attractive deposits become harder and harder to find in traditional markets, miners – especially those exploring for gold – are pushing the limits of the political risk they are willing to take on.

Research house Maplecroft in its 2012 political risk atlas identifies DR Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Iran, Guinea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Iraq, Bolivia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Angola, Nigeria and Libya as resource nationalism hotspots.

As an indication of how Indonesia’s move has surprised the industry it was missing from Maplecroft’s list released in January of countries that faced “extreme risk” and the researcher actually said investment risk in the country had decreased from the year before.

Also missing was Papua New Guinea which this year heads into elections that many observers have warned is bound to lead to civil unrest. In August last year the country’s leaders introduceda plan to hand state ownership of mineral and energy resources to landowners, a move that may prove disastrous to foreign miners developing massive projects and pushing into new regions of the resource-rich country.

Eurasia Group points out that already the world’s biggest gold mines are in so-called frontier markets:

And new mega-mine projects such as Newmont’s $4.8 billion Conga project in Peru, Barrick’s Pascua Lama (straddling Chile and Argentina) face opposition from environmentalists and locals.

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