Debt-trap diplomacy: China secures Gold Ridge Mine in Solomon Islands

Previous facilities constructed at Gold Ridge Mine (Photo from Concrete Evidence)

China Railways loans Honiara US$825 million to construct and lease gold mine facilities through 2034

Duncan DeAeth | Taiwan News | 20 September 2019

Following the break of diplomatic ties between the Solomon Islands and Taiwan on Sept. 16, it has come to light that China Railway Group Ltd. has signed a US$825 million dollar deal with Honiara to build and lease a railway system and mining service station.

The deal was signed on Sept. 12, and the contract is set to last until March 2034, according to reports. In line with China’s usual strategy of dollar diplomacy, the money for the contract will come in the form of loans and will contribute significantly to the Solomon Islands’ national debt over the next 15 years.

The deal was inked with China Railway International Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of China Railway Group. According to CNA, China Railway International announced the deal on its website’s notice board on the date it was signed, with parent company China Railway Group announcing it on the Sept. 16., the day the Solomon Islands and Taiwan officially broke ties.

The proposed infrastructure project will be constructed in the interior of Guadalcanal Island to serve the Gold Ridge Mine, which at the height of its production in 2012 accounted for 20 percent of the country’s entire gross domestic product. The mine has only been in operation since 1998, but over the past two decades, mining has been regularly stalled by social unrest, environmental disasters, and financial scandals involving former owners.

The mine, which is currently the property of a local landowning company, Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited, was considered a “disaster area” by Honiara after a damn collapsed in 2015. The contract and lease agreement between Honiara and Beijing reportedly only cost China Railways .78 percent of its total 2018 revenue.

According to CNA, the contract signed by Honiara and China Railways involves two major phases. The first phase includes an exterior mountain-stripping project followed by the installation of interior mining equipment and facilities. The second phase includes the construction of roads, bridges, and a nearby reservoir along with dock facilities and a hydropower station.

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‘Our water is our gold’: Armenians blockade controversial mine

In the mountains of Armenia, a previously bucolic spa town is home to a goldmine locals say threatens the country’s biggest source of freshwater, and with it, an entire ecosystem.

Anna Bianca Roach | DW | 11 September 2019

Jermuk in southwest Armenia has long been renowned for its hot springs, soothing mineral water treatments and impressive waterfalls. But since mining company Lydian International moved in on a gold deposit upstream from the spa town on Mount Amulsar, it has become famous for something else.

Since June 2018, protestors have gathered from across Armenia to oppose a mine they say is fouling their land and water. Manned day and night, their blockade has succeeded in completely halting construction.

A year on, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan — still fresh to power following last year’s “Velvet Revolution” — is coming under increasing pressure to pick sides.

On one side, a popular protest movement sees the mine as a symbol of the corrupt regime it has just overthrown; on the other is a company — registered in the UK tax haven of Jersey — responsible for Armenia’s biggest foreign investment.

Polluting lakes and pasture

Before construction of the Amulsar mine even began, Lydian relied on the notoriously corrupt government at the time to clear farmland. Locals say they were given a choice between selling the pastures they relied on for a living, and having them expropriated.

“Villagers don’t know where to send their cows, or their sheep, so they have to stop agriculture,” Jermuk resident Aharon Arsenyan, who has been resisting the company since 2012, told DW.

Once the diggers arrived in 2017, locals say things got worse. Whenever the wind picked up, “there was dust,” Arsenyan says. “Every time. We have never seen — never! — such amounts of dust.”

The landscape around Mount Amulsar in southwest Armenia, which locals say is at risk from a polluting goldmine

As construction progressed, residents of Jermuk and the nearby village of Gndevaz say dark, muddy water ran from their faucets. A local fish farm, meanwhile, reported the unusual death of hundreds of their fish.

Others say the farmland they hadn’t been forced to give up wasn’t productive anymore, as cattle refused to eat the dust-covered grass or drink contaminated water.

Contradictory assessments

The biggest controversy, though, is over what might happen if the mine actually starts operating, and whether Armenia’s biggest source of freshwater will be safe.

Arsenyan calls his hometown “the capital of water.” Jermuk — and the mine — sit on the source of the Arpa and Vorotan rivers, which in turn feed Lake Sevan. The lake supplies much of the Armenian population with drinking water, and many with fish.

The entire country of Armenia is peppered with small fountains called pulpulaks. People rely on them for fresh, clean drinking water, and they’re especially beloved during Vardavar, the country’s water festival

“The entire ecosystem of the country depends on it,” Arpine Galfayan, a Yerevan resident and member of activist group Armenian Environmental Front (AEF), told DW.

According to Lydian’s first environmental impact assessment, published in 2016, waste water discharge would be minimal and treated to comply with water quality standards. Other disruption — noise, dust, pollution — would also be kept to manageable levels. The company said it would offset any remaining environmental damage by helping fund a new national park.

But when it approached Armenian-American geochemical engineer Harout Bronozian as a potential investor in the project, he had doubts — and commissioned his own environmental assessment.

Bronozian’s consultants said Lydian had hugely underestimated the environmental impact of the project, which would almost certainly contaminate Lake Sevan and other water sources — with chemicals including arsenic and cyanide — for centuries to come, risking both aquatic life and human health.

study by environmental NGO the Balkani Wildlife Society, meanwhile, found that the project could potentially infringe on the habitat of endangered species such as the vanishingly rare Caucasian leopard. It called Lydian’s promised park “a very negative example of biodiversity offsetting,” and said the mine failed to comply with Armenian and European environmental regulations.

The mine could encroach on the habitat of the exceedingly rare Caucasian leopard

‘Water is our gold’

Galfayan says although locals were concerned as soon as the company appeared more than a decade ago, few dared speak out. According to the AEF, members of government were among Lydian’s shareholders, and since state forces shot at a crowd protesting over disputed elections in 2008, there had been an atmosphere of fear and oppression.

In April 2018, all that changed. Armenians took to the streets after then president Serzh Sargsyan tried to install himself for another term. Promising to bring an end to corruption, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan won the country’s first democratic elections and took prime ministerial office in May 2018.

Energized by this victory for public protest, residents of Jermuk and the surrounding villages began their blockade of the mine. Around the country “our water is our gold” became the slogan for the new frontline in the popular war on corruption. Each time Lydian tried a new legal mechanism to pressure government into breaking the blockade, a steady stream of vehicles arrived with reinforcements from around the country.

A high stakes game

Pashinyan’s government, however, failed to either revoke the license his predecessors issued Lydian, or to effectively clear the blockades, saying a fresh audit was needed to decide whether the mine should be allowed to operate.

Environmentalist Aharon Arsenyan speaks at an anti-mining rally

All this has hit Lydian where it hurts. In 2018, it reported “blockade expenses” of over $42 million (€37 million), and total losses of over $136 million, warning “there is a risk that the company will be in default under its agreements” to shareholders.

In March, Lydian submitted notice to the Armenian government that it planned to sue the government through corporate courts if the situation was not resolved. Rumours circulated in local media that the company could try to claim losses of $2 billion, or almost two thirds of Armenia’s state budget.

Then in July, the government’s own environmental impact assessment was finally published, finding that the mine was safe. In the weeks since, Pashinyan has shifted position more than once, between assuring Armenians the mine is safe and casting doubts on the government’s own positive environmental assessment of the project. 

On September 7, the prime minister convened a meeting with both activists and Lydian’s interim, CEO Edward Sellers, who said the company would allow independent monitoring of the site. Two days later Pashinyan took to social media to ask protestors to clear the blockade. 

Galfayan said protestors would not only continue the blockade but were also planning a wider campaign of civil disobedience, including marches on the capital. “This is a matter of life and justice for us,” she said. “We are definitely fighting back.”

Meanwhile, Jean Blaylock, of campaign group Global Justice Now told DW the international corporate court process is so secretive, it’s possible Lydian may have already launched its case.

“Corporate courts are a perfect tool for transnational corporations to bully governments,” Blaylock said, adding that, “the payouts can be huge, the arbitrators take a very narrow perspective, and altogether it is a massive pressure on governments to back down.”

Lydian did not respond to DW’s request for comment on criticisms of its operations, or whether it was going ahead with corporate court proceedings. 

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Dead fish prompt new calls to shut down Ramu mine

Mysterious Fish Deaths in PNG’s Madang Province

NBC News / PNG Today | 18 September 2019

Locals in Warai Village of Raicoast District in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea have raised concerns about tuna fish dying mysteriously in the area.

Fisherman Thomas Warr told NBC News from Madang, the villagers started noticing fish dying and floating ashore, on Tuesday 17th September.

He said villagers are confused as to what would be the cause of this, but they have refrained from fishing, following this occurrence.

Mr. Warr said reports have emerged of fish dying as well in Karkar and Bagbag Islands – something which he says needs to be confirmed as well.

A team led by Madang Provincial Administrator Joseph Kunda Bonomane with representatives from the National Fisheries Authorities, National Disaster office and Health among others are now traveling to the site to collect fish samples, for testing.

Meantime, people in the Raicoast District of Madang Province are questioning what has become of the report on the ‘200-000 litres toxic slurry’ spillage which occurred in August, from the Ramu Nickel Mine’s Basamuk processing plant.

The Chinese company which has invested over six billion kina in the project, came out recently revealing the magnitude of the spill following outrage by locals after the colour of the sea in the area turned red, brown and orange.

The spill material – reportedly ‘very toxic’ was a result of a pump failure caused by an electronic fault which led to an overflow.

A few weeks later now, with fish turning up dead on the shores in the same area – the locals want answers.

Mr. Thomas Warr said it’s hard to understand when you have big mining operations like this and yet no testing facilities for instances such as this.

He said now, everyone has to wait for samples to be sent overseas for testing and the people are kept in suspense – in most cases there is no feedback at all.

NBC News understands, residue from the spillage were sent to Australia for testing, and results are expected this month.

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Collapse of PNG deep-sea mining venture sparks calls for moratorium

Papua New Guinea out of pocket $157m from failed attempt at mining material from deep-sea vents as opponents point to environmental risk

Ben Doherty | The Guardian | 15 September 2019

The “total failure” of PNG’s controversial deep sea mining project Solwara 1 has spurred calls for a Pacific-wide moratorium on seabed mining for a decade.

The company behind Solwara 1, Nautilus, has gone into administration, with major creditors seeking a restructure to recoup hundreds of millions sunk into the controversial project.

The Solwara 1 project (Solwara is pidgin for ‘salt water’) planned to mine mineral-rich hydrothermal vents, formed by plumes of hot, acidic, mineral-rich water on the floor of the Bismarck Sea. But the project has met with fierce community resistance, legal challenges, and continued funding difficulties.

The PNG government sunk more than 375m Kina (AUD$157m) into the project, money it is attempting, but appears unlikely, to recoup. The project has been “a total failure” prime minister James Marape said.

Deepsea mining has proven contentious wherever it has been proposed and trialled across the world.

Proponents argue deep-sea mining could yield far superior ore to land mining – in silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc – with little, if any, waste product. The industry is potentially worth billions of dollars and could assist the transition to a renewable energy economy, supplying raw materials for key technologies such as batteries, computers and phones. Different mining methods exist, but most involve using converted terrestrial mining machinery to excavate materials from polymetallic nodules or hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, at depths of up to 6000 metres, then drawing a seawater slurry to ships on the surface. The slurry is then “de-watered” and transferred to another vessel for shipping. Extracted seawater is pumped back down and discharged close to the sea floor.

Environmental and legal groups have urged extreme caution, arguing there are potentially massive – and unknown – ramifications for the environment and for nearby communities, and that the global regulatory framework is not yet drafted, and currently deficient. Scientists argue deep sea biodiversity and ecosystems remain understudied and poorly understood, making it impossible to properly assess the potential impacts of mining – including disturbance of seafloor ecosystems; sediment displacement; and noise, vibration, and light pollution – and to establish adequate safeguards. Deepsea mining could worsen the global climate emergency, reducing the ocean’s ability to store carbon by disrupting seafloor sediments.

The Pacific has been seen as a region of immense deepsea mining potential, but some government leaders are now counselling against the rush to embrace seabed mining.

“I ask you all to… support a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining from 2020 to 2030 which would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zone and territorial waters,” Fiji president Frank Bainimarama told a climate ‘sautalaga’ – an open discussion – at the Pacific Islands Forum last month.

Charlot Salwai, Prime Minister of Vanuatu, supported Fiji’s call for a 10-year moratorium. Civil society organisations have consistently called for a moratorium on seabed mining “to prioritise the health of our communities and recognise values beyond economic gain”.

PNG had previously been one of deepsea mining’s firmest backers, but new prime minister James Marape has said he is wary of the technology, saying PNG had been “burned” by industry promises.

Until that deep sea mining technology is environmentally sound and takes care of our environment at the same time we mine it, that, at this point in time, I support the call made by the Fijian prime minister,” he told the Post Courier.

“If there is an opportunity for deep-sea mining, so long as environmentally it is friendly and the harvest of resources is done in a sustainable manner then we can give considerations to this, but right now it is a show.

“The technology is not proven anywhere and PNG, we burnt almost 300 million Kina in that Nautilus [Solwara 1] project on a concept that someone told us can work, but is… a total failure.”

Jonathan Mesalum from the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, a community group which opposed the Solwara project, said a 10-year moratorium would be welcomed, “but we need to go further to protect our seas, our livelihoods and traditions by imposing a ban”.

He said while Nautilus’s project had collapsed, other companies might take control of the project’s licences and attempt to resurrect it.

“No one knows about the environmental impact: not scientists, not Nautilus, not the government, nor you or I,” Mesalum told The Guardian. “Our biggest fear is there might be interest from other mining companies who wish to continue the project.”

Nautilus developed and successfully tested three undersea robots designed to mine hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, but funding for its production support vessel dried up midway through construction. Under a restructuring plan approved by a Canadian court, the company will be liquidated and left with no assets. But a PNG government-owned company Eda Kopa is seeking to recoup some of its money, in an ongoing dispute back before court this week.

A new report, Why the Rush?, from the Deep Sea Mining campaign described the Pacific as the “new wild west” for speculative mining ventures, and argued Pacific regional decision-making and political processes have been manipulated by mining companies seeking to take advantage of inchoate and incomplete regulatory frameworks in the region.

Sir Arnold Amet, former chief justice of PNG, was Governor of Madang province and an MP when Solwara 1 was approved. He said he regrets that the then government didn’t adequately scrutinise the proposal.

“Let’s recognise this failed investment in the upcoming budget and ensure we don’t enter into seabed mining joint ventures in the future or issue any more seabed exploration or mining licences. We now know how deep sea mining companies attempt to manipulate governments according to their own narrow profit motives without any conscience. We look to PM Marape to stand up for Papua New Guineans against the pressure exerted by these corporations.”

The Environmental Defenders Office NSW said deep seabed mining was similar to open cut mining at depths of between hundreds and thousands of metres below the sea’s surface.

“A 10-year moratorium on deepsea mining is an appropriate application of the precautionary principle in circumstances where the consequences and need for this type of mineral exploitation is not well understood,” the EDO’s BJ Kim told The Guardian.

“But it’s not only the risks that are not well understood, it’s also clear that appropriate legal frameworks for mining of this kind are not in place, either in the Pacific or elsewhere. This type of commercial experiment in the ocean should not progress without effective regulatory measures for risk mitigation, monitoring and enforcement of conditions.”

Communities bordering the Solwara 1 project have been concerned about a broad range of environmental impacts, Kim said, including minerals leaching into seawater affecting fisheries and livelihoods, the extinguishment of unique sea species, and the risk of accidents and spillages.

“Communities are still living with the impacts of land-based mining disasters such as Ok Tedi and Panguna. Just this year in the Pacific, we’ve seen oil and ore spills in Solomon Islands and the spillage of an estimated 200,000 litres of toxic red slurry from the Ramu Nickel mine in Madang, PNG.”

Besides PNG, the tiny island nation of Nauru has been deep sea mining’s strongest supporter.

Start-up DeepGreen is seeking to extract cobalt and other metals from a 75,000 sq km zone in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific, over which exclusive control has been granted to Nauru. DeepGreen has secured $150m in funding, the bulk from Swiss-based Allseas, to begin feasibility studies.

Nauru is a country already scarred by mining. More than 80% of the tiny island’s landmass has been rendered uninhabitable by phosphate mining during the 20thC, most by colonial powers the UK and Australia.

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Seabed mining to offer economic hope for Cook Islands

Researchers waved to family on shore, as the Grinna II left the Avatiu Harbour yesterday.

Papua New Guinea recently lost K375 million gambling on experimental seabed mining, but Cook Islands isn’t deterred

Anneka Brown | Cook Island News | September 12, 2019 

Government has rejected international calls for a 10-year moratorium on undersea mining.

Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown describes a proposed moratorium as “confusing”, saying Cook Islands are among only a small number of Pacific islands that have the chance to mine their seabeds.

There has been gathering momentum in support of a moratorium: it was proposed by Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama at last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, and has now been backed by Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

But Brown was sceptical, saying Fiji wasn’t much involved in seabed minerals.

He spoke to Cook Islands News after farewelling research vessel MC Grinna II yesterday morning.

The ship left the Avatiu harbour carrying officials from Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, in the first Cooks-crewed expedition since the 1980s to collect samples from the seabed of the exclusive economic zone.

Brown indicated the Cooks were preparing to go it alone: The undersea minerals exploration could provide the resource the country needed to fight climate change, when other countries’ aid funding dries up.

The mining of seabed minerals would help diversify the economy, after the Cooks become a developed country and lose development aid assistance, as well as facing greater difficulty accessing climate funding.

Brown said donor countries were withdrawing their contributions to the Green Climate Fund.

“We have to take responsibility for our own resilience funding to protect our country against the impacts of climate change and this resource provides us with the means to do that,” he said.

“We see our research and exploration on seabed minerals as something that is positive for our country and contributing to reducing global emissions.”

It is important to look at how the Cooks would fill funding gaps after becoming a developed country, he said, and to look particularly at the wealth that exists in the ocean.

Although the way government revenues will be calculated was unclear, he said, it was estimated that with a three per cent royalty, the industry could generate an annual revenue of US$45m (NZ$70m) – about three times the revenue from fisheries or nearly a third of tourism’s earnings.

The Cook Islands was the first Pacific nation to develop a law for managing seabed mining and also had some of the most progressive marine legislation in the region, known as the Marae Moana Act 2017, which makes conservation the focus of all ocean-based activity.

Brown said: “It’s inevitable that we will turn to our ocean for our wellbeing.”

Fiji had little involvement in seabed minerals activity, Brown said, so for them to propose a regional moratorium on something that was not really a regional asset was “confusing” and wasn’t accepted at them Pacific Islands Leader’s Forum.

“It’s different from fisheries that is a regional asset, but mineral stocks are static and there are not many Pacific island countries that have mineral resources like the Cook Islands.”

In fact, the Cook Islands were unique in being the only country in the Pacific where polymetallic nodules existed in our waters.

In the Cook Islands the nodules are mainly in the South Penrhyn Basin 5,000 meters deep which contain valuable minerals such as Manganese, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper and even rare amounts of Titanium.

Some environmentalists are concerned that mining the seafloor could destroy fragile marine habitats and further accelerate the destruction of ocean ecosystems.

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PNG demands Wafi-Golpu gold stays in-country, urges Newcrest, Harmony talks

Jonathan Barrett | Reuters | September 13, 2019

  • Papua New Guinea to offer duties, taxes concessions in exchange
  • *PNG govt wants to extract more wealth from its resources

Papua New Guinea wants to keep 40% of gold produced from the proposed Wafi-Golpu project, the country’s commerce minister said, creating a potential hurdle to an agreement with co-owners Newcrest Mining and Harmony Gold.

The miners had been hoping to secure a mining lease over the major gold and copper deposit earlier this year, before a change in PNG’s leadership and a shift in minerals policy led to delays.

“We’d like to see Newcrest come to the negotiating table on this,” PNG’s Minister for Commerce and Industry Wera Mori told Reuters in a phone interview late on Thursday.

“They get 60% of the production, we get 40%. If they don’t like it we’ll mine it ourselves – we own the resources.”

Mori said that the government could offer concessions on duties and taxes as part of the negotiations and he said he was confident a deal would be struck.

Newcrest and Harmony each own 50% of Wafi-Golpu, while the PNG government has the right to purchase an equity interest.

The companies were not immediately available to comment. Attempts to reach PNG’s mining minister were unsuccessful.

Located near the port city of Lae, the project is forecast to hit an annual production peak in 2025 of 320,000 ounces of gold and 150,000 tonnes of copper, according to the project website.

The proposed policy changes are part of a push by the South Pacific archipelago to transform its mineral-rich economy amid a perceived lack of benefits flowing from resources projects back to communities.

PNG is also negotiating to take a bigger share of the Porgera gold mine as part of lease-renewal talks with joint venture partners Barrick Gold Corp and Zijin Mining Group.

It has also sought concessions from French giant Total SA over a $13 billion plan to expand gas exports.

The Wafi-Golpu gold would be processed in-country, creating a downstream industry for PNG, Mori said.

Mori told Reuters that PNG wanted to build up its gold bullion reserves, acting as a peg for its kina currency.

PNG’s central bank currently fixes its currency to a narrow U.S. dollar band, propping up the kina’s value while creating a shortage of dollars available in the Pacific nation.

“When the stock market crashes we lose value,” he said.

“But if the stock market crashes and we have gold, the gold price goes up.”

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Govt Cuts All Exploration Investments After Nautilus Debacle

Minister should identify the individuals responsible for the decisions that have led to losses of over K375 million.

If there is zero culpability and zero transparency taxpayers can expect they will continue to get fleeced.

Post Courier | September 12, 2019

The government has put a blanket ban on exploration investments after it was dealt a major blow in losing K375 million in the very risky Solwara 1 project.

Its attempts to recoup some money, at least US$50.8 million (K172m) has been constrained so far as Solwara 1 joint venture partner Eda Kopa Limited (Kumul Minerals Holdings Limited subsidiary) had the claim disallowed by the British Columbia Supreme Court appointed monitor PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Canada last month.

KMHL was seeking an unearned contribution claim during the Nautilus Plan of compromise and arrangement process catered for under the Canadian Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act.

Minister for Public Enterprise and State Investment Sasindran Muthuvel in an interview with Post Courier has told Kumul Minerals and Kumul Petroleum to stop such exploration investments.

He said the deal started from the time of the previous government.

“They went through arbitration and in 2015 they decided to pay upfront US$120 million (K375 million) which was obtained purely as a loan and then we entered into this highly risky project,” Minister Muthuvel said.

“Now we stand to lose all of these monies… the Canadian Court in the process of the developer Nautilus Minerals sought creditor’s protection from (the) British Colombia court in Canada and they appointed PriceWaterHouseCoopers as their administrator.”

“We put our claim for US$50.8 million to retrieve some money back but unfortunately there is very little room or chance for us to get back any funds because they have exhausted all the funds.”

“We stand to lose this major funding which is really a major blow for us.”

Minister Muthuvel said that was a very tough lesson to learn as a Government not to enter into very risky investments.

“This has shown that not necessarily we as a government must embark into every exploration investment.

We should look at our tax regime, we should look at our royalty regimes whereby how we can generate some of the revenue of these tax regimes rather than insisting on equity, especially on this kind of scientific or research project where there is uncertainty to it.”

“To tell you the truth, from day one the project was carrying negative rate of returns, that means we knowing very well that this project is not going to yield any positive income, we knowingly agreed to go into this project with a negative investment or negative rate of returns, which is highly risky and it’s again guaranteed by State.”

Minister Muthuvel also revealed that the investment was not carried out in the books of Kumul Mineral.

“I am appealing to both Kumul Mineral and Kumul Petroleum to stop all kinds of exploration investment, to slow down, and to take stock of what we have and also to help government at this tough economic time.”

As of last week, September 5, according to PwC’s update on the process currently underway, Eda Kopa and the Nautilus Group have individually led applications for the September 10, 2019 Court hearing in Canada.

“Eda Kopa is seeking to set a schedule to have the validity of their claim (the “Eda Kopa Claim”) determined.

“The Nautilus Group is seeking to have the validity of the Eda Kopa Claim determined on September 10, 2019, or as soon as reasonably practical afterwards,” PwC Canada stated in its last update on the process.

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