Benedikt Steiner (ARSM CGeol EurGeol FHEA), exploration consultant with XPLORE GLOBAL Ltd. and author of the ‘Myanmar Mineral Exploration Handbook’ reviews this fascinating emerging region for MiningIR’s ‘New Horizons’ feature.
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Myanmar, with a total land area of more than 670,000 km2, is the second-largest country in south-east Asia and has a large potential for as yet undiscovered deposits of tin, tungsten, copper, gold, silver, lead, zinc and gemstones. Despite a handful of western companies operating in the country during the mid-2000s, foreign capital spending has been negligible, totalling about US$ 2.87bn from 1988-2015 (Oxford Business Group, 2016).
This low-level of investment over nearly three decades has mainly been attributed to political unrest, outdated legal frameworks and other hurdles that make it difficult for the international mining community to commit funds for exploration and mining projects in Myanmar. After changes in the government were implemented in 2015, however, the international mining community is closely following the development with respect to foreign investment and mining laws.
Geology and Mineral Deposits
The geology of Southeast Asia is the result of over 400 million years of Gondwana rifting, terrane divergence and basin development followed by the northward drift and accretion of several terranes (Mitchell, 2018). These episodes are marked by the opening and closing of the Palaeo-, Neo- and Ceno-Tethys oceans throughout the Devonian to Cretaceous geological periods. This tectonic development resulted in heterogeneous crustal convergence, collision and accretion, considered primarily responsible for the development of metallogenic provinces in Myanmar.
Myanmar can be subdivided into several geological provinces (Figure 1):
- Indo-Burman Ranges
- Wuntho-Popa Arc
- Mogok-Mandalay-Mergui Belt
- Shan Plateau
Based on genetic and tectonic settings, mineral deposits can be delineated in metallogenic provinces (Barber et al., 2017):
- Wuntho-Popa Arc: porphyry / epithermal Cu-Au (+ Skarns)
- Northern Mergui Slate Belt: Orogenic Au
- Kayin, Kayah, Mandalay Division and Southwestern Shan states: Irish-type Pb-Zn-Ag province
- Northern Shan State: VMS Pb-Zn-Ag province
- South Mandalay Division, Kayin State and Tanintharyi State: Sn-W belt
- Northern Chin, Rakhaing/Magwe and Sagaing/Kachin/Shan states, eastern and western ophiolite belts: Ni-Cr-PGE belts
- Kayin, Kayah, Mandalay and western Shan states: Sb belt
- North Mogok: Ruby-Sapphire Gem Tract (+ Skarns)
- Western Kachin State: Jade Mines Belt
Permitting and Mining Operations
Mineral rights and permitting are governed through the 1994 Mining Law which sets out the framework for individual contracts. A revised version of the mining law (2015) is currently in discussion and is expected to address key issues, such as production sharing agreements and the extended duration of exploration and mining licenses that are short by international standards.
The permitting process requires collaboration with the DGSE (Department Geological Survey and Exploration) during the exploration stage, and a production sharing agreement with one of the State Mining Enterprises associated with the Ministry of Mines. In addition, the 2012 Foreign Investment Law sets the framework for all foreign investment and is governed through the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC).
Mining in Myanmar principally dates back to the 19th century and has been run by the British administration until the end of the colonial era in the late 1940s. During this time, some mines were the most productive in the world. Although in the last 20 years there were considerable efforts to develop mining projects, spearheaded by Western mining firms Ivanhoe Mines and Centurion Minerals, the political situation was often a detrimental factor in bringing mining projects into production.
As a consequence, until now, local and artisanal mining operations are commonly characterised by rudimentary hand-excavated shafts and tunnels following shallow parts of known mineralisation systems. Occasionally, however, deeper (100m) mineralisation trends are explored and mined.
The use of outdated crushing equipment and mercury along with poorly formulated or non-existent health and safety regulations are distinctive of these operations. For example, workers may sit on operating crushers and apply mercury and other chemicals using no personal protective equipment. Most small-scale operations do not keep production records of grade control, tonnage mined etc., i.e. an assessment of basic mine economics proves in many cases to be challenging.
Since 2015 a number of Australian explorers, in JV with local mining enterprises, have been involved in the exploration of VMS deposits near Bawdwin (Myanmar Metals Ltd.), Kyaukme (Unity Energy and Resources Ltd.) and Sagaing Districts (PanAust Ltd.). The exploration potential of Burmese mineral belts has clearly been recognised and slowly mining companies start to get involved and invest in development projects.
The geological exploration potential of Myanmar is considered unrivalled, particularly for Cu-Au porphyry and epithermal systems in the Wuntho-Popa Arc, sedimentary-hosted Pb-Zn in the Shan Mountains and Sn-W and Li-Cs-Ta along the Burmese Tin Belt (Steiner, 2018). Due to the underexplored nature of Myanmar’s metallogenic belts and the unavailability of regional geological, geophysical and geochemical data, future exploration programmes will require a ‘back to basics’ approach. This will involve the collection of fundamental regional geological data in order to better assess the metallogenic setting which in turn will support the definition of exploration targets in brownfields and greenfields settings.
There is high potential for the discovery of outcropping orebodies using basic geological mapping, remote sensing, geochemistry and airborne geophysical methods. For example, outcropping fault-controlled Pb-Zn mineralisation has been located and traced for several kilometres in the Wunbye Limestones of the western Shan Plateau implying continuous favourable mineral potential along geological strike.
Barber, A. J., Zaw, K. and Crow, M. J., 2017. Myanmar: geology, resources and tectonics. Geological Society, London, Memoir, 48, 776p.
Mitchell, A., 2018. Geological Belts, Plate Boundaries, and Mineral Deposits in Myanmar. Elsevier. 524p.
Oxford Business Group, 2016. Myanmar Holds a Diverse Mix of Mineral Resources, in Myanmar 2016 [online].
Steiner, B.M., 2018. The Myanmar Mineral Exploration Handbook: Geology and Resource Potential of Myanmar (Burma). XPLORE.GLOBAL, Exploration Targeting Series, 1, 167p. Version 1.2.
About the author
Benedikt Steiner (ARSM CGeol EurGeol FHEA) is the MSc Programme Director of Exploration and Mining Geology at the Camborne School of Mines, UK, and a consultant to the mining industry through his consultancy firm XPLORE GLOBAL Ltd. He has compiled the ‘Myanmar Mineral Exploration Handbook’ and has a decade of industry experience in mineral exploration techniques and the targeting of a number of base and energy metal commodities.
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