While people are facing a harsh economic storm and the country desperately awaits external help from friendly nations and multilateral agencies to dodge the sovereign default, top executives of the Canadian mining giant are all set to initiate the multi-billion dollar Reko Diq mining project without losing any time.

Top executives of Barrick Gold were in Pakistan last week on a familiarising trip to notify the federal and Balochistan governments of the timeline of their work. Barrick’s team promised a transfer of $3 million to the Balochistan government during the current month, probably to earn the necessary goodwill for a project of this scale that has long been shrouded in controversies.

Industry sources confirmed the firm started the hiring process even before the Reko Diq deal got a nod from the Supreme Court and ratification by the federal cabinet in December 2022. According to information shared on the company’s website, Barrick plans to complete the Reko Diq feasibility study update by the end of next year and furnish production within the next four years by 2028. The giant company intends to invest $10 billion in the project, which has a life span of 40 years.

Barrick, which owns 50 per cent of the project, will be responsible for operating the mines. Sleeping partners include the Balochistan government, which holds 25pc stakes in the project and three state-owned enterprises, Oil and Gas Development Company (OGDCL), Pakistan Petroleum (PPL) and Government Holding (GHPL), which share the remaining 25pc stakes. All partners will share the profits from the project in line with their shareholding.

Barrick’s team promised a transfer of $3m to the Balochistan government during the current month, probably to earn the necessary goodwill for a project that has long been shrouded in controversies

Barrick team, led by president and CEO Mark Bristow, landed in the country for a three-day project review early last week that started from Quetta, where they met provincial leadership and other stakeholders that included representatives of JUI-F, BAP, PTI and ANP but excluded BNP-Mengal and NP. Leaders of these parties have publicly expressed their reservations over the mining deal.

Discussing recent developments on the project, former chief minister and leader of the National Party Dr Abdul Malik, expressed his strong disapproval of the Reko Diq deal over the phone from Turbat. He repeated his earlier stance on the Reko Diq project, which he thought impinges on the rights of Baloch people on their natural resources.

“No, we have not been invited to any such meeting, neither was my party informed”. He said had he been invited, he still wouldn’t have attended. “I don’t wish to partake in any activity that hurt the interests of the province. Its people already face repression and are forced to live in deprivation. They are denied their basic right to decent living and opportunities to harness the province’s development potential,” he argued.

Two relevant executives of Barrick Gold, Lois Wark and Kathy du Plessis, were approached for comments via email, but their response didn’t reach till the filing of the report. Musadiq Malik, minister of state for petroleum and other key ministers of the federal cabinet did not answer questions raised in this connection.

The press statement of the mining company released from Islamabad mentioned a memorandum of agreement signed by the CEO and the Balochistan chief minister that “specifies the timetable for the disbursement of committed funds to the province, including advance royalties and social development funds, ensuring that the people of Balochistan start earning benefits from the project well before mines go into production. The agreement provides an initial payment of $3 million this month.”

It also noted interaction with a ‘wide spectrum of stakeholders’ in the province, but many private sector leaders reached over the phone in Balochistan were not aware of any such activity. Muhammad Ashfaq, Secretary General Quetta Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that the body was not informed.

Badruddin Kakar, former president Balochistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, regretted not being in the loop. He blamed the Government of Balochistan for excluding the private sector from the process involving a mining giant.

“The current leadership of the province lacks the capacity and the vision to develop the province by facilitating and promoting businesses. The private sector plays a key role, but it needs government support to improve the quality and the scale for exportable surpluses. The least it could do is to give us exposure to develop ties with big foreign companies to explore opportunities for transfer of technology and skills,” he moaned.

Barrick, in its statement, claimed to be working on setting up community development committees to identify priority food security, environment management, access to education, health and potable water projects.

The website of Barrick Gold now shows Pakistan among the list of 15 countries where the company has operations. The company claims operations in 18 countries around the world in the text of the annual report. Other locations in North America, Asia and Africa mentioned in the list included Argentina, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Congo, Mali, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Tanzania, USA and Zambia.

The 2022 annual report has yet to be uploaded on the site. The 2021 report noted Barrick’s gold production was 4.4 Moz (a million troy ounces), posted net earnings of $2.02bn, and debt net of cash of $130m. Its shareholders’ distribution per share hiked by 139pc to $0.79, filed record cash distribution of $1.4bn with adjusted net earnings per share at $1.16. Net cash provided by operating activities stood at $4.3bn, and free cash inflow at $1.9bn.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 23rd, 2023

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