Ecuador says Cascabel could become a top world copper mine

QUITO (Reuters) - A preliminary study of the Cascabel mining project in northern Ecuador shows that it could become one of the world’s largest copper, silver and gold mines, Ecuador’s government said on Wednesday.

The project, operated by Australia’s Solgold, is in the advanced exploration phase. It is one of the most ambitious mining projects in Ecuador, which hopes to develop mineral resources to spur its sluggish economy.

The Alpala mineral deposit, which is located in the Cascabel region, “could become the largest underground silver mine, third-largest gold and sixth-largest copper in the world,” the Energy Ministry said in a statement.

Cascabel has mineral reserves of 10.9 million tonnes of copper and more than 23 million ounces of gold, according to official data.

The evaluation estimates the project could function for 49 to 66 years using underground mining operations.

Additionally, the project during its first 25 years would have an annual production of around 207,000 thousand tonnes of copper, 438,000 ounces of gold and 1.4 million ounces of silver, the ministry said.

Local communities, however, recently asked the Constitutional Court for permission to hold a popular referendum on whether or not to allow the development to go forward. Lenin Moreno has warned the court about the consequences of authorizing consultations for mining areas that have already been legally licensed to foreign companies.

The court has not yet ruled on the request.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Leslie Adler