ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar’s next president will struggle with low metals prices and distrustful companies as he seeks to revive a mining industry that was the main source of foreign investment until a 2009 coup cut flows to a trickle.
The primary risk is that neither of the two candidates clearly wins a mandate on December 20, prolonging political turmoil. But both say they aim to restore mining, which five years ago attracted $8 out of every $10 in foreign direct investment to the Indian Ocean island.
“The mining sector is sick,” Mines Minister Rajo Daniella Randriafeno told Reuters. “It’s like a person who is slowly losing the blood that keeps him alive.”
Madagascar’s deposits of nickel, titanium, cobalt, iron, coal and uranium as well as its hydrocarbon prospects had previously encouraged foreign firms to queue for deals. Among them, Rio Tinto (RIO.L) began mining ilmenite, an ingredient used as pigment in paints, paper and plastics.
The political turmoil that has followed the 2009 power grab by President Andry Rajoelina, however, has choked off the issuance of all but a handful of new mining permits.
The army-backed government, faced with a cash crunch that became acute when foreign donors cut aid, also failed to pay tax refunds for exploration and alarmed investors by threatening to hike royalty fees.
“Madagascar went from flavor of the month to ‘wouldn’t touch it with a stick’,” said one mining expert with detailed knowledge of contract negotiations.
The government says the freeze in new permits was a condition of a 2011 deal to end a crisis that left Rajoelina struggling to secure international recognition.
A few permits have been issued. Wuhan Iron and Steel Co (WISCO), China’s third-largest steelmaker, paid $100 million for a permit to explore for iron ore in 2010, shortly before the pact to halt such licenses was agreed.
Firms in Madagascar need to obtain licenses for everything from initial research to final production, which has meant that most existing miners have been unable to extend their operations.
The Madagascar Chamber of Mines said the suspension should have applied only to newcomers. The mining minister said it has drained the life out of the industry.
“If you don’t have permits, you can’t operate,” said one executive at a firm operating in Madagascar, withholding his name to avoid harming ties with the government. “Many (explorers) cannot raise money without permits in their hands.”
Voters hope the second round of the presidential vote will change their fortunes after poverty has deepened in one of Africa’ poorest nations.
The run-off pits a former finance minister under Rajoelina against an ally of Marc Ravalomanana, the man toppled in 2009.
The winner - assuming a vote goes ahead calmly - will have to review an estimated backlog of 4,000 mining permit requests now gathering dust at the ministry.
He is also likely to try to unblock foreign aid, bring back tourism and end the suspension of a U.S. trade agreement, which has hobbled the labor-intensive textile sector.
Foreign direct investment has slumped to an estimated $455 million this year and $425 million in 2014, the World Bank estimates, from $1.36 billion in 2009, of which $1.06 billion came from mining inflows.
A resurgent mining sector would create jobs needed for the construction of new roads and even ports, generate badly needed revenue for the Treasury and bring in foreign currency to help pay for imports.
Madagascar has few other avenues to boost growth quickly. Tourists, who had visited the world’s fourth-largest island for its rare animal species and unique ecology, have been scared away. Many Malagasy depend on subsistence farming.
“Mining is key” to help the crippled economy, said Lydie Boka of French risk consultant StrategieCo, after annual growth slumped from 7 percent before 2009 to 2 percent, not enough to keep up with the increase in the 22 million population.
The industry is currently dominated by two players that were licensed under the previous government. Both their projects were well advanced before the coup and have survived.
London-listed Rio Tinto owns 80 percent of the ilmenite mine on southern tip of the island, and Toronto-listed Sherritt International (S.TO) owns 40 percent of the $5.3 billion Ambatovy nickel mine, which started up last year.
In that first year of production, nickel became Madagascar’s main export, worth an average $30 million a month, the World Bank said, and the company is still ramping up towards full capacity.
Newer entrants including China’s WISCO and smaller firms have either scaled back exploration activities or departed.
Any efforts by the new president to attract mining investment will come at a bad time for the industry after metals prices have slumped.
Revenues of governments across Africa have been pinched by the price slide, in large part due to stalling growth in China the top buyer of many of Africa’s minerals.
“So even if the elections go smoothly and Madagascar declares itself open for business, they’re going to be hard pressed to find interested parties,” Hunter Hillcoat, a mining analyst at brokerage Investec in London, said.
In one encouraging sign, there has been movement in the oil and gas industry. Four years after declaring force majeure, Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) said in November its affiliates had secured license extensions, allowing exploration to resume.
Madagascar has yet to prove it has offshore hydrocarbon reserves, but it shares a maritime boundary with Mozambique, where gas reserves have been found. Onshore, Madagascar Oil MOIL.L plans Madagascar’s first commercial crude sales next year but will need a decade to reach full capacity.
As for mining, the new president will have to deliver a stable investment environment to encourage investment into already proven commercial mineral deposits.
That will include providing reassurance that a widely praised mining law will be honored.
“They have to make a clear statement of policy,” Rupert Cook, a Madagascar-based extractive industries consultant, said. “Do they want to keep the legal framework for mining and for oil and gas as it is or do they want to change things?”
Madagascar’s mining law has been praised by companies as good for business. Environmentalists say it is too good, arguing that expanding the industry threatens the lemurs and other animals and plants found nowhere else on the globe.
Miners pay a 2 percent royalty on the value of gross exports of the raw commodity or 1 percent on minerals processed locally and exported with added value. Regional mining giant South Africa levies royalty fees of between 0.5 to 7 percent.
“Madagascar already has a progressive, internationally recognized mining investment law,” Sherritt International said in a statement sent to Reuters.
“The free, transparent and credible election of a government in Madagascar, and the resumption of international aid following the recognition of that elected government, would be positive for investment in the country.”
Editing by Edmund Blair and Jane Baird