The next gold rush
By Paul Kaihla, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Commodities are hot again -- which is revitalizing the market for Bolivia's $2 billion in gold reserves.

Investment level: $100K-500K


Risk level: High

Big mining companies and the banks that finance them have made a fortune from the global commodities boom in recent years. And as prices of gold, nickel, copper, and other metals have soared to record highs, mining properties around the world that were once deemed marginal are swinging back into production.

So is there still a place on the globe where small players can get into this game? John Kelly thinks so, and his money is riding on Bolivia and its untapped mountains of gold.

"Bolivia is just starting to take off, and it reminds me of where western Australia was 25 years ago," says Kelly, managing director of Australia-based Republic Gold, which purchased stakes in two small gold mines south of La Paz last year and is currently prospecting for others.

It's no secret, of course: Bolivia holds known gold reserves estimated to be at least 3 million troy ounces, worth roughly $2 billion. But the government has never done a comprehensive geologic survey, and mining engineers have recently estimated that the actual amount could be several multiples higher.

More important, the newly elected government of president Evo Morales has promised to modernize the $400 million mining industry and invite in foreign know-how and investment. "The reason we came here," Kelly says, "is because the reward hugely outweighs the risk and dicky politics."

Bolivia could be the find of the decade, not just because of its vast mineral potential but because of its shockingly low barriers to entry.

Only 3 percent of Bolivian territory has gold-mining claims, and 85 percent of those are owned by small co-ops of individual miners. The co-ops have more than 60,000 members in all, most of them peasant landowners who literally scratch out a living working their claims with picks and shovels.

According to Kelly, prospectors can pursue two basic strategies. The first is to partner with or hire a local geologist (the going rate is $2,500 to $3,000 a month), use his expertise to find a promising plot of land, and apply for a claim with the Bolivian Ministry of Mines. (Foreigners can now own claims outright.)

"If your application is the first one in, it'll be approved," Kelly says. The government charges a nominal application fee and a tax of $1 per hectare if you win the claim. Once you complete a survey - and show proven reserves - you've picked up for nothing a piece of real estate worth millions of dollars to a gold producer.

Plan B: With $300,000 or so in seed funding, you won't be buying gold surveys but rather purchasing existing mining claims directly from the peasants who own them - and then flipping the property later to a mining company.

Here's how it might work: The claim holders don't actually own the land, just the mineral rights. Many earn a subsistence living by mining with their own tools. Buying them out requires a local ally (your geologist, most likely) to negotiate terms. "They're open to dealing," Kelly says.

And with a geologist at your side, you have a prime advantage. Most claims lack detailed surveys or core samples, but a geologist will spot telltale signs of rich deposits that a layperson can't, and can compare a property's geographic features with others that have already struck gold.

Whether you stake a claim or buy one, the easiest exit strategy is to flip a property to a medium-size mining company - like Kelly's.  Top of page

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