Libero Copper & Gold: Simultaneously Advancing Large Scale Copper Projects On Two Continents

The last few months have been busy for Libero Copper & Gold (TSX-V:LBC, OTC:LBCMF). In July, the company announced the beginning of drilling at the Big Red Project in B.C.’s Golden Triangle. Drilling and exploration programs at Big Red concluded in September and last week the company announced assays from the first drill hole of the summer 2021 drilling program at Big Red . 

While exploration programs were ongoing at Big Red, Libero was also working hard on the ground in Colombia in an effort to gain social license to advance the Mocoa Copper-Molybdenum Project in the Putumayo Department of Colombia. Two weeks ago Libero announced the beginning of exploration programs at Mocoa with the commencement of airborne geophysical and LiDAR surveys followed by a large-scale soil sampling program. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Libero CEO Ian Harris and director of corporate relations Thyana Alvarez about Libero’s progress on the ground in Colombia. The conversation was insightful and offered a roadmap for how Libero plans to proceed over the next year at Mocoa. 

Goldfinger:

It’s a pleasure to speak with both of you today. Libero put out some really interesting news this week on the Mocoa Project. Mocoa is a project that Libero has had for a couple years. And in 2021, it’s become more of a focus for the company. Obviously, due to the size and value of the resource, which is multiple billion pounds of copper, and then you have the molybdenum as a nice kicker. The fact that copper is in this tremendous bull market makes the project that much more attractive. Can we just go back a little bit, Ian, in terms of the history of this project? How Libero acquired the project, and perhaps why the previous operators were not able to advance the project further?

Ian Harris:

That is an excellent question. The project was operated by several different companies; it was discovered in the 1980s. But was most recently operated and drilled on by B2Gold, they drilled on the project through 2012. The project was acquired by Libero, and in many ways, it was an acquisition, but it was more of a spinoff. It’s a copper-moly porphyry, and B2Gold is obviously a gold focused company, and they were probably hoping for a gold-copper porphyry. So, it was really an opportunity for B2Gold to have access to the upside of the project, into a new vehicle. So, that’s really the background. B2Gold is an excellent company, they are currently building the Gramalote Project in Colombia. There was a time back then around 2011/2012, where some gold companies were looking to get into the copper space, and then changed direction.

Goldfinger:

Yes, I remember that time. Barrick got pretty heavy into copper around 2011/2012. So, Mocoa went dormant for several years after B2Gold published the maiden resource in 2012, is that correct?

Ian Harris:

That is correct. Since 2012 it has been dormant, but in the last year Libero has made significant progress at Mocoa in terms of community and government relations. As we announced last week we have initiated our maiden exploration program at Mocoa, and we expect to receive drill permits early next year. [Note: Libero published the MRE in 2018 not B2Gold]

Goldfinger:

Since 2012. And then now is sort of the peak year of the last copper cycle, was right around then. And Libero acquired the project a few years ago, is that correct?

Ian Harris:

In 2018, that is correct.

Goldfinger:

And would you say this is the year, the last nine months, is the year you’ve made the most progress with the project? And now actually with the news that you announced on Tuesday morning, you’re actually on the ground with your exploration team, carrying out soil sampling and other work to help put together targets for your maiden drill program.

Ian Harris:

That is absolutely correct. And then, just a little bit of background. It’s been, not frustrating, but sometimes the biggest behind the scenes work is never seen, and never shown, and never shined. And so, I joined the company in January of this year. I immediately went down to Mocoa in February of that year, went down to the coffee shops, and went to the plaza. I wanted to really know the personalities of the locals, and what were some of the key values that were important to them. I previously worked at Corriente Resources, I was Senior Vice President and Country Manager. We took that project all the way through sale, and the start of construction. It went on to become the first large-scale mining operation in the history of Ecuador. But, it was tough. I mean, it was really tough. I mean, I tell a lot of people, “I went down as a Mining Engineer, and I left as a Sociologist Politician.”

Right? I mean, there’s so many things that were learned. So, here at Mocoa, it was a real chance to take all those lessons learned, and start applying them right from the beginning. Somebody who’s on the phone call with me right now is Thyana Alvarez, one of the key members of our Colombia team. She’s got tons of experience in South America, she’s really the person responsible for the first mine permit in 30 years at Santa Rosa Mine, and really brings a lot of experience throughout the process.  We are aligned in many ways, the way we think about creating a successful project, and how you truly execute and create a social license on the ground. So, what we did first was actually internal, we made sure that we had the right value system. There was a commitment made by all employees to that value system. There’s a an operating philosophy so that anybody, the second they go out that door, is creating a bigger, better relationship, genuine relationships. And every single day that we are working, we create more relationships. 

So, in July of this year we started hiring local geologists, putting boots on the ground, beginning training programs, relogging the core while we were really just communicating, open transparency and listening, tons and tons and tons of listening. So, within three months, we’re like, “I cannot believe the impact, it was absolutely amazing” I mean, maybe Thyana could add some color in a second. But there came a point when the environment locally was overwhelmingly positive, so we said, “Let’s do this, let’s go.” We started with our geophysics programs, we’re starting now with our soil sampling programs, because we are now ready to start ramping up towards exploration drilling.

Goldfinger:

Thank you Ian, I appreciate additional color on how you’ve made progress at Mocoa. Thyana, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got into the industry? And, maybe some contributions that you’ve made to Libero this year?

Thyana Alvarez:

Yeah, of course. Well, I am a Communications Specialist. I also have a Master Degree in CSR from UPV Universitat Politècnica de València and have not only worked in the mining industry for over 20 years, But, I also grew up in a mine. My father worked and retired from the Cerrejon Coal mine in the north of Colombia. So, I grew up, and I studied there from when I was like five years old. So, mining has been in my blood all my life. I learned from growing in this industry, knowing the concerns of being an employee´s family, the kind of issues projects face in communities and families around them. As Ian said, I was part of the San Ramon Mine including  prospecting, exploration, and building of the mine. We were there, always in dialogue with communities. But the most important thing I have learned from these 20 years of experience, is that we must learn to listen. Sometimes we speak too much, we just speak too much, and we think we know everything because we have experience in the sector. But we forget to listen, to listen to the communities, to listen to their concerns, and to listen to their ideas of how to do things better with them.

So, I think the main difference we have made is to listen to them, and we have brought all their experiences from the past, the good and bad experiences. We have incorporated all the ideas in our planning, before we even started. As Ian said, we built our values with them. We built a mission and a philosophy with them, because they always said, “We want prosperity. We want companies around us. But we want to do things differently.” And we have to make things different, but together with them. Much different from, for example, oil companies. In the Putumayo/Mocoa area, the region has had a long history of oil companies around the area too.

But communities always complain that they are never being heard, that they have been employed for labor jobs but don’t employ their professionals, for example. So, now we are building the Mocoa Project with Mocoa, with the communities, with them, in a satisfactory environment where they are informed also before we even start every activity. For example, now we are starting geophysics, we launched a book, a very educational book with them, an interactive book with them explaining our activities. We are also teaching, what is geophysics? What is the science of mineral exploration? The science around all our activities. And that is helping them to understand and to learn what we are doing. As I said before, to listen to them and make them part of the process, make them protagonists of their own development, protagonists of this project. They feel they are not only good neighbors, but they are allies. They are part of this project and they will benefit from the development of Mocoa.

Goldfinger:

Thank you. I think that’s a wonderful explanation. So, either of you can take this follow up question, but can you give some examples of how you’ve worked with the local population this year, and are you employing local labor? Tell us about some of the employment opportunities for the local population.

Ian Harris:

So, I will take that. A lot of this background work, I mentioned it and I inferred, and Thyana also touched on it.  When we went through that listening process, they said “in the past we were hired for untrained labor or the oil companies hired us, but only for untrained labor.” And we said, “Hey, we have a huge luxury here. We’re sitting on a 636 million tonne deposit already.” Right? It’s not like we have to go tomorrow and drill 30,000 meters. It’s already there. We have a little bit of time to make sure that we do it right. And so, one of the first things we did when we knew things were really moving forward is we started hiring local geologists, graduated from university, great grades, excellent students. But because they lived in Mocoa, they’ve never had the chance to really have an opportunity.

And so, we immediately hired three junior geologists directly from Mocoa. We actually did a posting and I think we received 55 local resumes. It was a huge opportunity.  We can’t overlook this anymore. It’s so easy to go to Bogota or Medellin and ask the networks for some experienced resumes and hit the ground running. We made sure to search out for local talent, so we had to create our own website, Facebook, Instagram pages and WhatsApp groups. Since that is the way that jobs are found locally and we had to make sure that we created that infrastructure to make sure that when we went and said, “Hey, we’re looking for geologists.” Or now, “Hey, we’re looking for a project engineer.” The message got out. That was the number one place that we started our work to find talent locally.

So, today 90% of the geological team on the ground, 90% is local. So, not just labor or for soil sampling. The technical team, 90% is local. We’re still a very small team, but we’re proud that over half of the entire company now comes from Mocoa. It’s something we’re extremely proud of. So, when we move into soil sampling, we’ll start slow with one crew. We’ll add more people until we don’t need more, why not? We can train the people. We can do a great job. We’re signing alliances with local universities, with the national training societies. And we’re going to make sure that the training is available and that the transfer of technology is more than just an ESG statistic. We’re really doing it.

And then when we start drilling our plan is to build a local team. Luckily based on previous experiences this has been very successful in Colombia.  You can buy your own drills and develop your own drill crews, bringing the experts, but the experts are there not to operate, but to train. Mocoa is a project that’s going to require 100,000 to 300,000 or more meters. We have that luxury that we could slowly build up those teams, put in the capital necessary and make sure that we’re maximizing the benefits locally, because that’s what we were told was wanted. We want more than just labor jobs, we want to make sure our professionals are also given an opportunity.

Goldfinger:

So, Mocoa is almost 5 billion pounds of copper inferred as of the last resource that was done 10 years ago. How big could this project be, Ian? This is a large property and much of it is underexplored – in the news release on Tuesday morning, you talked about an untested porphyry target that’s to the Southeast of the main zone. How big could this thing actually be?

Ian Harris:

This Jurassic porphyry belt is known for creating very large size projects. Even at Corriente, it was Mirador, Mirador Norte, Pananza, San Carlos, even Waritza was once part of the same asset, Waritza which is now with Solaris. That’s within a 50 kilometer area. Directly to the south is Fruta del Norte the concession packages touch. The Jurassic porphyry belt is a completely unexplored belt within Columbia, and it is known to produce significant deposits. We’ve now gone and done our homework. We’ve realized, wow, this is not just a one off thing. There is evidence of a multiple pulse event that can create clusters of porphyry deposits. We went back, we looked at the old soil sampling, all the soil sampling was done over the existing deposit or the other additional untested target directly 1.3 kilometers to the southeast. By doing large scale systematic soil sampling programs in environments like this, it’s easy to identify these porphyry centers. 

If you look at what Solaris did, it’s almost an identical story, except that we are starting off with a much larger resource.  And better drill holes existing in our deposit, with what they started with. They started with the geophysics, they started with the soil sampling. They started identifying these additional porphyry centers. That’s what we are also going to be doing. They identified copper and moly anomalies and porphyry centers with the soil sampling.  And that is what we are going to do without a soil sampling plan that is probably 20 times bigger than the area that’s going to be covered.  Mocoa today is 638 million tonnes, that is a 90,000 tonnes per day mine, if it was operated over 20 years. It’s already a very large deposit, but as significant as it already is, it’s almost certainly much, much larger. 

Goldfinger:

The number of billions of pounds of copper that are sitting in the ground. There’s a valuation gap. And so, how do you bridge that valuation gap? What steps will the company take in the next year? Maybe you can walk us through, as best you can, a rough timeline for progress that you expect the company to make in the next year.

Ian Harris:

So, we internally have always been convinced of the value that Mocoa holds. So, your question is profound. How do we make sure that the market understands that? And I think a lot of it has to do with proving we can restart it. This is a project that was last drilled in 2012. So, we need to demonstrate that we can work sustainably on the project. So, that is why we spent so much time on licenses to operate. We could have run out there and tried to go into the middle of the night and try and get a really quick couple drill holes down into the project to put out some spectacular results. But I think that the market wants to see that sustainability, and that’s why we’ve focused so much on license to operate and creating extremely strong relationships locally, national alliances, aligning to the political will and continuing to create it. 

The wind on our back with a president that says, “I want to be the third largest producer of copper in Latin America”.  So, we knew that it was a huge opportunity. We have the team. You can see the quality of the people, even the short conversations with Thyana, is the ability to advance very large projects. Once we start working on this project, it’s sustainable and it’s continuous. And that is the setup that we’re trying to achieve. It takes a lot of work to build a strong house, but once you have a strong house, it shows for itself. We’re strong believers in that, that if we do a good job, if we are truly doing a good job, then it will show for itself.

Goldfinger:

We’ve talked a lot about the social aspects, and having a dialogue with people who live in the area, making sure they approve of what you’re doing and participate in the process. One of the things that mining companies have maybe not done so well in different areas of the world in the past is the environmental side of things and having a respect for the environment. Can you tell us a about how Libero approaches its environmental responsibilities?

Ian Harris:

I am an extremely strong believer that if you create a proper value system within your company,  It becomes in the DNA of the company. It’s something that automatically and organically will grow. It went from something we talk about to something we do. And that’s a huge, hugely important concept. I think that’s critical, it’s in our DNA now.  We are strong believers that we have to create those values. If every employee has the values that we are responsible and we’re respectful to the local community, and to the local culture, and to the environment in which we work, we know we will do it, right?

And so that is for me a starting point. And it’s already bearing significant fruits. We had a geological team that went out and started the very first campaign of mapping, and immediately from that first visit where they came back with a mountain of environmental notes; The types of trees that would work well for reforesting, what areas we could go through at the minimum impact, how we can recover our drill pads. All these concepts are immediately being incorporated in the way that they think every single day.  And maybe Thyana can give a little bit more color about some of the things that we’re doing from an environmental perspective that’s really differentiating us on the ground.

Thyana Alvarez:

We’re signing some agreements with the most important university in Colombia, Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Colombia National University is the most prestigious university, not only in mining universities, but also in environmental topics. And also, an agreement with ITP, it’s called ITP, Instituto Tecnológico del Putumayo, it’s the most important institution also in Mocoa. To work together with both of them and have some environmental studies before we even start the processes, we are doing an environmental baseline, sorry, I forgot the name right now, with them. Especially on water, water issues, because water has also been the most complex issue when we talk about the environment, although Mocoa has tons of water, tons of rivers, usually, anti-mining uses water contamination as an issue.

So, we want to work with the most important local institutions in the communities. And of course, the government, local government, to monitor what topics since the beginning of our activities, and to incorporate local research, local groups, the water groups in Colombia.  We can train communities on how to sample water, how to do all this monitoring, together with companies and institutions. Also Mocoa was one of those areas in Colombia that benefited from this process called Comunica, from the Canadian embassy. And there’s an association, there’s a group that has been trained on how to advance on participatory water monitoring in Mocoa. So, we want to incorporate the association, the academy, universities, and locals in the monitoring and baseline studies for water. 

Goldfinger:

Drilling makes things much more real to the market, especially in a project like this one, with such a large existing resource. And I think that the market will pay a lot more attention when Libero announces its maiden drill program. What is the timeline to get those permits? And what is the process to get from here to there?

Ian Harris:

So, that is something that is not well understood. But we have a permit to drill, we already have it. The permitting process in Colombia now includes only your additional impacts that you could potentially have during your drilling program. So, therefore, if we need water then we need to get a license for a water well. If we need to cut down trees over a certain size, we have a permit for that. If we need to discharge any water into a stream, we need a permit for that. But there’s many things that we can do, including drilling without any of those requirements.  So, that might be a piece of the confusion on this project. So, our drilling timelines are more dependent on the social license component which is much more intangible and difficult for evaluation by shareholders, but it is where we have been spending the majority of our time. We know that that is the most important component of this project. Establish a very solid relationship locally, and the rest will flow properly. 

So, that is why it’s been difficult.  People ask, “How is your permitting process?” And we were. We are looking for a water license. We are looking for the ability to make some additional drill paths that may require taking down some trees. And we may want to do drilling that requires some discharge, but they’re not required.   Let me say that correctly. They’re not necessities, right? The biggest component to this project is ensuring that we have social license. We want to make sure that when we start drilling on this project, that we can continue to drill until this potentially becomes one of the future mines on the planet that produces copper to help the sustainable energy transformation.

Goldfinger:

That’s interesting Ian, because I didn’t even know that. Best case scenario, where would you like Libero to be a year from now? 

And what could go wrong? 

Ian Harris:

So, I would like to accomplish a continuous soil sampling program. I believe soil sampling is one of those things that’s going to be going on continuously at this project for an extended period of time. Starting with a 200 by 200 meter grid. And then it might be reduced to a 100 meter grid, but soil sampling is going to be a key component. The second thing that we have as our internal goal is to start drilling in the first quarter of next year, and again, starting with one drill and then adding a second drill and adding a third drill, in a very structured way. To ensure that we’re getting our training program done in parallel. 

So, my expectation of next year, in terms of drilling, and I have to back up is first of all, this project has not been drilled since 2012, and I have to say it was drilled in a very systematic way.

So we will definitely be putting in some holes that help us confirm efficiently the historical core for the deposit. That will also be very helpful in terms of redoing metallurgical testwork that hasn’t been done since the eighties. And there was excellent metallurgical testwork done in the eighties, but we know that there is better technology available and there are geotech components too, doing some infill, and doing an extensive amount of expansion and testing new targets. So, there’s an expectation that a lot will be going on in this project. 

If you look at Warintza, Warintza restarted in 2020. Warintza restarted geophysics, soil sampling, reconfirming the existing resource, and then expansion. And in one year, that project, that company is now worth $1.4 billion. So, we believe we have a lot of room to continue to improve the value of that company, of our own company through the Mocoa project, because we see so many similarities between the two, and we know that we can build that based off our on the ground operating philosophy and the values that we are committed to as employees to the company.

Goldfinger:

Thank you, Ian. Thyana, do you have anything else that you’d like to add?

Thyana Alvarez:

Thank you. We will continue working with communities. I want to add, for example, that we don’t have indigenous communities within our area of the project, or required consultation processes but we want to be the best neighbors at Mocoa. So, from the beginning, we are engaging, not only with the communities around the project, but with all the communities in Mocoa, even all the indigenous communities of Mocoa (municipality). There are about seven groups of indigenous communities, and we are getting positive feedback on this activity booklet, as mentioned before, on this interactive book that we’re sharing to outline and explain our exploration and other activities. We are even translating all these materials to the indigenous traditional language, because we want them, and every person in Mocoa, to understand and learn from what we are doing.

Most of the conflict we have had in Colombia with mining is because of the misinformation. This misinformation anti-mining groups use against projects. That’s why we are making a very big effort on communication. We even have corporate communication programs weekly in different radio stations in Mocoa, and this effort in communication and engagement will be ongoing throughout the life of the project, because as I said before, we want every person in Mocoa to be informed and involved. 

Goldfinger:

Thank you so much. I appreciate your time from both of you, and it’s a very exciting story, very exciting project. I’m grateful to be a shareholder, and I look forward to all the progress over the coming months.

Thyana Alvarez:

Thank you very much. We hope to have you here in Mocoa soon.

Goldfinger:

I would love that. I have never visited Colombia. 

Ian Harris:

Yes, you can fly into Medellin or Bogota.

Goldfinger: 

Something for the new year, I look forward to it. Thank you Ian and Thyana. 

Disclosure: Author owns LBC.V shares at the time of publishing and may choose to buy or sell at any time without notice

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