CoG3 project member and University of Manchester PhD student Sulaiman Mulroy reports back on a recent fieldwork trip to Cameroon in West Africa.
In June 2016 I travelled to Cameroon to collect samples from the Nkamouna laterite, one of a number of lateritic ore deposits formed on top of lenticular serpentinite rocks, which cover around 240km2 in the East of Cameroon.
In total the region hosts seven lateritic ore bodies, covering ~1250km2, though only two have been subjected to rigorous exploration: Nkamouna has proven and probable reserves of 54Mt at grades of 0.25% Co and 1.7% Ni, and further north, at Mada, 150Mt of inferred resources of similar grade are believed to be hosted in the laterite.
Despite the great potential of the region to provide hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cobalt metal, the project, owned in majority by Geovic Mining Corp, has not seen serious activity on its site for around five years. The local community has returned to subsistence farming and foraging, though nearly everyone there remembers the mine and Gideon Lambiv-Dzemua (who was a bit of a local celebrity) and obviously wanted operations to recommence.
Strategic investment agreements with Jiangxi Rare Metals Tungsten Holdings Group (JXTC) in 2014 will hopefully lead to a well considered development plan for the deposits. However both Geovic and JXTC have been quiet on this front since the latter’s acquisition of shares two years ago.
I was met at Yaounde airport by Gideon Lambiv-Dzemua, a geologist of Cameroonian origin working at GL Geoscience based in Edmonton, Alberta. Lambiv-Dzemua wrote his PhD on the laterite at Nkamouna. His linguistic abilities, comprising English, French and significant amounts of languages native to North and East Cameroon, put mine (which consists of English and pidgin French) to shame.
After two days of reviewing the old data with the aid of Simon, a friend of Gideon’s who had worked on the laterite since the 80’s until a falling rotten branch had ended his field career, we selected the best pits to sample.
I managed to get some time to go the market and buy some possibly official Cameroon National Football Team shirts. I only managed to find one green shirt which was a bit disappointing as the green one looks the best.
Having collected our car and our driver –named Karrimo- we started our 353km drive out east. We passed towns and villages scattered along the road side, trucks laden with huge mahogany and ebony trees heading to the cities and lots and lots of deep green jungle. We stopped along the way at the towns of Abong-Mbang, Mindourou and finally at Lomié, which would be our base for the next few days.
We sampled a variety of Cameroonian foods and beverages including palm wine, which was excellent, corn beer, which was an acquired taste but strong, soya, which was not vegetarian friendly actually being barbecued pork with a misleading name, some of the best hot-sauce I have ever tried and eventually at Lomié, porcupine, which was… interesting.
All of our fieldwork was aided by a number of locals. Cyr, Danny, Boamet and Nanga Elvis cut paths through the jungle to the pits so we could drive, or where the vegetation was too dense, walk without getting slapped in the face by branches.
We sampled four pits and the main trench, all of which had been dug –the pits by hand, the trench by excavator- during Geovic’s main period of activity about a decade ago. Even the heaps from previous work held strongly mineralised material with interesting textures.
Some of the pits were up to 25m deep and the rapid rate of decomposition in the jungle meant we had to take a leaf-blower with an extra-long nozzle to disturb any stratified build-up of carbon dioxide, so that Nanga Elvis would not suffocate when he went down to get our samples.
Hopefully our agitation of the anaerobic atmosphere did not disturb the microbial community too much, so we can find some nice new cobalt-resistant bacteria to characterise.
I had heard stories of elephants and gorillas surprising the pit diggers at Nkamouna, unfortunately (or fortunately) nothing burst out of the undergrowth while I was there. I did, however, get too close to a column of marching ants and spent the next hour in the car slapping and clutching at various bodily regions as they found their way into all sorts of places.
The weather was a bit of let-down as it was the little wet season. I did think I had managed to get an excellent tan but once I had a shower it turned out my beautiful bronzing was just a thick coating of ferralitic dust.
The trip was an amazing experience and the people we worked with were fantastic. They have an incredible knowledge of the geography and environment around them, and a real desire to work and develop the region. The area hosts an incredible array of natural resources that could, and should, be exploited sustainably, with a long-term plan for reducing the environmental impact of any mining activity and maximising the positive socio-economic impacts on the country.
Now the samples are back in the UK, our focus will be:
- mineralogical and geochemical analysis of the various horizons through the deposit
- setting up microcosms to assess microbiological activity and applicability of present strains to the overall project
- bioreduction of collected material and determination of ideal conditions for greatest processing efficiency