I <3 geology, I <3 Ecuador

A photo of some colourful wooly hats.

In June 1991 I was unlocking my bicycle after my last first-year exam in geology at the University of Manchester when a bubbling surge of happiness stopped me in my tracks and made me look up and smile and just take it all in. I couldn’t believe that I had gone through my life until then without knowing what I had been taught in my first year of geology. It had opened my mind to new concepts of time and space, fascinating processes of rock and mineral formation, and also of how geology had influenced human activity through millennia. It had been a revelation, hard work, and a lot of fun. For me, the study of the science of the earth had shone a light onto politics, economics, the environment, climate change and of course the role of mineral deposits in the development of man. As I stood there, bicycle lock in hand, I thought how amazing the world was, and how much I loved this subject that I had come across by chance when I had mistakenly started an engineering degree.

Twenty-nine years later I am happy to say that my love of geology is still there. While the digital age thunders on, with apps and memes, full of ideas on a high-tech future, full of concerns about sustainability and climate change, geology is as relevant as ever and it still captures my imagination. As it was in my revelatory moment back in Manchester, so it seems to me that many of the key issues of the age are met in the exploration and development of mineral deposits. Is this too gushing¸ a case of hyperbole?  I argue that it is not an exaggeration, and that a look at the extraordinary events in Ecuador will help you share my appreciation.

The Ecuador national flag

Ecuador has it all. All of the issues, all of the challenges, all of the opportunities and all of the natural resources it might need to make a transformation. And I see this on a daily basis as I am a director of Salazar Resources, a proudly Ecuadorian Gold-Copper exploration and development company.

Ecuador is a traditionally socialist country that until recently had economic policies that deterred foreign direct investment in the mining sector. In 2007 the country trumpeted its eco-tourism and promoted a green economy, which was all well and good, apart from the fact that the country soon ran out of money. And in a dollarized economy (since 2000), printing is not an option which just leaves borrowing, inward investment or foreign export earning as potential sources of US dollars. In 2008, Ecuador borrowed $6.5 billion from China, with repayments partially based in Ecuadorian oil and terms negotiated at times of historic high oil prices.  While the oil price was strong, everything seemed fine, but commodity prices are cyclical and the cycle turns as inexorably as the arrival of taxes and death. Oil prices to 2014 had covered up the multiple sins of an inefficient public sector, large macroeconomic imbalances, and limited private investment, but eventually the oil price fell. As the new oil price reality bit, and growth opportunities in Ecuador (oil, agriculture, tourism) were remarkable by their absence, the government reassessed its attitude towards mining.

Maybe the 2008 moratorium on all mining was overkill? Maybe a subsequent imposition of a 70% windfall tax and mechanisms for 50% national ownership were deterrents on investment? Maybe the rampant illegal mining sector that paid no taxes and was completely unregulated in areas of environmental monitoring safety or any degree of social governance, should be brought under control? Maybe it would be better to have foreign direct investment to build a regulated, responsible mining industry that employs thousands, grows domestic economic capacity, pays royalties and taxes and earns hard currency? Maybe the mining sector in Ecuador should be nurtured not shunned? Maybe the remarkable geological endowment should be used to help build a better nation for the people?

An ineluctable truth emerged. Ecuador needed a modern mining industry to pay for its social and infrastructure agenda.  There were no other options, no other cards to play. And so reform was embraced.  Consultants helped create a plan for the Ecuadorian mining industry that led to bidding rounds by metal and by region, and critically the development of a new mining code.  The government introduced similar conditions to other countries, including incentives such as a fiscal stability agreement, VAT reimbursements and investment recovery before taxes kicked in. The results were astonishing.

A photo of copper-gold ore.
Copper-gold ore

Geology is apolitical, and copper-gold mineralisation doesn’t necessarily stop at a political border. Ecuador straddles some of the most prolific copper-gold geology on the planet and since the dawn of modern mineral prospecting it has experienced negligible systematic exploration. Almost uniquely for a peaceful country there are still walk-up large-scale high-grade deposits sitting at surface. When the government signalled it was serious about developing a modern mining industry, the world’s resources companies responded.

Almost overnight, Ecuador became a global mining investment destination. Foreign direct investment (“FDI”) surged to more than $250 million per year in 2017, with a projected $1 billion per year for the next four years. Over 200 new mining concessions were granted in 2017, accompanied by investment commitments of nearly $500 million of exploration expenditure in the first four. Since 2018, twenty-eight internationally renowned mining companies have established entities in Ecuador to pursue investment opportunities. Not only that but in 2019 two billion-dollar investments were completed, and the country now has two well-regulated, carefully monitored mines, employing thousands of local people, and generating vital foreign exchange earnings by producing copper at Mirador, and gold at Fruta del Norte.

Unsurprisingly there has been a backlash to this level of activity. A prominent anti-mining activist Carlos Perez has changed his name to Yaku Perez (Yaku is the Quechua word for water) and is vehemently opposed to foreign investment in the Ecuadorian mining industry, even though he turns a blind eye to the devastatingly destructive illegal mining in the country. Yaku regularly calls for referenda on the future of mining projects in Ecuador and he will continue to delay and obstruct the industry where he can as he persists in his argument that Ecuador should be pro-water and anti-mining. Incidentally, most professionals in the mining industry are supporters of clean water, responsible employment, wealth creation, the sustainable supply of vital raw materials and are not supporters of water pollution, environmental degradation, dangerous working conditions, tax evasion and all of the problems associated with illegal mining.

Another factor is that the population of Ecuador is split between those wanting jobs and those experiencing a very human resistance to change. What does a large mine entail? Will dastardly miners raze mountains, and bury villages under toxic waste? Some fear the rapid introduction of a new industry; others have the luxury of working closely with some of the many in-country professionals and learning first-hand about the industry. Suddenly the Chamber of Mines in Ecuador went from a clubby outfit to needing to assist the government and a population learn about the role and importance of a well-regulated mining industry in society.

Predictably, some of the mining companies gamed the system. Companies bid to spend $250 million on a single exploration licence (a ludicrously large amount) over four years, only to load the vast majority of the spend into Year 4 and then make it conditional on material success in the under-funded years 1-3. Companies committed to investing multiples of their market capitalisation in early-stage exploration within a 4-year period. Stuff and nonsense perhaps, but given that it seems easier to find a near-surface deposit in Ecuador then other parts of the world, many companies were enable by the vagueness of the new mining code to put placeholders on title in the rush.

Stunned by the whirlwind of real and promised FDI, protest referenda, the arrival of most of the major mining companies, and by the general pace of events, the government closed the Mining Cadastre in 2018. The commitment to a modern mining industry is as strong as it has ever been, supported by public pronouncements, progressive changes to process and structure within the mining ministry, and of course, the stark reality of ongoing national budget deficits. But it was a case of too much too quickly. The cadastre is still closed as the government is redesigning the mineral title permitting process to make the exploration expenditure more accountable, transparent and digital. No new licences have been issued for eighteen months and although in that time wrinkles in environmental permitting and water use permitting have been ironed out, there has been a knock-on delay in exploration activity. It does mean, however, that those companies that already have a licence portfolio are at an advantage over new entrants looking to build a presence in-country.

Which brings me full circle, to that moment when I was standing outside the exam hall in Manchester so long ago. The study of the science of the earth continues to shine a light onto politics, economics, the environment, climate change and of course the role of mineral deposits in the development of man. I am just as excited and fascinated by the interdisciplinary nature of my subject as I was as an undergraduate, and each of those competing and complimentary aspects are manifest in the gloriously complex reality of the mining industry today in Ecuador.

Companies, such as Salazar Resources, that already have mineral title to explore have a wonderful opportunity to continue the discovery journey (discovery of an economic resource is always much more of a process than a single moment in time). Community relations and environmental stewardship are critically important, and those enterprises that can bring its local and regional population along the discovery journey with them will succeed where companies that fail to engage, encourage, and educate its neighbours will face protest and delay. The government understands the vital developmental and economic role that a responsible mining industry offers and it is working as fast as it can to create the framework for that industry to grow, and yet it is weighed down by the responsibility of having to make decisions now that will have long-lasting effects. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the nation depends on it. The officers and directors of companies that I know are genuinely excited about the positive transformation that a single well run mine can make to individuals, families, a community, a region, and the contribution that it makes to nation-building in a relatively small economy. And within it all there are the pure geologists among us, thrilled at the prospect of being part of a team that will make the next big discovery and bring vital commodities for our future needs to market.

Company Website: www.salazarresources.com

If you see something in this article that you agree with, or even disagree with, please let us know in the comments below.

A photo of some colourful wooly hats.

Salazar Resources (TSX-V: SRL) – The Very Model of a Major General

SALAZAR RESOURCES
  • TSX-V: SRL
  • Shares Outstanding: 126.48M
  • Share price CA$0.21 (21.01.2020)
  • Market Cap: CA$26.56M

I am concerned, when interviewing a CEO, if they are unable to clearly articulate their business plan. Call it an elevator pitch, call it a sales pitch, call it what you like, but if you, as a CEO, cannot tell me in less than 2 minutes what separates your business from the crowd and how I am going to make money, you’ve lost me; big red flag planted firmly in the ground and I am onto the next opportunity.

My other bugbear is when I think I am being misled or the CEO is avoiding answering the question directly. Very few people are smart enough to hide the childlike tells. The furtive look, the eyes searching into the distance hoping to find inspiration to be magically plucked from the air and the awkward squirming in their seat. Non-verbal communication and reading body language in all walks of life is important and accounts for so much of how people see you.

Sometimes it can be fun to set a trap for the CEO: ask a difficult question to which I already know the answer and see how the CEO responds. If it is a mistruth or even a small misdirection, I now know I cannot trust this individual to report properly. Another big, and in this case, terminal red flag.

We tend to begin our diligence from a standpoint that places the burden of proof on CEOs: we will not be giving you our money. It is their job to tell me why I am wrong and why I should. I’m looking for faults in their argument. It doesn’t take much, and I’m off. It’s my money. There are thousands of ways and places I can invest it, so why take a risk?

That brings me to Salazar Resources.

Salazar Resources, an Ecuadorian exploration company, has appointed Merlin Marr-Johnson as Director. A mercurially fabulous name! I’m already intrigued. We spoke to him. Mr. Marr-Johnson is British, very British, and demonstrably intelligent. We set about our task of finding reasons not to invest.

A black and white portrait photo of Merlin Marr-Johnson.
Merlin Marr-Johnson, Director of Salazar Resources

The first thing Marr-Johnson talks about is their business plan. They are gold-copper project developers in Ecuador and Colombia. They have just farmed out their first gold-copper-zinc asset, the El Domo Curipamba VMS (Volcanogenic Massive Sulfide) ore deposit discovery. The PEA conducted at the site shows an economically viable resource.

So, here is the clever bit. Salazar received a royalty payment, courtesy of an ongoing partnership with Adventus Mining Corporation. Adventus has the option to acquire 75% interest in the project by funding initial costs of US$25M over five years; they must provide 100% of the development and construction expenditures up to commercial production after the completion of a PFS (scheduled to be conducted in 2021). Salazar Resources earns US$250,000 per year in advance royalty payments up to a limit of US$1.5M. As operator, Salazar receives an additional 10% management fee (on some expenditures), standing at a minimum US$350,000 annually. Salazar also has the option to lease out 3 of their drills and is fully carried through at 25% with no additional capital outlay needed. Salazar Resources currently has c.$5M in the bank and with this additional reoccurring income and low overhead, Marr-Johnson believes that their exploration programme for this year is fully funded. Marr-Johnson takes time to apply a formula for investors to consider how to value the deal with Adventus. It’s reasonable and not wildly out of line with our numbers. So far, so good. I’m still listening.

Salazar has four other 100% interest options; three are in the form of Ecuadorian gold/ copper/VMS assets with exploration licences: Rumiñahui, a 2,910 hectare exploration licence that hosts gold/copper porphyry targets; Macara Mina, a 1,807 hectare exploration licence that hosts VMS targets; and Los Osos, a 229 hectare exploration licence that features a system of gold/silver veins, combined with hydrothermal breccias and mineralised gold/copper porphyries. Salazar Resources also holds 100% interest in a drill company, Perforaciones Andesdrill S.A, that owns three diamond drill rigs.

A diagram of a VMS deposit.
A VMS deposit diagram

Each asset is at a different stage of exploration or development, and each asset has had differing levels of mapping, soil geochemistry and rock-chip sampling conducted. However, when he spoke to us, Marr-Johnson provided some reasons for confidence. Salazar, in the shape of CEO and ex-Newmont in-country team leader, Fredy Salazar, has a ‘proven track record of discovery in Ecuador.’ In addition, the mining jurisdiction of Ecuador is seen by some to have a huge degree of untapped potential. The major mining companies have flooded into Ecuador in recent years, so there is clearly truth in Johnson’s claims regarding the unexplored nature of the geology. Ecuador could have a lot to offer for investors looking to invest in a region in its mining infancy.

We like the gold/copper/VMS side of the story, but the options keep on coming. Their joint venture with Adventus Mining Corporation was originally intended as a zinc exploration alliance. Adventus Mining was offered a stake in zinc-rich assets but instead opted for two different copper-gold (with some silver veins) sites: Santiago and Pijili. Adventus possesses 80% ownership but is required to fund all activities until a construction decision is made on any project.

So, what does this mean for investors?

Salazar Resources is funded for 2020: no dilution anytime soon. We like the look of their cookie-cutter approach to developing their portfolio of assets with minimal cash burn. If they can continue to replicate the Curipamba farm-out model, the numbers start to look very attractive. There is scale to this project. Marr-Johnson was keen to point out that Salazar does want to develop some of their own projects too.

A robust and, more importantly, refreshingly honest appraisal from Marr-Johnson. So far, no red flags, but this is mining. We are waiting for news on the water permit before we get too carried away, but if that comes, Salazar Resources is something that we can see ourselves investing in.

If you see something in this article that you agree with, or even disagree with, please let us know in the comments below.

Any advice contained in this website is general advice only and has been prepared without considering your objectives, financial situations or needs. You should not rely on any advice and / or information contained in this website or via any digital Crux Investor communications. Before making any investment decision we recommend that you consider whether it is appropriate for your situation and seek appropriate financial, taxation and legal advice.

Salazar Resources (TSX-V: SRL) – Cause We’ve All Been Painted by Numbers (Transcript)

Interview with Merlin Marr-Johnson, Director of Salazar Resources (TSX-V: SRL).

We really like this business model and we like Marr-Johnson. Both are smart. They have farmed out the first copper-gold asset, the El Domo Curipamba VMS discovery, and received a Royalty payment, ongoing management fees and can lease out their 3 drills. Plus they are fully carried for 25%. That takes them to c.$5M in the bank to continue exploring other portfolio assets. Salazar has 4 additional copper-gold assets and other licences in the hopper.

In addition, they have a zinc-exploration JV that contains two projects, Pijili and Santiago with Adventus (80%) funding all activities in the Alliance up to a construction decision on any project.

Geologist Fredy Salazar, ex-Newmont team leader in country, has been exploring and discovering major copper-gold assets in country for 20 years. Listen to Marr-Johnson’s numbers. He paints a very exciting picture. You have to work out if you like this model and if you think he can deliver it.

Ecuador is a country that major mining companies are rushing to because it is under explored but is already showing its potential for big, big projects. Salazar will continue to farm out some of the projects , but are very keen to 100% develop one or more of their own.

Interview highlights:

  • Company Overview
  • Background Story: What Interested Merlin to Get Involved?
  • Team Experience and Ecuador – a Mining-Friendly Jurisdiction?
  • Business Model and Creating Value: What Have They Done so far?
  • Assets and Focus
  • Managing Finances: Where are They Spending Money and Where Will They Look for More?
  • VMS Deposits: What’s Special About Them?
  • The Future: What are They Excited About for Next Year?
  • Why Should You Invest in Salazar Resources?

Click here to watch the interview.


Matthew Gordon: Hi Merlin. You are involved with Salazar Resources, this Ecuadorian miner. I had a look, fascinated by the business model and that’s really what I want to talk to you about today. But let’s kick-off if you can give us a one minute summary of the business for people who are new to this, and then we’ll pick it up from there.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Salazar Resources is an exploration company listed on the Venture Exchange in Toronto and Vancouver. It’s got a market cap around USD$15M and it is a prospect generator in some ways, it’s got an asset that its been fully carried on through to production, and its got its own portfolio that its looking to explore and develop.

Matthew Gordon: Right, we’re going to get into the model in a second, but maybe lets start with how did you get involved? Who did you know in Ecuador to get involved with this project?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Arlington Asset Management bought a stake in Salazar Resources last year, in the middle of 2018. I was invited down on a site visit at the end of last year, I’m a geologist, I speak Spanish, and I was potentially going to be asked on as a non-executive director. When we looked at the company we were very impressed by the geology and by the team and the model, what they didn’t have as much strength in was a capital markets presence, and at that point they asked me to join as a director. So, I’m actually an executive director of the company, responsible for Corporate Development.

Matthew Gordon: Right, so Arlington Funds which are based here in London is the introductory point.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes.

Matthew Gordon: So, let’s talk about some things you mentioned there. So you met the team, you had a look at the geology, so can we start with the team. Ecuador is quite a nascent country for mining, is it not? What can you tell us about it?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Just a little bit on Ecuador before we get onto the team, if that’s okay?

Matthew Gordon: Okay, let’s do that.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Ecuador as you know, right on the Andes, and the mineral deposits of the Andes are prolific; the Copper production in Chile through Peru, and the geology doesn’t stop at the border, it carries right through Ecuador and into Colombia. But over time there’s never really been a development of a mining industry in Ecuador, principally because the fiscal regime has been insufficiently attractive to get the miners in there, and they’ve been really promoting the tourist agenda.

There was a socialist government that came in, in 2010, that was very-very pro the environment and pro tourism, they want to be the greenest economy in the world, the problem was they couldn’t fund it. That socialist government over the course of its 7-year administration turned Ecuador into a proto-mining economy; they realised that to fund their deficit, to fund their budget they needed to bring in foreign direct investment, and they needed to bring in export earnings, and the only industry that was left for them to grow in was mining. The ex-growth of agriculture, the ex-growth of tourism, the oil industry, and they had this phenomenal geology but no mining industry. So they really started reforming the mining code, they dropped the windfall tax which had been put in earlier, and they did a review of all the mining codes across South America and looked at the tax regimes, and then they brought Ecuador in line with that.

So, that’s an ongoing process, and from that basis the country is opening up and yet it hasn’t had the exploration that all the other countries have had, and that combination of the same geological potential but without the advanced exploration, means if you want to find Copper-Gold assets in the world anywhere now, you go to Ecuador.

Matthew Gordon:  Do miners have to find a different way of working in an environment like that? Is it going to be more costly to work in an environment like that, or is there a dose of realism within the mining code which is being constructed at the moment?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: I’d say there are three elements to that question. 1. Is that all the miners are looking to come into Ecuador, everybody is looking for Copper-Gold assets, so all of the majors are suddenly interested in Ecuador. There’s competition for assets and there’s competition for ground, and there’s competition for good people that know the country.

Matthew Gordon: But from meaningful companies, sizeable companies?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Rio Tinto, BHP, Newcrest, Anglo-American, all the big guys are in.

The other thing is, it is evolving slowly, so you can’t just build the mining industry overnight. The government regulations have changed, for example the mining cadastre, the mining department closed in 2018 or maybe late 2017, and it’s not going to reopen until Q3 next year.

Matthew Gordon: Why?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: There was a flood of money that came into Ecuador, they were just trying to work out how to handle it. People on the explorational licencing were promising too much money in a four year term. Their investment plans were unrealistic and it was viewed that perhaps some companies were doing a land grab, and they weren’t going to follow through the exploration expenditure. So now they’re just in regulation that we believe, so that the mining companies that take out an explorational licence will have to spend the money, and be accountable for it, and if you don’t spend a certain proportion in the first year, you lose your licence.

Matthew Gordon: Which happens the world over.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: They’re tinkering, they’re changing the mining code. So, just coming back to question, the three things. 1) All the big guys are there. 2) Its an evolving industry. 3) That there will be winners and losers in Ecuador. It’s one of those countries where because you don’t have a history of large scale mining, or industrialised mining, there’s a lack of awareness. There are communities that don’t want mining, or don’t know what mining comes, and change is difficult to assimilate on any level in any society, and in Ecuador its no different; you say, ‘We’re going to build the mine’, and people say, ‘Is that going to affect me negatively?’ So you have to go through this education process, and the winners will be the ones that can manage their community relations properly.

Matthew Gordon: I think these are common problems, common threads through different countries around the world, but I agree with you. Can we talk specifically about what you think you’ve come into, like I’ve said, this is the exciting bit for me; the model that you have employed, or the company has employed to move forward excites me, I’ve seen this work elsewhere. Can you explain what you’ve done.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Well, the reason why I got excited about it, is that I’ve worked on the by-side for 5-years, and I worked as a mining analyst for 6-years, and I run exploration companies. One of the things which is a real differentiator in a company is, when you have an income stream and when you’ve got an asset of significant value that de-risks the downside to your investment.

Matthew Gordon: Right, so what have you done?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Salazar Resources made a discovery in 2008 called the Curipamba VMS deposit, it’s a volcanogenic mass of sulphide, they drilled it out and they’ve farmed it out. They farmed it out to a partner who is investing USD$25M to take it to a Feasibility Study by 2021, and then they’re going to continue to fund it, all the way through to production. So, Salazar Resources is carried on a 25% stake, all the way through to production.

Matthew Gordon: What does that mean in terms of dollars, what’s the income?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: The income up until it gets into production is based on advanced Royalties, and a management fee of 10% on the basis of a minimum of USD$3.5M a year. So, we’re talking hard numbers, USD$600,000 minimum a year income to the company. In addition to that, Salazar Resources owns three drill rigs which it contracts out to the partnership, and to third parties, and we anticipate about a USD$1M coming in from that, on an annual basis.

Matthew Gordon: On top of your $600,000?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: On top of the USD$600,000.

Matthew Gordon: Interesting.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: So, the base position is, we’ll be income generating USD$1.6M, possibly up to USD$2M on an annual basis.

Matthew Gordon: For a small company, an exploration company, that allows you to do what?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: That allows us to fund on a discretionary basis our 100% owned portfolio. We are an Ecuadorian team, the headquarters is in Quito, and we can do extremely low-cost effective exploration in Ecuador for a small amount of money. So, that USD$1.6M goes a long way, and I should add that we’ve got about USD$3.7M in treasury anyway, which is a function of previous income, and sale of some shares that we got as part of the farm-out deal.

Matthew Gordon: That’s interesting, that’s a very good start. So, you’ve got some 100% owned portfolio assets, are there any which would take the lead there? Are you focusing on one, or several at the same time? How do you intend to spend your time and money?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: At the moment we’ve got four licences which are 100% owned by us. I want to say, we’re not just stopping there at that four. Before the Mining Cadastre closed we applied for five or six permits beforehand, and we hope to get a couple of those through, they’re in process. We’ve also done prospecting over the last couple of years, we want to apply for another 10 to 12 licences afterwards. So, we know that we actually want to grow our licence portfolio.

Now, in terms of where we want to put our money, and how we want to do it, it all slightly depends on how we can trade our cards, because if for example, we can do a farm-out on one licence area that comes with a cash payment upfront, and is fully carried, then we can use that money to invest into one of the other projects, so we can play things around. But if I was to pull out a priority asset I would focus on the Rumiñahui porphyry target, which is in the northern portion of Ecuador, and there’s a line of porphyry’s. It goes the SolGold Cascabel deposit, which as we know is a billion tonnes here or there at around 0.6% Copper equivalent. Then you travel 55Kms to an asset called Yurimaguas which is owned by Codelco, and that’s over USD$1Bn, and that’s at 0.8% Copper equivalent combined.

Then 22Kms on from that is Rumiñahui which is the asset that Fredy Salazar has been looking at for over 20-years. We’ve got the licences over that, and the preliminary work that we’ve done on that indicates that it’s a porphyry, and that its Gold-rich, and that it’s a large system.

Matthew Gordon: Okay, we’ll come onto that. I want to stay on the, how do people make money bit, which is I think is why people watch this. So, you’ve got a model you’ve employed which is identifying a target-rich property, you farm it out, retain or you’re carried for…?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: 25%.

Matthew Gordon: 25% of that. You may get a lump sum cash amount for that, or not? But you will get some income in the shape of management fees, perhaps leasing out your drill rigs, and what was the other…?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Advance Royalties, but that’s all within the USD$600,000.

Matthew Gordon: So replicating that model kind of keeps you ticking over and developing more and more of your portfolio as you build this out.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes.

Matthew Gordon: So you’re an incubator as such.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: We are an incubator but talking about making money and where the share price could go to, or where it should be for example, the Curipamba VMS that we’ve farmed out is at the PFS stage. Earlier this year we produced a PEA that gave an NPV of USD$288M on base case. So, our base case NPV was USD$288M and we are 25% fully carried on that. Now, obviously there has to be a discount applied to that because we’re a few years away from production, so what is the right price for our 25%?

One way of looking at it is to look at the value of our partner, which is pretty much a single asset company, and its earning into the Curipamba Project, and they’ve got a market capitalisation of USD$75M, but they have to keep funding the entire – they have to carry the whole thing. So, one could say that our 25% should be at least USD$25M, if not more, because their 75 for 75%, and our 25 to make the 100%.  

Another valuation yardstick is a Royalty that was bought on that VMS project, 2% Royalty was bought for USD$10M earlier this year, and I use a rule of thumb equity to Royalty of around three times, which puts our 25% at a value of about USD$42M. So, we’ve got these yardsticks, let’s call it more than 25 because we don’t have to be diluted, and within USD$40M, so, let’s call it in the $30’s. Our current market cap is $15-16m, so in a sense just on the value of the 25% stake you’re looking at a 50% discount to fair value.

Matthew Gordon: Okay, I’ll buy that.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: So, a potential double on the share price right there. Then you throw on top of that the fact that Ecuador is the hottest country globally at the moment, because of the way the government is going, the fiscal terms, and the geology. The fact that we are an exploration team with a really good footprint of licences within Ecuador, and the fact that Fredy Salazar who is head of the company is recognised and renowned as probably the best explorer in Ecuador.

Matthew Gordon: Yeah, I think there are people who will give you credit for that, and some people who will see it in the opposite direction, because Ecuador is early stages. So I think just to be fair in all of this I think you’ve got some great things, and you’ve got some unknown things.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Oh yes.

Matthew Gordon: Again, it comes back to this model for me, I’ve seen this work extremely well elsewhere, and I like that you’re employing it, and you’ve actually done Stage 1, you’ve got advance payment, and in terms of Royalty you’re getting management fees, and you’re getting the rig fees, and you’ve got this portfolio of assets where you can replicate, replicate, replicate. Accumulatively, it could be very meaningful for you without necessarily needing to go and raise significant cash or dilute shareholders. So, that’s the bit that interests me.

So, Fredy’s knowledge of country, he’s been in country I’ve read 20-odd years, and has worked for…

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Newmont.

Matthew Gordon: Newmont, so again it’s not amateur local stuff, this is a significant global leadership player that he worked for and led the team for. So, I like that his knowledge is extensive, I like the fact you’re picking up these licences; the question is, when are you going to be able to start moving this thing at a pace? You will have circa USD$5M available to you, can you break that down for me a little bit more, I know you’ve kind of touched on it but break that down for me, how do you create value? How do you take that USD$5M and create significantly more value for shareholders?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: We’ve got four licences that we are taking up the value curve through exploration, three of those are in Ecuador, one is actually just over the border in Columbia. Our plan for 2020 will be to drill 2 or 3 of those licences in Ecuador, we’ve got a budget for 8,500m of drilling, and 3,500 of those will be at Rumiñahui. We are waiting for water permits in all our licences, and that has actually been a delay across Ecuador throughout 2019, and the Mines Ministry is on it. The Head of the Water Board was blocking the issue of water permits for exploration drilling, there’s been a change in the Water Board, the new Head of the Water Board is someone with environmental and mining experience, he’s an engineer within environmental credentials, and a mining engineering degree.

So, the water permits are coming through more quickly. We expect to have our first water permits through in Q1, which will enable us to start drilling. We anticipate drilling Rumiñahui in the second half of the year.

Matthew Gordon: For how long, is it seasonal there?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: It’s not seasonal. We’ve budgeted a meterage of 8,500m as a total plan for the year. What then will happen, it will be slightly dependent on Copper prices and what we discover.

Matthew Gordon: And these are your own drills, so the cost must be relatively low, presumably.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes.

Matthew Gordon: So, where are we with this $5m after you’ve done all of this? How much have you spent?

Merlin Marr-Johnson:  Our plan is around USD$2M, and its discretionary, so the smaller amount of work is about USD$2.1M and it dials up to USD$3M depending on what we find. Now, we don’t of course want to run the treasury down to below USD$2M, so we’ll always tailor our expenditure carefully with what we can see in terms of the deal flow.

Matthew Gordon: Are you having conversations now with companies about Rumiñahui? Or, are you going to wait until you know a little bit more? And what’s your expectations of what a deal could look like, what type of deals are you looking for from whoever you’re going to be speaking to?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes, yes, yes, all of the above. Because Ecuador is a country of great interest to all the major mining companies, the eyes are on Ecuador and people are looking for the next Cascabel. Fredy Salazar is well-known, and if you are the exploration director for a major company one of the first things you do when you come into a country like Ecuador is, you call up the team that knows what’s going on. So, we get a lot of inbound from the guys saying, ‘Hey Fredy, what are you up to?’ He’s well respected within industry, and critically its not just him, so between him and his two colleagues, we’ve got three geologists who between the three of them have made a lot of the discoveries in Ecuador over the last 20-30 years.

Matthew Gordon: Anything we’ve heard of?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Fruta del Norte, and the Lundin Gold asset. Success has many fathers, he was involved in that, there are a number of other assets you might not have of as well, and of course Curipamba which is the VMS project. You mustn’t forget that Rio Tinto got started on a VMS, Agnico Eagle got started on a VMS, Lundin Gold got started on a VMS, old Lundin Mining, these are…

Matthew Gordon: Explain to people why they possibly should look at VMS-type projects, because we’re looking at a few, and its all down to the reporting what you can and can’t report, but VMS projects tend to be a lot bigger than exchanges that allow you to report. Tell us about what you know about the VMS structures in Ecuador.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: VMS is globally, they tend to come in clusters, and so what happens is, you drill off one of the pods, and that is really where you are restricted in your reporting, because you will drill off a pod and it might be 2-3M/t of ore. It’s high-value ore, but it’s still only 2-3M/t. In fact, if you look at it in the distribution base, most are 2-3M/t.

Matthew Gordon: And it’s restricted why? Because in terms of the depth that you’re allowed to report on?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: They are fossil black smokers on an ocean floor, and they just form in a oner, it’s a unit, but there are several of those in the cluster. Now the Curipamba one is we’ve got 9 M/t in measured and indicated resources at 2% Copper, and 2.6g/t Gold. It’s 5% Copper equivalent at surface, which means that the NPV is high, the capital is low, the margins are great, and that’s where you make money on your VMS’s.

Now the other thing is, that if you look at the discovery of VMS’s globally, they’re very dense and they appear on gravity. So people do mag surveys and then they sometimes come back and do a gravity survey, and if you look at the Iberian Pyrite Belt, Southern Spain and Portugal, all the big discoveries are made by gravity. So Lundin got going on Neves-Corvo, Rio Tinto, on Rio Tinto it’s the name of the deposit down there, and we’ve just flown the geophysics at Curipamba, it’s a 9M/t core to that deposit, it’s a much bigger licence area. Watch this space.

Matthew Gordon: Okay, so you’re excited by that, but what else are you thinking the end of next year? You’re answering the question of, yes, yes, yes, talking to lots of people, optionality, but what are you hoping for?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: The first stage is to get CEAs with the right groups. The first met farm-out we did was with Aventis Mining which was a start-up company, obviously now for something like Rumiñahui which is potentially a very large porphyry target, you’d want to be going higher up the food chain in terms of capability and size. So, we would want to have signed a number of CEAs with majors, and potentially we want to do the first phase of drilling by ourselves.

Now, if a major comes in with an offer beforehand, which is sufficiently attractive in terms of an equitable funded approach to the development, or the exploration of Rumiñahui, we might consider it. We’re not drilling it until the second-half of the year, so we’ve actually got some space to talk to some of the majors whether they really are serious about striking up some kind of farm-out.

Matthew Gordon: I guess what investors would want a sense of is, your ability to preserve cash, create value, and that means making sure you’re not spending more money than you need to, whilst having these conversations, because its all in the negotiation if you’ve got enough data to have that discussion.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes. The amount of data we’ve got is relatively limited.

Matthew Gordon: That’s my point.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: We’ve got geological context, we’ve got outcrop, in one of the riverbeds we’ve got 55m at 2.7g/t, it’s a great outcrop. We’ve got a lot of Gold, we’ve got a lot of Copper, we’ve got a lot of context.

Matthew Gordon: Yes, but negotiations are done, effectively with more information.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes.

Matthew Gordon: So that’s what I’m saying, I’m intrigued in how much you’re going to spend. Will you have enough cash to get to the point you need to…

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes.

Matthew Gordon: …without diluting shareholders at any point soon?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: There are precedents of good at farm-outs in Ecuador on slightly more advanced assets. We also know that there are groups out there looking for relatively earlier stage joint venture programmes on areas of interest, and Rumiñahui certainly falls within that. It changes the tenure of the conversation, how advanced your asset is or not.

What I would say is that we’ve got the capital, the drill rigs, and the time to do our first 100% owned drilling programme on Rumiñahui. And I would just add in that, is that we always want to have a flagship asset that we control, and that we can take on 100%. We’ve got Los Osos which is a high-grade Copper-Gold project on a much smaller licence area, that we’ll be drilling on 100% basis. We’ve got a Macara project which is a Gold target, and of course if the mining cadastre opens in Q3, and we get some of the licences that we’ve applied for 2-years ago, then suddenly we’ve got more properties with which we can trade. And so if there’s a bit drill out on Rumiñahui that perhaps is not within our budget to fund, we’d be more willing to take it on.

Matthew Gordon: You said right at the beginning, you’re a markets guy. I know you’re a geologist, you run companies, and you’ve been an analyst, and so you’re a markets guy compared to the team that is currently there.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Yes.

Matthew Gordon: So, is there expectation that you’re going to go and raise some capital? Are you going to need to, or is this just about helping them construct better deals with these farm-out opportunities?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: We’re not planning on raising capital, as we’ve got almost USD$4M, we’ve got USD$1-USD$1.5M coming in, maybe up to USD$2M. At the end of next year it depends on what our opportunity suite offers, and ideally we will have structured a farm-out whereby we can continue to fund our main assets, and we continue to earn money from our drill rigs, and we continue to earn income from advanced Royalties and the management fee, we may not need to raise capital. If we suddenly decide that the best use of shareholder funds would be to drill an asset 100%, then of course we would consider it, but its not in the plan.

Matthew Gordon: Okay. So, I’m excited, you’ve said you’re excited about the opportunity here. We’ve done a lot of work on this before we came to speak to you today, why do you think shareholders should be excited? So let’s talk about the financial side of things, you’re a public company, $15m market cap, inconsequential in the scheme of things, there’s lots of companies in and around your level, why you guys?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: We’ve got two things, we’ve got risk protection, and we’ve got upside potential. So, the risk protection is the income from the advanced Royalties, the drill rigs, and the management fees, and the other side of the risk protection is, the fact that we’ve got 25% stake in a fantastic asset that is marching on the way to production, and our share is going to grow in value from USD$35M to USD$100M, as a ballpark trajectory. 

Matthew Gordon: Without necessarily needing to dilute?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: We don’t have to invest a single cent in that, that’s all carried, we’re fully carried in that asset, and that’s Curipamba in the joint venture, and that is an investment case on itself. Now in addition to that we offer the sex and violence of exploration, the opportunity to have a transformational discovery on any one of our four properties, and knowing the interest that we’ve got in country, and from the majors that are in country, we’ve got the opportunity to do that on a funded basis as well, if we can get a farm-out.

Matthew Gordon: Interesting. So, to make sure I understand this, you’re saying with Curipamba, with Rumiñahui potentially, and the others in your portfolio, from those that covers your G&A, you’ve got income coming through, so no need to dilute.

Merlin Marr-Johnson: No need to dilute.

Matthew Gordon: Then on top of that, if one of these JV partners hits it big with any of those assets, you’ve got that 25% free carry there, that’s the big uplift. No one’s investing in this but G&A right? This is what the big uplift could be, plus if I understand you correctly, if you develop one of these 100% owned assets yourself, then potentially you’ve got control of your own destiny there to a degree, well in the context of mining.

Okay, I understand that, you’ve painted quite a nice picture there for shareholders, and you’re putting a number on that, are you? What does that look like? Without dilution, where do you think you can move to if you were able to deliver this model?

Merlin Marr-Johnson: Well, lets just say that our value in Curipamba is USD$30M today, and it should be at USD$50M at the end of next year, end of 2020. That’s a trebling of the share price right there, doubling or trebling that would be fantastic, at $0.16 to $0.17 cents depending on the bid after the spread at the moment. So if you could get that up to $0.50 that’s a tremendous result, and I think we could do that just on growing awareness of what we’ve actually got, and the deal we’ve already done, and an asset that we’ve already got.

Now, if we get a good drill hole on any of the other projects, particularly if we open up Rumiñahui as a real palfrey target, then things get much more exciting, if that’s not already exciting enough.

Matthew Gordon: Merlin, thank you very much, nice introduction. Let’s catch up in the New Year, I want to get into some of the detail around the numbers, and your plans for the year. But as the first passing that’s quite nice for some of our viewers to be introduced to what is quite a small story now, but again, I do like the model so I’m encouraged.


Company page: https://www.salazarresources.com/

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