As the mining industry pivots toward more sustainable practices, Richard Thomas, COO of Aris Mining, speaks to us about the company’s formalization of small-scale mining, enabling protection for both miners and the beautiful South American ecosystem.
DELIVERING GROWTH RESPONSIBLY
South America is a region rich in biodiversity and natural resources. Although it may be considered an emerging economy across many sectors, its relevance has been long established within the mining industry.
The mineral resources found across the continent have continually been accelerants of economic growth, delivering benefits to people both locally and abroad since the first records of commercial mineral resources, dating back to the early 16th century.
At a time when a global energy transition is underway, these minerals, also known as future-facing commodities, are crucial.
Aris Mining (Aris), a junior gold company with current operations in Colombia, Guyana, and Canada, was established in 2020 by CEO Neil Woodyer.
Prior to Aris, Woodyer founded Endeavour Mining (Endeavour) with what was initially a single mine in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Endeavour used a buy-and-build strategy to grow its market capitalization to several billion dollars, expanding into Ivory Coast and Senegal.
In 2017, the company went on to build Leagold Mining with Los Filos in Mexico as the catalyst acquisition, which later merged with Equinox Gold, leaving Aris to start ‘again’ in 2021 with the purchase of the Marmato Mine (Marmato) in Colombia.
“Aris, meaning ‘again’ in Celtic, is a part of our founding story,” opens Richard Thomas, COO.
“Marmato was an excellent start for us at Aris, with a producing mine and funded project waiting to be built,” he expands.
By 2022, in a joint venture with Mubadala, Aris acquired a 20 percent managing partner in the Proyecto Soto Norte (PSN) in Colombia, eventually serving as the incentive to merge with GCM Mining who added a high-grade and profitable Colombian operation.
“As you can see, Aris is a company led by a management team that focuses on identifying key assets globally for growth,” states Thomas.
A DIVERSIFIED PORTFOLIO
Aris currently produces 220,000 to 240,000 ounces (oz) of gold per annum from the Segovia Operations (Segovia) located in Antioquia and Marmato in the Caldas Department, with approximately 3,050 employees and 2,100 contractors.
Additionally, the company produces zinc and lead concentrates at Segovia from a polymetallic plant that treats the gold tailings.
“This is a shared value success story, as the project was envisioned as a mechanism to reduce environmental pollution and has added an additional revenue stream,” explains Thomas.
Environmental sustainability is a primary focus for Aris, having become one of the few companies in recent years to have been granted an environmental license in Colombia.
“This is one aspect that we have studied intensively, and we have formulated a strategy for success. How we approach our communities, regulatory authorities, and government is key to this triumph,” insights Thomas.
In parallel to the company’s sustainability initiatives, Aris is passionate about the artisanal and small-miner (ASM) partnership programs it implements in Segovia, Marmato, and PSN, which are part of a new mining model combining the traditional expertise of ASM units with the technology, safety standards, and capital of industrial miners.
“By joining forces, we can create partnerships and value for the regions where we operate while protecting the environment and strengthening the local social fabrics,” expands Thomas.
Aris has seen numerous formalization success stories with these ASM units. Once the company legalizes a unit, it has immediate access to labor contracts, social security, banking, international trading, operational and technical expertise, industrial mining safety standards, and access to developmental capital.
After treating the produced ore, Aris pays the ASM units on a formula accounting for the international price of gold. In doing this, the company removes a significant amount of mercury from the environment and incentivizes both royalty and tax payments.
COLOMBIA’S NEXT MAJOR GOLD MINE
Currently, the Marmato Lower Mine Project is a key focus for Aris, as it is the first major development it has undertaken.
The company is keen to demonstrate how it is able to successfully develop such projects in a modern world where stakeholder engagement and community acceptance are crucial aspects of growth.
“The Marmato Lower Mine Project will be technologically advanced, but we face the challenge of finding, training, and retaining underground mining operators from local areas. “We are exploring ways of providing training with virtual reality (VR) and simulators as a safe and effective way of upskilling the regional workforce,” informs Thomas.
Having recently received its environmental license, construction began on the project in Q3 2023 with the intent to begin producing gold by the end of 2025.
The mine will be a mechanized bulk mining operation predicted to mill up to two million tons per annum (Mtpa) and produce 160 oz of gold annually.
This large-scale project highlights the importance of supply chain operations for any company.
“Supply chains are crucial for our operations. We push to use local and regional suppliers as much as possible, thereby increasing the indirect revenue for the areas we operate in,” notes Thomas.
With the Marmato Lower Mine Project, Aris will utilize international suppliers for the major equipment, which will be a component of the new metallurgical plant and underground mine, alongside local suppliers for as many aspects as realistically possible.
The second project Aris is working toward is PSN, which is currently in the licensing phase.
“We expect a long-life asset with a low all-in sustaining cost (AISC) and significant cash flow,” provides Thomas.
The operation is expected to produce a gold, copper, and silver concentrate that aligns with the Colombian government’s transition metals initiatives. Aris is looking to work with local communities and regulators to build the project to ensure lasting benefits for all stakeholders.
As the project progresses toward construction, Aris plans to provide employment and skills training for up to 1,800 construction contractors and 940 full-time operations employees, alongside procuring goods and services from the regional community.
MODERN SUSTAINABILITY IN MINING
“Our CEO, Neil Woodyer, has often remarked that we are a social and environmental company with a mining component, and this is borne from the extensive social programs we engage in,” comments Thomas.
Aris maintains this mindset in its day-to-day actions, having committed to spending a minimum of $25 per oz on social investment in the areas in which it operates.
In addition to this, the company has a well-established social investment system that uses a committee to identify projects in conjunction with the local municipalities and is guided by materiality analysis.
These funds are then administered by a foundation with rigorous controls, and regional contractors are used to execute the projects, further enhancing the local benefits.
The company’s social investment is focused on five key areas: education, culture, and sport; socioeconomic development; infrastructure for a better life; environmental stewardship; and gender equity and inclusion.
Equally important to the longevity and expansion of any business is the manner in which it recognizes its staff and contributors.
“In any operation, the staff will define if you are successful or not,” insights Thomas.
To ensure continued employee satisfaction and growth, Aris has developed a program over the past year to train and retain its staff at all levels and produced a four-month training program to gradually teach necessary skills to ensure safety and high-quality work.
This focus on both the internal and external ethos of the company showcases the desire Aris has to flourish alongside the community and its members.
A GOLDEN FUTURE
It is undeniable that the mining industry, like that of so many other global sectors, is facing a variety of changes as the future is shifting toward a more mindful and long-lasting form of production.
“We can see that the industry is pivoting towards transitional metals as the world is trying to understand what the future will look like without fossil fuels,” notes Thomas.
Aris is already ahead of the pack when it comes to meeting these sustainability efforts head-on, having become a part of the UN Global Compact and Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP), along with reporting its sustainability achievements under the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards on a yearly basis.
In addition to its many environmentally-friendly efforts, the company is looking ahead with goals of improved safety, efficiency, and project management for the upcoming year.
“We will continue to optimize and stabilize both Marmato and Segovia, looking to improve efficiency and production from the existing operations by identifying production improvements and managing the projects through to completion,” expands Thomas.
Two more projects will take priority as Marmato and Segovia reach completion in 2024 and 2025, including PSN, an important part of Aris’ growth strategy for the future.
As an established company that has proven its innovation and dedication to leading such a volatile industry, Aris has become the mining business of choice for those looking to protect their miners, the environment, and find unfettered growth.