China’s Zijin says will advance disputed, giant Congo lithium project

By Siyi Liu and Felix Njini

BEIJING/NAIROBI (Reuters) -China’s Zijin Mining said it will defend its right to advance the contested Manono Lithium mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), after it was granted permission to develop the deposit.

The permit to develop one of world’s largest hard rock deposits of the mineral initially belonged to Australian AVZ Minerals, but was revoked in February by the DRC’s mines ministry that said the company had not developed it fast enough.

China’s top gold and copper miner, Zijin has been snapping up lithium assets in recent years in South America as well as Africa, to produce the metal used in electric vehicle batteries.

Manono Lithium SAS, a joint venture through which Zijin subsidiary Jinxiang Lithium owns a 61% stake and DRC’S state-owned Cominiere the remaining interest, was granted rights over the northeast tenement of the Manono mine, the company told the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

AVZ, which said it owns the Manono project through its unit Dathcom Mining SA, has pending legal challenges against Cominiere and another unit of Zijin.

Zijin is committed to developing the project with Cominiere, the DRC, local stakeholders and the DRC people, Chen Chen, legal counsel for Zijin Mining, told Reuters on Wednesday.

“We cannot speculate as to what legal issues will arise in the future, but will defend the new joint venture so that work on the northern tenement may continue for the benefit of the DRC and its local communities,” she said.

AVZ, which was worth A$2.8 billion ($1.79 billion) when it de-listed from the Australian stock exchange last year, said it owns the project.

“AVZ has been in constructive negotiations with the DRC government to establish a pathway to grant the mining licence and the resolution of arbitrations between AVZ and DRC controlled entities,” it told Reuters on Wednesday.

Chinese companies and battery manufacturers are increasing investments across Africa to expand output for copper, cobalt and lithium, metals that needed for the world’s green transition and growth in battery electric vehicles.

The giant Manono deposit “has strong potential to become the first to-production lithium project for Zijin in Africa and the DRC,” Jian Heyuan, general manager of Manono Lithium told Reuters.

Zijin, which owns a 39.6% stake in Kamoa-Kakula Copper Mine, will take the lead to advance the lithium project, including providing “sufficient funds” and technical support, it said.

A mine could be constructed within two years after studies are completed and “there are conditions for large-scale, open pit mining and also promising development prospects,” Zijin said.

($1 = 1.5667 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Siyi Liu in Beijing and Felix Njini in Nairobi. Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Editing by Michael Perry, Christian Schmollinger and Barbara Lewis)