By Steve Fiscor/Editor-in-Chief

During September, the Brazilian Mining Institute (IBRAM) organized the 16th Brazilian Mining Congress in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The event, which takes place every two years, was held in conjunction with the International Mining Exposition (Exposibram). It is the country’s largest gathering of mining and mineral processing professionals.

Prior to the event, I spent some quality time with Vale, one of the world’s largest iron ore miners, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro. Several midlevel managers discussed their ongoing or recently completed investment projects at existing mining and milling operations to make the company more competitive. To see what was happening firsthand, we visited the Vargem Grande mine, which is located near Belo Horizonte (BH). In the afternoon, Vale’s Mineral Development Center opened its doors revealing some of the research the company is currently conducting. It is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Brazil is an enormous country. BH is located in the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines). One of 26 states, Minas Gerais historically is known for colonial-era towns dating back to Brazil’s 18th century gold rush. The state ranks as the second most populous, the third by gross domestic product (GDP), and the fourth largest by area in the country. A huge urban setting, BH is a major financial center in Latin America. Vale was originally founded as Companhia Vale do Rio Doce in Minas Gerais in the 1940s and today it is one of the world’s largest mining companies with operations in far flung regions from Australia to Canada to Mozambique.

One of the IBRAM highlights was a panel discussion, titled “Mining Today in Brazil and in the World: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities.” The session was moderated by a Brazilian television journalist, William Waack. The panel included Fernando Pimentel, governor, Minas Gerais; Robson Braga de Andrade, president, National Industry Confederation (CNI); and Murilo Ferreira, CEO, Vale.

They talked about the current state of Brazil’s mining industry and politics, and the challenges for the mineral sector for the next 20 years. Waack is a charismatic guy with a sense of humor that allowed him to engage in playful banter with his panel without angering them too much. Governor Pimentel is an elected official who tries to portray himself as an outsider when it comes to São Paulo machine politics. CNI represents 27 federations of industries and 1,250 employers unions. A polished mining executive, Ferreira conducts business with Chinese steelmakers, while competing with multinational miners abroad.

Vale is looking at new ways to optimize operations. That translates into economies of scale with modern equipment and automation. The company also is faced with idling or closing inefficient operations. That means a loss of jobs for laborers, but job growth for technicians. Pimentel wants desperately to diversify the Minas Gerais GDP away from the boom and bust cycles of iron ore, but mining represents a large tax revenue stream. Braga de Andrade would like to see more of the iron ore converted to steel in Brazil. The conversation, some of which was lost through translation, was engaging, and ranged from humorous to somewhat contentious at times.

Does this sound familiar? These conversations are taking place all around the world as the mining business wades through this period of soft prices for commodities. Vale, however, has an advantage. The company has a great attitude and they have made an investment for the future. What I saw was a group of young professionals with a lot of cultural pride taking charge with inspired leadership.

Steve Fiscor, E&MJ Editor-in-Chief,