Saturday, August 25, 2012

Future export hopes lie in the past

Two separate stories about two very different commodities that in theory could boost Portugal’s export trade and thus help its beleaguered economy appeared in overseas newspapers this week.
The first story - indicating just how desperate the situation is - was about Portuguese custard tarts. Papers as diverse as the Daily Star in the Lebanon and the Straits Times in Singapore published an AFP report from Lisbon about those tasty little pastries known as pastéis de nata.
The report quoted the Portuguese economy minister, Alvaro Santos Pereira, as saying earlier this year: “Pastel de nata is one of Portugal’s most emblematic products and despite its success, why have we never managed to export it?”
The minister was addressing a meeting of Portuguese businessmen at the time. He urged them to “think international.”  If the Americans were able to exploit hamburgers and doughnuts globally, surely the Portuguese could do the same with pastéis de nata. It seemed like a masterpiece of wishful thinking.
Unbeknown to the minister, a  Lisbon company was already planning to open a franchise chain of pastéis de nata cafes, starting soon in Paris. AFP reported that the franchise is to operate under the slogan, “The world needs nata.”
The trouble is that since the early days of nata production in Portuguese monasteries in the 18th century, various versions of the pastries have been baked in Brazil, Angola, Goa and other Lusophone areas around the world - as well as in places with significant Portuguese immigrant populations such as Australia and France. Pastéis de nata have long been rolled out in quantity in China and  southeast Asian countries, thanks to their introduction via the former Portuguese territory of Macau. Recipes galore exist on the Internet. So Portugal may have missed the boat on that one.
The second rather more serious commodity story this week was about gold. The Gazette in Montreal revealed interesting details of a project by the Canadian company, Colt Resources Inc., which believes it has found a future high-grade gold mine near Lisbon.
People have been digging for gold in Portugal at least since Roman times, but it is the timing of the latest project that is interesting. The CEO of Colt Resources, Nikolas Perreault, said he was drawn to Portugal and its underdeveloped mineral resource sector by a well-known Portuguese geologist in 2006.
“Later, after a three-year negotiating marathon, we bought the 30-kilometre-long Boa Fé-Montemor gold corridor containing several potential producers from the liquidator of a bankrupt Australian exploration firm,” Perreault said.
Colt bought 30 years of historical data when it finally got its hands on Boa Fé-Montemor, 95 kilometres east of Lisbon, in 2010. “That would have cost us more than $20 million and several years’ work to replicate, and it has speeded up exploration,” Perreault said.
The Rio Tinto Group had worked some of the properties from 1991 to 1995, finally walking away because of low gold prices. Others looked them over until the Australians came and then were hit by the 2008 global financial crisis. But no one had drilled below 100 metres.
 Colt is beefing up its drilling programs to improve productivity and test the deeper levels. Mine and plant studies are under way and an updated resource estimate is expected early in 2013 along with feasibility studies - “but we believe we have a world-class project,” Perreault said.
He added: “Portugal’s new government accepts that mining can help it expand revenues and reduce the public debt burden. They are pro-business and will keep corporate tax rates and mining royalties low. Their infrastructure is first-rate … a key cost factor for mining projects. ”
It will be ironic if Portugal turns full circle  and becomes a major exporter of gold having started the gold rush from the Algarve down the West African coast under Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, and imported shiploads of the stuff from Brazil to enrich palaces and cathedrals in the 18th.

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