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27 january 2014

Rough&Polished has interviewed Viktor Ustinov, Doctor of Geological and Mineralogical Sciences and Deputy Director of the Research and Exploration Company affiliated to ALROSA, who is also heading the Department for Evaluation of New Areas (based in Saint-Petersburg).

Viktor Ustinov graduated from the Leningrad State University in 1982.

In 1982-1986, he worked as a geologist with Sevmorgeologiya, an Arctic exploration company, which was searching for placer gold and tin stone on the Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago and New Siberian Islands.

In 1986, he was appointed Senior Geologist and later on Lead Research Fellow heading the splinter team of the Diamond Department at the Karpinsky All-Russian Institute of Geological Research.

In 1993, Viktor Ustinov started to work as Chief Geologist with Switzerland-based Tissot Gems and was engaged in exploration for diamond deposits in Guinea (Conakry). After that he worked in Ghana, the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone and still later in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola.

In 2002, he joined the Research and Exploration Company of ALROSA in St. Petersburg.

How did your "African diamond story" begin?

My diamond biography began in 1982 when, being a student at the Leningrad State University, I was working in the Malo-Botuobinski District engaged by the Diamond Department of the All-Russian Institute of Geological Research and later wrote a thesis on the geology of diamond fields.

After my graduation from the university, I worked (in 1982-1986) on the Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands to search for placer gold and tin stone, where I got invaluable professional experience as an exploration geologist.

In mid-1986, I was invited to the Diamond Department of the All-Russian Institute of Geological Research, which preserved the romantic spirit of diamond exploration pioneers who discovered the first diamond deposits in this country: Larisa Popugayeva, Natalya Sarsadskikh and Maria Plotnikova. I happened to work together with such famous diamond exploration geologists as Murat Mikhailov, Oleg Saltykov, Victor Masaitis, Nikolai Razumikhin, Ivan Krasnov and Elena Shemanina. I was completely captured by diamond geology.

I made the first step in my “African biography” when I was invited to the position of Chief Geologist at Tissot Gems in 1993 - to search and explore for diamond deposits in Guinea (Conakry). I worked in Africa from 1993 to 2001, coming to Russia only to relax. After Guinea, I worked in Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic searching for alluvial and primary deposits of diamonds, and still later in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola.

There was a whole geological school of “African studies” in St. Petersburg.

I consider Professors Yuri Selivyorstov (President of the Russian Geographical Society for many years) and Artur Kagarmanov (from the Mining Institute), both well-known Leningrad scientists, to be my “African” teachers. These people worked in Africa for many years and their experience and knowledge really helped me in my work.

You are put in charge of the New Territories Division based in St. Petersburg. How was it established?

Since 2002, there was a department in St. Petersburg, which was assigned to perform subject-focused research to assess diamondiferous prospects for various areas in the European part of Russia. This department gave birth to the New Territories Assessment Division established in 2012, which is now consisting of three departments: one for the European part of Russia, one for overseas studies and one for exploration projects in Africa.

Their main task is to perform geological research in the European part of Russia and in Africa, develop recommendations for the mining divisions of ALROSA regarding the licensing of promising areas, their development priority and methods of diamond exploration.

It is known that Africa is annually producing more than 70 million carats of diamonds, which is almost 56% of global diamond output. It turns out that the African continent and Russia are generating almost 80% of the world’s diamonds. Therefore, the choice of Africa as the second most important line of business for the Company is well founded.

We have developed a strategy to develop the Company’s business in Africa. In the first place, it is important to focus on the most promising areas, which are assumed to be Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Secondly, it is necessary to monitor diamond promising areas on an ongoing basis, promptly handle both the existing and newly incoming data. Third, we should maintain and strengthen contacts with geological survey agencies operating in Africa, as well as with national and other companies.

Implementation of these approaches on a continuous basis will permit to create a forecast pattern as well methods and techniques to identify new diamond deposits.

How are these African projects being implemented at the moment?

The works going on within the Africa-1 Facility in Angola and the works within the Botswana Facility completed in December 2012 may be cited as examples of systematic research in promising areas of Africa.

Within the frames of these works we have outlined areas promising to yield primary diamond deposits in these countries. The Republic of Botswana has already registered a joint venture (Sunland Minerals) between ALROSA and Botswana Diamonds, which are represented in the joint venture by their subsidiaries. In the near future, this JV will start exploration works.

Last June, Presidents of ALROSA and ENDIAMA signed an agreement in Luanda to establish a joint venture in Angola and applications were submitted for license areas, which we identified in the process of thematic works. After obtaining new licenses the mining company will begin the search for primary diamond deposits.

ALROSA and Catoca are engaged in teamwork in several areas, the most important of which are: 1) analysis of geophysical data regarding the basement structure and orientation of tectonic faults in the existing concessions; 2) identification of specific properties in the geological structure of kimberlite bodies and their constituent rocks; 3) studying the composition of diamond indicator minerals in diamond-bearing areas for mineralogical research of kimberlite bodies and assessment of their diamond content in the new concessions held by Catoca; 4) creating geological and geophysical models of kimberlite fields, clusters and individual pipes in the territory of Angola.

In early 2013, we started our work on the Africa’s Diamond Content Project, “Evaluating the resource potential of primary and placer diamond content in the promising areas of Africa in order to provide ALROSA with new overseas diamond exploration and diamond mining projects.”

We plan to find new primary deposits in Africa, particularly in Angola and Botswana. These deposits will be in an embedded state located on new "closed" areas where kimberlite pipes will be overlaid by rock strata consisting mainly of sedimentary formations. The time for large "open" surface deposits has probably passed.

Why did you decide in favor of Angola?

The territory of Angola is 1.2 million square kilometers - this is like the territory of the Yakut diamond province. Right now, there about one thousand kimberlite pipes discovered in Yakutia. At this stage, Angola has already more than one thousand. The area of Catoca only (occupying one thousand square kilometers) contains more than a hundred kimberlite pipes, including the Catoca diamond pipe - 900x600 m (68 hectares), - one of the largest deposits in the world, as well as the Tchiuzo diamond pipe and others. There are over 100 kimberlite pipes scattered over a small area and in essence we have three or four deposits there. They are located close to each other, and the kimberlite content in the crust is just unique. There are no instances of such a dense kind of kimberlite magmatism anywhere in the world. Angola has a very significant potential in terms of primary diamond content.

However, there are also diamond placers, aren’t they?

This is the second part of this picture - placers cover much of north-eastern Angola. These are placer embedded at a depth of 40-60 m (alluvial, but belonging to some ancient river network, not the modern one). Kimberlites were formed around the time of the split which occurred in Gondwana (about 70-150 million years ago), the vast continent that included Africa and Arabia, Latin America, India, Antarctic and Australia. The Atlantic Ocean was taking shape at the same time with the Atlantic plate moving under the continental plate and this movement caused low coherence zones, which made kimberlites escape to the surface within the continental part. Later, at the end of the Mesozoic, kimberlites began to erode producing placers enclosed in the Calonda Formation. Later, as a result of subsidence in the Congo tectonic depression diamond placers went to a depth of 50, or even 100 m and more.

Are African diamonds very different from Yakut diamonds?

We are now studying this problem. It is very interesting and well developed in ALROSA. They have there their own methods for studying diamonds at the company’s Research and Geological Exploration Enterprise. We have a laboratory for mineralogical and petrographic studies. It studies the morphology of diamonds, their shape, character of inclusions, as well as their surfaces and physical properties. We have expensive equipment permitting to study the physical properties of diamonds, especially their crystal structure and inclusions. More than 350,000 crystals have been examined in Yakutia. And on the basis of these data we identified those types of diamonds that are typical for specific areas and certain pipes. It turned out that diamond pipes are characterized by diamonds possessing certain genetic properties.

And similar work is now being done for Angola. We bought the first batch of diamonds from ENDIAMA taking 750 crystals from various areas in the country, and studied them last autumn. We plan to make a report on this subject in the near future – about the first results. And they are very encouraging. Previously, I would like to note that the results of the studies performed on diamonds confirm our previous findings related to the geological data collected. All this confirms that we have chosen right areas in Angola.

Do you interact with experts from De Beers, who have long been working in this area, including Angola?

We meet with experts from De Beers at conferences and we exchange scientific information. Scientific information belongs to all geologists. Historically, De Beers has been operating in Africa since its incorporation, and the company is working successfully. For example, over the past 7 years in Angola De Beers invested more than $220 million in exploration. This resulted in revealing a small diamond field at Mulepe represented by three embedded contiguous kimberlite pipes.

De Beers, as ALROSA, is a company with a long tradition and an excellent school of diamond exploration geology.

Galina Semyonova, Rough&Polished