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Rural alpine region close to striking gold

The "Desertina Nugget" (48.7 grams) is the largest piece of gold ever found in the Surselva region

A Canadian mining company says it will begin exploration drilling for gold in the upper Rhine valley in the spring of 2010.

The rock in the Surselva region of canton Graubünden could have the highest grade gold in the entire Alps – up to 14 grams a ton, says the mining firm, Murray Brook Minerals.

The region has long been popular with amateur prospectors, who pan for gold particles in the sand of the Rhine. Courses are even offered to tourists.

Commercially, exploration began in Surselva in the late 1980s and the project that was developed furthest was one by a Geneva company, Minalp.

Minalp holds a concession of around 256sq km around the town of Disentis. The exploration permit runs to 2012 with provisions for automatic renewals.

However, investors abandoned the project during the financial crisis, leading to the acquisition this summer of Minalp by Murray Brook Minerals.

Plans for next year's exploration drilling were presented earlier this week in Disentis by the president of Murray Brook Minerals, Jean-Jacques Treyvaud.

The company will prepare a detailed outline for a 60sq km zone by spring, which will be followed by drilling to depths of 6,000m in ten different places, according to Treyvaud, a former Geneva banker who now resides in Canada.

The company has budgeted SFr2.5 million ($2.47 million) for this first phase.

Greatest potential

Treyvaud said exploration would focus on three areas with the greatest potential according to previous Minalp geological surveys.

In one of these areas, Zone Bova Gorda south of Disentis, exploration drilling in August hit upon rock with 2.4 grams of gold per ton.

But Treyvaud emphasised that patience was required. It would take at least two to three years, he said, before it would be clear if commercial mining in the region would pay off.

A grade of at least two grams per ton is required for the project to be profitable. And even if Murray Brook Minerals likes what it finds, it will be many more years before commercial exploitation of the precious metal begins.

In order to receive a mining concession, the company must present a feasibility study and financial audit.

Local support

The company is off to a good start however, with the backing of the local authorities. "We're pleased that the project is moving ahead," said Walter Deplazes, mayor of the village of Sumvitg.

The communities nearest the exploration drilling want to ensure that any scars on the landscape are kept to a minimum, and that they also gain financially from any commercial mining.

"The exploration work will not lead to environmental damage. Permits will be issued for each stage of the drilling," said Deplazes.

"Surselva will not be affected by our work and the mine will be barely visible from the surface. All the work will take place underground," assured Treyvaud.

"We don't have any experience with mining," added Dumeni Columberg, mayor of Disentis, explaining that the authorities approved a mining law last year, based on what they learnt from Canadian and South African mining areas.

The law includes 28 articles. It calls for the communities to receive between two and five per cent of net sales of the gold, and that any mining complements tourism in the region. Even the name of the precious mineral has been determined: "Surselva Gold".

"We've been preoccupied with this issue for 20 years now and are pleased that we're finally dealing with a professional investor," Columberg said.

More jobs for the region have been promised, as well as a sharing of the profits and, more importantly, according to the mayor, the region will become better known as a tourist destination.

"This is also worth its weight in gold."

Gerhard Lob in Disentis, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from German by Dale Bechtel)

Key facts

Surselva is a district in the southeastern canton of Graubünden with 43 communes and around 23,000 residents. The capital is Ilanz.

Disentis-Mustér, Sumvitg and Medel-Lucmagn are neighbouring Romansh-speaking communities north of the Lukmanier pass.

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Gold

The price of gold has recently reached record levels due to the financial and economic crisis.

At the beginning of October the one-and-a-half-year-old record of $1,030/oz was broken.

The gold price hovered around $250/oz in the early 1990s.

The steady increase in value has prompted more investments in gold exploration like in the Surselva region.

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