Assessments of mineral reserves are imprecise, because by 1991 most of the country had not been geologically surveyed in a detailed manner. According to 1991 estimates, deposits of gemstones, gold, gypsum, iron, lead, potash, silver, tin, and zinc have relatively high commercial development potential, but mining activity is on an extremely small scale. In addition, Laos has small deposits of aluminum, antimony, chromium, coal, and manganese, as well as potential for oil and natural gas. In 1989 exploration agreements for oil and gas were signed with British, French, and United States companies.
Mining operations are carried out by state mining enterprises, and supervised by the Department of Geology and Mines and small- scale miners. Production of tin--the principal mineral export-- decreased 50 percent between 1975 and 1988, to about 240 tons. Gypsum production increased 167 percent between 1980 and 1988, to about 80,000 tons. Salt production increased 233 percent between 1981 and 1988, to eleven tons. Coal production increased more than 600 percent between 1982 and 1988, to about 800 tons. In addition to commercial enterprises, some individual households pan for alluvial gold on the Mekong as well as on small streams during the dry season to supplement household incomes.
Further development of the mineral sector is contingent upon the willingness of private companies to invest. However, the lack of adequate data, a trained labor force, dependable and adequate infrastructure, and legislation (a mining code was being drafted as of 1991) inhibit private companies from major investments, although private investment was growing as of 1993.
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