Global nickel production has grown significantly in recent years, and while demand has also grown, the global refined nickel market has spent much of the last several years in surplus, keeping prices low. In 2009-13, mined nickel showed the second highest production growth of the 73 metals and minerals covered in the British Geological Survey's world mineral production report (after magnesite) with an 88% total increase.

Global primary nickel production reached an estimated 1.93Mt in 2014, according to the International Nickel Study Group (INSG), worth nearly US$33bn by average 2014 LME prices.

In Latin America, while output did increase over the period, it failed to keep pace with global production growth and registered a decreasing share of world output. In particular, Latin American production showed a 10% decline in 2013 alone with decreases in all producer countries except Guatemala, which only in 2012 entered the ranks of the nickel producers at a modest level.

BNamericas calculates that Latin America's 2014 output of around 184,000t of nickel is only one-half of what it could be producing considering only existing plants. (See Figure: Latin America's Major Nickel Operations.)

Nickel ore at Vale's Onça Puma mine. Credit: Agência Vale

In Cuba, the nickel industry has battled a long-standing lack of investment; in Colombia, Dominican Republic and Venezuela, political attacks on mines; and in Brazil, corporate caution and cutbacks. In all jurisdictions, three years of relatively low nickel prices have also influenced decision-making to the downside.

However, the region is clearly of interest to the world's biggest players, as four of the five global diversified mining companies - Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Glencore and Vale - have nickel assets here. (Only Rio Tinto, which does not have any nickel production, does not.)

Latin America accounted for just 8% of global nickel production in 2013, but two countries in the region - Brazil and Cuba - are ranked among the top five nations with the biggest nickel reserves, each larger than those of leading producer Indonesia. Brazil alone holds more than 10% of known reserves, an indication of the large potential locked in the region.

Figure: Latin American Nickel Production


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