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Where do I meet the geologists of Africa?

by Colin Reeves on January 29, 2013 community

The Geological Society of Africa celebrated
its 40th anniversary in January during the
24th Colloquium of African Geology. Shown above: a business meeting of the Society’s membership with the election of a new council.

Africa is more than 20 per cent of the world’s land area, is home to 15 per cent of human population but still earns its label as the Dark Continent through generating only 2 per cent of the world’s electricity. Where can you find the geologists exploring this sleeping giant with its inevitable future in the resources sector?

One answer is at the Colloquium of African Geology, the 24th running of which occurred recently in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia (9-14 January 2013). The Colloquium has its roots in the 1950s and 60s, heyday of the now-defunct Research Institute of African Geology at the University of Leeds in England where your correspondent studied in the mid-1970s. The Geological Society of Africa, founded in 1973, subsequently took the Colloquium under its wing and, every second year, holds its flagship meeting under the same name. The society also has technical oversight of the Journal of African Earth Sciences, published by Elsevier. The Colloquium has alternated between locations in Europe and Africa for many years.

The Addis Colloquium saw the Society returning to its roots to celebrate its 40th anniversary and to formally open a modest permanent office in the University of Addis Abeba. The meeting itself was held at the Millenium Conference Centre near the airport and attracted more than 400 delegates. Remarkably for those who have attended other meetings on African geology and missed African faces, about half the delegates hailed from Africa itself, while the rest included leading authorities on African geology from Europe, Australia and America, North and South. Amongst notable participants were the President of the Geological Society of America, the Director of the British Geological Survey and the Chairman of the Local Organising Committee for the next International Geological Congress which comes to Africa (Cape Town) in 2016. There were also revered European figures from the colonial past of African geology.

The meeting extended over six days, Wednesday to Monday, with a mid-term break for local excursions on the Friday. Each day had one or two plenary speakers while the bulk of the proceedings was split between five parallel sessions. Field trips into the Rift Valley and elsewhere were on offer before and after the main meeting.  A number of workshops were also organized around the Colloquium and there was a modest number of booths and posters. A business meeting of the Society’s membership with the election of a new council (see photo above) preceded a visit to the University to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Society with drinks and snacks on the closing day.

Technical sessions had one stream devoted to mineral exploration and another to petroleum exploration while other rooms addressed issues as wide-ranging as the fundamental mapping of Africa’s Precambrian shield, the evolution of the East African Rift System, groundwater resources and environmental health issues.

High on the agenda were contributions from a plethora of initiatives, all designed to coax African geology into the digital era: WAXI, AEGIS, GIRAF, ANESI, AEON,..(all of which may be Googled). A fundamental problem is that Africa, unlike Canada, Australia, Brazil and the US (whose combined land area only slightly exceeds that of Africa!), still lacks any kind of effective federal structure, even at the level of geological survey. And most of Africa’s 50-plus national geological surveys are under-performing against any credible benchmark and stand isolated within their national boundaries. Breakthroughs in understanding African geology are therefore still just as likely to come from academics outside Africa as from within Africa itself, such regional scale studies being mostly beyond the remit of those professionals engaged in commercial exploration on the continent.

No offer to host the 25th Colloquium was forthcoming from Europe, but Brazil stepped up to the plate with an offer to run the meeting simultaneously with the Geological Society of Brazil’s meeting at Salvador on the Atlantic coast in September 2014.  Here, surely, is an opportunity to learn something new on the common origin of two of the southern hemisphere’s largest petroleum provinces. So, don’t miss this next opportunity to meet the geologists of Africa!