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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The world's biggest copper producer Chile needs to adopt new technologies and improve labour and community relations in order to maintain its global standing, industry leaders said on Tuesday.
Chile's copper industry is grappling with falling productivity because much of the country's best-quality ore has already been mined, although it still accounts for 30 percent of the world's supply of the metal.
This week Chile hosts the CRU World Copper Conference in Santiago, where the nation's declining ore grades and a dispute at its biggest mine, Escondida, are offsetting relief that copper prices CMCU3 have recovered from the lows of around $4,300 a tonne a year ago. They remain below $6,000.
"If we don't take a proactive approach, the copper industry in Chile will reduce its global position in the next 25 years in line with the diminishing quality of our assets," Danny Malchuk, president of operations at BHP Billiton's Minerals Americas (BLT.L) (BHP.AX), told the conference.
Such strategies are vital to Chile, where depending on the copper price, the metal can account for up to 15 percent of gross domestic product.
Chile's central bank on Monday said the Escondida strike would knock an entire percentage point off GDP growth in the first quarter, underscoring the importance of copper to the country.
Meanwhile, Chile's attractiveness to foreign investors is waning, according to some observers.
The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute's global ranking of regions' attractiveness for mining investment, published in February, saw Chile fall from fourth place in 2013 to position 39 in 2016, below its fast-rising neighbour Peru.
Malchuk said the Chilean mining sector's "massive challenges" include relations with unions, which have been emboldened by a new pro-labour law that hit the statute books this week.
BHP is still smarting from a bruising battle with its union at Escondida, the world's biggest copper mine in which it has a majority stake. A 43-day strike, which ended in late March, cost it dearly.
"It's perturbing to me to see that most of the renegotiation of labour agreements is done through strikes, and it doesn't have to be that way," said Arnaud Soirat, chief executive of Rio's Copper & Diamonds unit.
Rio on Tuesday said it had reached a labour contract agreement with four unions that have been in collective bargaining since late February at the Kennecott copper mine in Utah.
Soirat also cited Kennecott as an example of the use of real-time data analysis that can transform productivity and cut costs by removing waste from the mining process, helping to compensate for poor-quality ore.
BHP's Malchuk said Chile's mining companies should collaborate on technology and adopt more public-private partnerships to work on issues such as training and often thorny relations with local communities.
One option to support output could be to offer tax incentives or modify regulations to encourage miners to free up exploration contracts they do not use, Chile Deputy Mining Minister Erich Schnake told the conference.
Too often, he said, big mining companies hold onto and renew mining rights while they wait for market conditions to improve, blocking access to smaller companies from making findings.
Reporting by Barbara Lewis and Mitra Taj, Additional reporting and writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by W Simon and Meredith Mazzilli