Europe’s largest lithium mine caught in political whirlpool

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Only houses with red roofs interrupt the vast carpet of fields surrounding the village of Gorne Nedeljice in western Serbia. For resident Mariana Petkovic, this is the most beautiful place in the world. She is not against Europe green transitiona plan to make the bloc’s economy climate neutral by 2050. But she is among those who believe that Serbia’s fertile Jadar Valley, where locals grow raspberries and raise bees, is being asked to make huge sacrifices so that other countries can produce electric cars.

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According to multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, about 300 meters from Petkovic’s house, there is enough lithium to create 1 million Electric vehicle batteries, and the company wants to spend $2.4 billion to build Europe’s largest lithium mine here. But Petkovic and other locals oppose the project, arguing that it will cause irreparable damage to the environment. Asked about the announcement, a spokesman for Rio Tinto told WIRED that throughout the project, the company “recognized that Jadar would need to be developed to the highest environmental standards.” Petkovic is not convinced. “I want to see a green transition in Western countries and live like the people in Jadara,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we have to destroy our nature.”

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Officially the Jadar mine does not occur. After months of protests against the project, the government relented and it was canceled in January. “As for the Jadar project, this is the end,” said Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. said January 20, after Rio Tinto’s lithium exploration licenses were revoked.

However, there is widespread suspicion that the project was canceled to stop the protests that overshadow the presidential and parliamentary elections on April 3, and may resume if the government is re-elected. “Perhaps it was an electoral ploy,” says Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European history and politics at the Austrian University of Graz. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the government brings this up again after the election because they see the economic benefits.” Shareholder of Rio Tinto expressed similar expectation Reuters, adding that they expect mine to be reviewed after the vote. Rio Tinto denies that this is its intention and states that it has not planned or carried out any actions that conflict with the legal status of the project.

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Europe has big plans to phase out fossil fuel vehicles. In July the EU proposed a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035. The block wants to replace these vehicles with electric vehicles built with local production raw materials such as lithium. The leading producers of lithium are Currently Australia, Chile and China. But Europe has ambitions to produce more of the materials needed for electric vehicles at home. These materials are “extremely expensive to ship and are transported around the world several times,” says Emily Berlinghaus, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Sustainability in Germany. “Therefore, it is much cheaper and safer to locate these facilities near battery factories or car factories.”

For Europeans, it is also a security issue. “We cannot allow [the EU] replace [its] current dependence on fossil fuels with dependence on critical raw materials”, said Maros Šefčović, Vice President of the Interagency Relations Commission, in 2020.

The problem is that Europeans don’t trust mining companies in their backyards. The resistance that Rio Tinto has faced in Serbia is not unique. Protests were also held in Portugal against lithium mining in October. Next month, mining company Vulcan Energy “suspendedits lithium operation in the Upper Rhine region of Germany after facing public opposition to its plans. But Serbia’s fierce opposition to the mine poses a major challenge to the European Union’s push to get lithium closer to home. In 2020 Shefcovic said The EU cannot meet its climate targets without raw materials like lithium, adding that the bloc will need 18 times as much lithium by 2030 and 60 times as much by 2050.

Rio Tinto’s charm attack in Mountain Weeks began shortly after a mining group discovered an entirely new type of mineral in the area in 2004. The mineral, named jadarite after the Jadar Valley where it was found, contained both borates and lithium, two materials that Rio Tinto says play a role in the green transition. Lithium is used in electric vehicle batteries, while borates can be used in wind and solar projects.

In the following years, activists say Rio Tinto employees made an effort to immerse themselves in village life. They came to the weddings of the villagers and celebrated religious holidays with them. Advertisements were also broadcast on local television informing the villagers if they were working with Rio Tinto. they can save the planet.

According to Petkovic, a member of the local electoral group Ne Damo Jadar, relations with the locals were good in those years. The villagers weren’t too worried when Rio Tinto said it wanted to build a modest mine on just 20 hectares. “They said it would be a modern mine that would not harm nature,” says Petkovic. But last year, the locals discovered that plans for their village had changed dramatically. Rio Tinto wanted to develop 600 hathe size of nearly 10,000 tennis courts.

“We started fighting the mine when we found out the company had been lying to us for 14 years; when we found out how big the mine really is,” says Petkovic. Environmental issues also began to emerge.

The keeper received research funded by Rio Tinto showing how the mine will cause irreversible changes to ecosystems and local rivers. The study recommended “abandoning the planned exploitation and processing of the jadarite mineral”.

It was at this point that local anger towards Rio Tinto sparked national dissatisfaction with Serbia’s dealings with foreign mining companies. According to Bieber, investors are attracted to this small country because it borders the EU, but does not have the same strict rules.

AT April, thousands of people took part in the protests in the capital Belgrade, which became known as “Serbia’s environmental uprising”. These protests continued turn on and off until the end of the year. The movement is “not about one company,” says Jaclina Zivkovic, an activist with the Right to Water initiative, adding that the government plans to open 40 mines in the next 15 years, including seven lithium mines. “Rio Tinto is a metaphor for all investors and all mines planned in Serbia,” says Zivkovic.

The elections, shortly after a year marked by protests, were supposed to be a breakthrough movement for Serbian environmentalists, says Angellushe Morina, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Just as we expected the environmental movement in Serbia to win a small victory, we have a debate about Russia,” she says, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She believes that the return of the war to Europe has expanded the possibilities of the parties of the ruling coalition and the incumbent President Aleksandar Vučić. The ruling coalition that approved the construction of the mine, led by the Serbian Progressive Party of President Vučić, was in the lead in polls as of Thursday.

Back in the village of Gorne Nedelice, Petkovic felt that Rio Tinto was not worried about the outcome of the elections. She believes the company has invested too much to stop, whatever the outcome. Miner has created his own technology mine jadarite, which is not found anywhere else in the world. Since the government shut down the project, there have been no signs that Rio Tinto is preparing to leave, Petkovic said. The equipment remained, and the miner continued to buy local real estate, she says.

On March 30, another activist organization, Marš sa Drine, published details of a phone call they claim proves Rio Tinto is preparing to reopen the mine after the election. The phone conversation was between a Belgrade University professor involved in the Rio Tinto project and an anonymous source posing as an employee of Rio Sava, a Rio Tinto subsidiary in Serbia. In conversation, they discuss the arrival of equipment from the German company DMT and the Austrian company Thyssen, which the professor says will “probably” arrive in April. Neither DMT, Thiessen, nor the professor responded to WIRED’s request for comment. In a statement, a spokesperson for Rio Tinto called the “alleged” entry “disinformation,” adding that the agreement with the two suppliers was signed before the mine permit was withdrawn.

“They lied to us in January.” – Marsh sa Drine said on Twitter, urging their followers to vote against the project on Sunday. “Why is ANY vehicle, be it a bolt or a bulldozer, discussed in the context of a CANCELLED project?”

Some believe that Rio Tinto faced such strong opposition in Serbia because of the company’s legacy of some cases environmental damage. “Mining companies have historically been perceived so negatively that it doesn’t matter in the public eye whether they switch to minerals that are used to transmit energy,” says Burlinghaus.

Resistance to electric car production in Europe is not a nimbus, says Diego Marin, policy assistant for environmental justice at the non-governmental organization European Environment Bureau. “Communities are saying, ‘We are devastating our neighborhoods and sacrificing them to do what? Wealthy cars that our communities can never afford,” he says. “At the end of the day, we pay the price for making our air cleaner and our land poorer.” It’s not that these activists don’t want clean air. But among green groups in Europe, the idea is starting to spread that the green transition is turning into a rebranding of capitalism that is still geared towards planet-damaging mass production.

“The goal of the green transition is to make the transition to industry sound like it is consistent with solving a problem that industry cannot solve,” says Bojana Novakovic, Marš sa Drine activist and actress.

Officials tried to reassure Europeans that this is a new era of mining. “In the past, mining was a very dirty operation,” said Peter Handley, Head of Raw Materials at the European Commission, speaks at the Green Mining Conference in Lisbon last year. “It’s getting high-tech these days.”

But European environmentalists are divided over whether green mining is possible, even by new companies untainted by their history. “I don’t care if Mother Teresa wants to mine lithium in the Jadar Valley; she will not do it in my supervision,” says Novakovic. “There is no green way to extract lithium from fertile soil. Period. This has never happened before.”

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