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18/05/2024
Mining News

Anticipating lithium extraction in northern Portugal: A Sacrifice Zone in the making?

Despite growing calls for a circular economy, extractive industries are gaining renewed relevance in Europe.

The European Commission plans to expand domestic sourcing of lithium in light of green transition and geopolitical supply chain risks to scale up the production and use of electric vehicles. Affected communities have reacted with social resistance and mobilization to protect their livelihoods and nature. The growing conflicts emerging around global battery supply chains highlight the importance of examining justice-related concerns around current decarbonization strategies.

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A new journal article by SEI Tallinn’s Ingrid Varov and Leonie Saleth from Københavns Universitet – University of Copenhagen examines the negotiations around a proposed lithium mine in the Barroso region in northern Portugal – the largest proposed lithium mine in Western Europe.

Despite increasing calls for the development of a circular economy, extractive industries are gaining renewed relevance in Europe. The European Commission’s plan to expand domestic sourcing of lithium to scale up the production and use of electric vehicles has been met with social resistance from affected communities who mobilize to protect their livelihoods and nature. This article examines the negotiations around a proposed lithium mine in the Barroso region in northern Portugal.

In a time where effective solutions to tackle the impacts of climate change are urgently needed, lithium extraction is understood by many as a pivotal opportunity to produce vehicle batteries and enable the phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles. In this line, European policymakers have promoted a new era of “green mining”, where both the use of end products and technologies for extraction are deemed sustainable. Given the European Commission’s pledge to enable a just transition that commits to leaving no one behind on the way toward a green economy, the expectations and fears of Europeans directly affected by new extractive projects are of significant importance.

The study has two main findings:

While local supporters hope to benefit from the project economically, opponents expect it to undermine agricultural traditions, counteract plans for expanding tourism services, and, as known from mining areas in the past, drive displacement and rural injustices.

As opponents feel restricted in their ability to participate in decision-making around the project, they act upon the future through defensive resistance, connecting across multiple scales and drawing on place-based symbols to mark differences from dominant ideas on extractive development. The study suggests that local activists’ experiences of being disregarded in their concerns and demands indicate that plans to expand resource extraction in the name of the green economy are giving rise to new sacrifice zones.

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