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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Civic Mobilization Opposes Mineral Exploration

The exploitation of natural resources in Bosnia and Herzegovina causes indignation among citizens and numerous environmental protection associations. Geological research, the opening of new and the reactivation of old mines threaten basic human rights and the environment.

Among the topics that have aroused greater interest in Bosnian-Herzegovinian public opinion in recent months, the search for mineral deposits in the municipality of Lopare, in Republika Srpska, stands out.

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In November last year, Swiss company Arcore announced that it had concluded the exploration operations, which lasted four and a half years, and that it expected to obtain the concession for the exploitation of lithium and other mineral resources in the Lopare area. Company representatives said they conducted the search in accordance with the highest geological and environmental standards, strictly adhering to regulations, and therefore met all the requirements to apply for the concession.

They then specified that the identified deposits contain large quantities of lithium carbonate, magnesium, potassium and boron, considered “resources of the future”, essential for the production of batteries for energy storage systems used for electric vehicles, in medicine, in the pharmaceutical industry and other areas.

The announcement of the opening of a lithium mine sparked strong protests from the inhabitants of Lopare and nearby villages, but also from representatives of the local administration and many environmental experts and activists, who fear a negative impact of mining on the environment and the living conditions of the local population.

Last December 10, a public meeting was held in Lopare, organised by some environmental associations, in which the impacts of lithium extraction on the environment and local communities were discussed. The meeting was attended by hundreds of citizens, activists and academics, including Tihomir Knežiček, professor at the Faculty of Mineralogy and Geology of Tuzla, who focused in particular on the report published by Arcore in November last year, according to which the exploitation of mineral resources in the Lopare area could last fifty years.

“Even assuming that these estimates are reliable, it is not clear how the exploitation of lithium could be organised. There is a big difference between the effects of surface mining and those of underground mining. If water were to be used in the extraction process, there would be a risk of a real disaster with pollution of the soil and groundwater”, underlined Professor Knežiček, who raised another very important question: “Where will the processing of the mineral take place? In Lopare or for example in China?”.

Among those present at the meeting was also the mayor of Lopare Rado Savić. In a post published on Facebook a few days after the event, Savić said he was on the side of the citizens and opposed the opening of a lithium mine on Mount Majevica. On December 12, the municipal council of Lopare also expressed its opposition to the exploitation of lithium and all activities linked to a possible opening of a mine in the territory of the municipality.

In October last year, commenting on the exploration of lithium deposits in the Lopare area, Petar Đokić, Minister of Energy and Mining of Republika Srpska, stated that the ministry headed by him is aware of this project which, like any other research project, according to the minister, can only bring benefits to RS.

“In this exploration phase the presence of lithium in that area was confirmed. We will see how this activity evolves. In any case, extraction and production are still a distant goal. Research projects are a completely different matter from actual exploitation”, Đokić specified. On that occasion the minister also assured that there had been no negative reaction from the local population and other interested parties, explaining that the project is following a dynamic established by the RS government.

The new legislation to the detriment of citizens

The People’s Assembly of Republika Srpska, during a session held on December 22, approved a bill on amendments to the law on geological exploration of the RS. However, opposition deputies have raised several objections regarding the exploitation of lithium on Mount Majevica.

According to the opposition, behind a bill with such a complex name – which aims to create a legislative framework that can encourage investments in mineral exploration – lies the intention to sell public land, without worrying about the health of the population, especially in the area of Majevica and Ozren. For the opposition, the new law proposed by the RS government is problematic in various respects, first of all because it denies citizens the possibility of influencing issues concerning mineral exploitation in the territory in which they live.

Now it is up to the RS Ministry of Energy and Mines to launch a public consultation on the proposed law, which should last sixty days.

Representatives of civil society also consider the new bill on geological exploration to be worrying, also because it plans to cancel the obligation for interested parties to formalise decisions regarding ownership relationships, as well as the obligation to ask for an opinion of the local administration which, according to the proponent of the law, is not capable of understanding such a complex activity.

According to many activists and experts, geological explorations could produce incalculable damage if the government of Republika Srpska were to be the only body authorised to decide on the matter.

Protests across the country

With each passing day, civic mobilisation grows against mineral exploration, the opening of new mines and the intensification of mining activity in existing ones.

After the success of the public meeting in November 2023, which pushed the mayor of Lopare and that of Bijeljina to express their opposition to the opening of a lithium mine, on January 13 the NGO Ozrenski Studenac organised in Boljanić, in the municipality of Doboj, a round table entitled “Consequences of geological exploration and the opening of the nickel mine in Ozren”.

Massive participation was expected, considering that local NGOs have been carrying out a campaign to raise awareness among the population of Mount Ozren against the opening of a nickel mine wanted by the Lykos Metals company. The organisers also invited the inhabitants of neighbouring municipalities, located in the BiH Federation (Maglaj and Gračanica).

In April 2023, the Ministry of Energy and Mines of the RS approved in-depth exploration of zinc, nickel and copper and other related activities in the Ozren area. Some exploratory wells are located in the immediate vicinity of local people’s properties, so it is not surprising that the majority of Petrovo residents are against geological exploration , as demonstrated by the protests organised in November last year.

In addition to the local administration, which supported the citizens, the Serbian Orthodox Church is also against mining exploration in the Ozren area, so much so that a priest from Petrovo declared that the Church is willing to buy the land in order to stop the exploratory activity. After the protests in November, the work was suspended, although those responsible for the geological exploration maintain that this is a temporary measure while waiting for the government to ascertain the reliability and validity of the documents necessary to continue the work.

According to media reports, the Lykos Metal company has obtained authorisation to carry out exploration activities in the municipalities of Petrovo, Mrkonjić grad (including the settlements of Jezero and Šipovo) and Čajniče.

Even in other areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the opening of new mines, as well as the reactivation of old ones, creates problems for the population. Landslides cause damage to homes, the water is cloudy and citizens complain that they were not consulted. In the village of Bašići the wells are located near the roads, the place once occupied by a forest is now covered in mud, so there is a risk that landslides will damage the houses. The inhabitants fear an environmental disaster, they are losing patience and some are even thinking of abandoning the village.

In the area of the former Kamengrad mine, which was closed eighty years ago due to numerous landslides, the Posušje Lager company is extracting coal on an area of one thousand hectares on the basis of a concession obtained in 2015. The Drvo-eksport company from Teslić has obtained the concession for coal mining in Bistrica near Prijedor, while geological explorations are underway in Bukova Kosa, in the village of Plančište, also in the Prijedor area, although this location has not been included in the register of areas in which exploration activity is permitted.

Reacting to the protests of the inhabitants of Bistrica according to which coal mining is proceeding without the necessary authorisations, usurping private property, the RS Ministry of Mines assured that the competent inspectorate will carry out the checks required by law. The inspectorate has announced its intention to verify whether the concessionaire is carrying out the works in compliance with the technical documentation and within the area designated for mining activity.

Also the inhabitants of Veliko Plančište criticised the authorities, continuing to oppose the opening of a coal mine because, as has happened in the past, the extraction activity could lead to the contamination of drinking water. It appears that some optical cables that allow at least two villages to access the Internet and mobile telephony were also damaged.

While the inhabitants complain of being abandoned to their own devices, the inspectorate maintains that the concessionaire is carrying out the work in compliance with the laws. It is curious to note how at the beginning of June 2023 the councilors of the Prijedor city council decided to suspend works in Bukova Kosa, and then changed their mind, approving the start of exploration activities in September.

According to some experts, the increase in interest in the opening of new coal mines is linked exclusively to profit, considering that the price of coal has exceeded 100 Euros per ton, while the amount of taxes that concessionaires have to pay remains insignificant.

In an interview with Radio Slobodna Evropa, Redžib Sokomorac, a jurist from the Banja Luka Environment Center, stated that, although opening a new mine takes a long time, those who obtain the concession tend to start mining immediately and sell the minerals. “Exploitation begins even before the procedure for obtaining environmental permits is started. There are no measures to protect the environment and the rights of the population, so usually no one is sanctioned, or they are symbolic sanctions”, explained Sokomorac.

In Republika Srpska, the policy of state concessions is caught between public interest and profit, and the relevant legislation has serious gaps. According to some experts, for seventeen years now authorisations have been granted according to an illegitimate procedure since the Document on the concession policy of the RS, adopted in 2006, has never been updated.

The law on concessions requires that this document must be updated and approved by parliament every three years. Failure to update represents a violation of the Aarhus Convention , leading to a systematic exclusion of public opinion.

Vareš and Kakanj in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Some activists and experts claim that the mine managed by the Adriatic Metal company, located in the municipality of Vareš, is endangering the virgin forest of Trstionica. The mine pollutes water and air, and a stream bed was destroyed during the construction of an access road. Activists warn that the mine, despite providing work to many people, brings more harm than good, while revenue from the concession remains very low. According to environmentalists, this zinc, lead and silver mine also endangers the rivers that supply drinking water to the municipality of Kakanj.

Dalibor Ballian, professor at the Faculty of Forestry Sciences in Sarajevo, explains that concessions are a problem shared by all levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “The federal government has now abandoned its natural resources, entrusting them to the cantons. Then the cantons instruct their employees to manage the concessions, which are approved using opaque procedures whose true character will only emerge over time. However, if we were to continue on this path, we could not expect a bright future”, says Professor Ballian.

There is an ongoing dispute between the municipalities of Vareš and Kakanj over the mine, located in the territory of Vareš, opened by some British investors. While on the one hand the authorities and environmentalists of Kakanj claim that the mine is endangering sources of drinking water, on the other hand the inhabitants of Vareš maintain that there is no risk of pollution and that the mine can only bring economic benefits.

In 2023, several protests were held in the municipality of Kakanj in which activists and representatives of environmental associations denounced the fact that the mine damages the rivers that supply drinking water to the towns and citizens of Kakanj. The company Adriatic Metals BiH claims that all the procedures necessary to open the mine were carried out in compliance with the law. In the wake of the residents’ protests, further analyses were conducted which, according to the company, did not reveal any critical issues.

In December 2023, news leaked that the BiH Federation government excluded state institutions from the decision-making process regarding the management of some state property, specifically the forests in the municipality of Vareš that the Adriatic Metals company is destroying.

Apparently, the BiH Prosecutor’s Office was excluded from the decision-making process regarding the granting of state property, i.e. the change of intended use of public land. Explaining the decision to exclude the prosecutor’s office, Nerman Nikšić, Prime Minister of the FBiH and one of the signatories of the declaration on state assets, said that High Representative Christian Schmidt supported the federal government’s decision.

The move was considered by many to be contradictory as it contrasts with the position previously taken by Schmidt according to which the management of state properties is the prerogative of state institutions. In recent months the issue of state ownership has returned to the centre of political debate in BiH.

Reacting to the FBiH government’s decision to change the use of some forest areas, five members of the European Parliament sent a letter to High Representative Christian Schmidt on 21 December 2023. The letter – signed by Tineke Strink, Dietmar Koster, Viola fon Kramon, Thijs Reuten and Gwendoline Delbos Corfield – expresses concern over the lack of resolution of the issue of state ownership in BiH.

The MEPs also warned that the FBiH government’s decision and its implementation could have devastating effects on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s forests, rivers, agricultural lands and other natural resources.

 

Source: balcanie caucaso

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