As both the President and Prime Minister openly mull returning to the cancelled Rio Tinto lithium mining project, environmental campaigners are worried.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic have in recent days raised the possibility of returning to the previously aborted lithium mining project of the multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, drawing criticism from environmental activists who have long claimed the government was just waiting to revive the project.
Savo Manojlovic, from the organisation Kreni-promeni (Move-change), known for staging protests against the project, said on Sunday that they knew they had only won a battle, not the war, when th government seemed to back down.
“It was a battle won, but it never completely stopped. And between campaigns, the President of Serbia and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić lobbied for Rio Tinto,” Manojlovic told N1 TV.
Marijana Petkovic, from “We do not give Jadar” – the name of the valley where the mine is planned – another association that opposes the project, stressed that “story about the return of RT is an old lie … They have never gone,” she told N1 on Sunday.
Faced with growing public opposition to the project, due to fears of environmental damage, the government called off the project in January 2022 – but critics speculated that the halt was only temporary.
PM Brnabic on Sunday stressed that Rio Tinto still owns a “significant amount of land” in Serbia that cannot be taken away.
“You cannot take that land away from those people [the company]. If you do that, you are embarking on nationalization. If you embark on nationalization, then there is no legal security in this country either for investors or legal entities,” she told the pro-government station Pink TV.
“Not a single millimeter of land owned by Rio Tinto is the result of expropriation. It offered money, these people sold it. You cannot take that land away,” she said.
A BIRN investigation published in February 2023 showed that Rio Tinto spent at least 1.2 million euros on buying land in Serbia at the proposed site of a lithium mine even after the project was formally canceled.
Brnabic also stated that Rio Tinto first came to Serbia before 2004, when, she said, the laws on mining were changed, so that when an entity has exploration rights, they automatically get exploitation rights. “Based on that, ‘Rio Tinto’ can sue Serbia today,” she warned.
President Vucic on January 17 in Davos said Serbia wanted further talks with Rio Tinto about the project, adding that there should be more public discussion on whether it should continue.
“The question before us is whether the company will sue us or not,” Vucic told reporters. “I asked them not to take measures to protect their interests,” he emphasized.
The President repeated similar claims on January 21, when he presented a “Serbia 2027” program, which was broadcasted live by more than 40 TV stations in Serbia.
Vucic is a known supporter of the project. Since his ruling Serbian Progressive Party again won parliamentary elections held in December by a landslide, securing another four-year mandate, critics say the government feels safer about reviving the project openly.
Activists fear the project will damage water and land in western Serbia, while some Serbs say they feel steamrollered by the powerful multinational mining giant. They also say the financial benefits for the country will be small and note that Rio Tinto’s various ventures around the world have often been dogged by controversy.
Lithium mining is a chemical-intensive process that involves digging up vast amounts of rock and extracting those with lithium.
Rio Tinto claims the lithium mine, planned in the Jadar Valley region in western Serbia, will be among the biggest in Europe and make the company one of the top 10 lithium producers in the world.
The project has strong backing from the UK, Australia, the US and the EU. The EU imports almost all of the lithium it uses but has ambitions to secure an entire supply chain of battery minerals and materials, as the demand for lithium is predicted to grow 18 times by 2030 and 60 times by 2050, mainly as a result of the transition to electric vehicles powered by batteries using lithium.
Opposition critics claim the Jadar lithium mining project is one of the reasons why the West supports Vucic despite his record of democratic backsliding and ties to Russia.
Source: Balkan Insight