Protesters against a planned mine by Rio Tinto in western Serbia accused the local authorities of altering the urban plan to make way for an investment that they fear will damage their environment.
Hundreds of locals from western Serbia, but also activists and opposition politicians from other parts of the country, gathered on Thursday in Loznica, western Serbia, to protest against amendments to the local urban plan to meet the needs of a lithium mining investment by the Anglo-Australian multinational corporation Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto Group is developing the Jadar project near Loznica within which it intends to open an underground mine to exploit jadarite, from which lithium, a mineral used to produce batteries, will be extracted.
Lithium is crucial for the transition to renewables, but mining it is environmentally costly, experts warn.
Marijana Petkovic, from the initiative “We will not give Jadar”, told the protesters that adoption of this plan needs to be stopped as it would be “the beginning of all later permits on the basis of which they will request permits” for much else.
“It’s a poisonous plant. They came in 2004, they never answered us as people on three key things: what to do with the noise; with the water; what is the minimum amount of pollution. None of what they promise can be fulfilled. One well has been leaking for five years, and every year a fee is paid for water pouring into the fields and damaging the crops, because it is possible that it cannot be repaired,” Petkovic said at the protest.
She criticized President Aleksandar Vucic’s proposal of the referendum on Rio Tinto investment, claiming that the corporation has so much money that it can pay off everyone, adding that they are already paying local farmers in the area for damage to land they already caused.
Two Serbian NGOs, the Coalition against Environmental Corruption and the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team, PAKT, have filed charges against Rio Sava Exploration, Rio Tinto’s Serbian subsidiary firm, for environmental pollution.
Charges were filed for alleged violations to environmental regulations since 2015, polluting water and land in the wider area of the Jadar Valley in western Serbia.
The company installed about 125 observation facilities to monitor the groundwater level, most of which leaked in the meantime, so that groundwater with dangerous substances spilled onto the plots of locals, causing significant damage, the NGOs claim.
In the meantime, the company concluded agreements on compensation for damages with several of the injured parties, “and in that way acknowledged the damage caused to the environment”, the NGOs’ official statement about the charges said.
In 2017, Rio Tinto signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Serbia’s government on the Jadar lithium extracting project.
Several officials announced the deal as crucial for Serbia, including President Vucic, who said the project would benefit the economy, and criticised the environmentalist NGOs, accusing them of being paid from abroad for their actions. Vucic announced a potential referendum on the matter if criticism continued.
BIRN recently revealed the details of talks between the Serbian ambassador to the EU, Ana Hrustanovic, and Lawrence Dechambenoit, Rio Tinto’s chief foreign officer, in Brussels on June 8, in which the company was “considering the possibility of faster realization of the current project” and possible expansion of the project, following talks with Vucic on June 1.
Several opposition leaders in Serbia have claimed they were instructed not to criticize the government regarding the Rio Tinto project by the US Special Envoy, Matthew Palmer, during his meeting with opposition politicians in June this year.
Rio Tinto’s investments all over the world are known for their impact on local communities and on the environment. They were accused of being responsible for multiple human rights violations in Papua New Guinea, according to a report from the Human Rights Law Centre.
The company has been also criticized for its investments in Madagascar, Mongolia, Mozambique, India, Indonesia, China and the US, and has been accused of environmental and working violations, but also of bribery.
Most recently, in May 2020, Rio Tinto demolished an Australian Aboriginal sacred site in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, which had evidence of 46,000 years of continuous human occupation and was considered the only inland prehistoric site in Australia. The company later apologised and several CEOs of the company have since resigned.
Source: Balkan Insight