In response to protests against pollution, Serbia cancelled all lithium mining licences in January. But there’s pressure from multinational Rio Tinto and the EU to reconsider.
The empty houses with their steeply pitched roofs and animals roaming the empty roads make the village of Gornje Nedeljice, two hours’ drive southwest of Belgrade, look like a scene from a western. Most residents have already sold up to Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian multinational mining giant, which in 2004 discovered a new mineral, jadarite, near the banks of the Jadar river. Its exceptionally high lithium and boron content makes it especially attractive to electric car battery manufacturers.
On 8 June the European Parliament voted to end the sale of new combustion-engine cars by 2035. Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s commissioner for interinstitutional relations and foresight, has set a target for the EU to become the world’s second-largest producer of lithium batteries after China by 2025. The EU currently sources almost all its battery-grade lithium from outside Europe and needs to diversify its supplier base. It’s therefore unsurprising that the EU’s directorate general for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs backs Rio Tinto’s investment in Serbia.
Rio Tinto has been one of the most active multinationals in the Balkans since registering its first subsidiary in Belgrade in 2001. In 2017 it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Serbian government for the implementation of the Jadar project. The working group that drafted it included representatives from Rio Tinto, the Serbian government, Mike Shirat, second secretary at the Australian embassy, and Stephen Ndegwa, then director of the World Bank in Serbia. A document leaked in 2021 revealed that the Serbian government came under intense pressure from Western diplomats to treat environmental impact assessments as a formality and let the deal to go through.
In May 2018 Alan Duncan, then UK minister for Europe and the Americas, met Rio Tinto representatives to discuss the project. According to the minutes of this meeting, published by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a Rio Tinto representative asked Duncan about Serbia’s prospects of joining the EU, which the company considers important to the project. Several Serbian opposition figures claim that Matthew Palmer, the then US special representative to the Western Balkans, pressured them not to attack their government over Rio Tinto’s plans.
During her farewell tour, Angela Merkel told a joint press conference with Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić that Germany was interested in Serbian lithium: ‘If the whole world is interested, we are also interested … We have a large number of investments in the automotive industry, including in Serbia, and we all know how important lithium is for future mobility and battery cells’. A document from Serbia’s mission to the European Union shows that Rio Tinto has established contacts with three major German car companies: Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW.
Why the focus on Serbia?
Serbia could become Europe’s largest source of lithium within 15 years, Rio Tinto’s managing director for battery mining, Marnie Finlayson, said in May 2021 when she signed a memorandum of understanding with Slovakian battery manufacturer InoBat. But why this focus on Serbia when significant lithium deposits have been discovered in EU countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and smaller deposits in Spain, Portugal, Austria, France and Finland? According to the latest report by the US Geological Survey, Serbia’s lithium accounts for only 1.3% of the world total, compared with 23.5% in Bolivia, 21% in Argentina and 3% in Germany. Extracting ore from thermal springs in the Rhine Rift Valley, between Basel and Frankfurt, would produce much less CO2 than mining and processing Serbian lithium, but the Greens in the German government oppose it.
Offshoring polluting industries keeps the harmful effects outside the EU, allowing both profit maximisation for multinationals and risk minimisation for EU states. ‘The lithium mining saga goes far beyond the environmental issue,’ said Serbian economist Nebojša Katić, an independent consultant in London. ‘The environmental effects simply point up the absurdity of Serbia’s post-socialist development model. It’s a further illustration of Serbia’s colonial status.’
More than 4,000 people live near the Jadar River, where the planned jadarite mine would be. This part of Serbia has rich flora and fauna, with 140 species of plants and animals protected under Serbian or European laws, as well as some 50 officially listed cultural and historical heritage sites. Rio Tinto denies there will be negative impacts. However, an unpublished study it commissioned from biologists at the University of Belgrade apparently indicates that ‘more than 45 hectares of primeval forests would be threatened, as well as 37 hectares of natural forests, 3 hectares of meadows and 703 hectares of agricultural land,’ according to Professor Vladimir Stevanović of the Serbian Academy of Sciences.
‘We’re guinea pigs,’ said Marijana Trbović Petković, who teaches at a local secondary school and belongs to the local movement Ne Damo Jadar (We’re not giving away Jadar). ‘We don’t believe the state inspectors, because most of them haven’t even visited the site. Agricultural land has already been ruined by previous drilling, and that was only preliminary. You can see toxic waste in the river. We’re in a closed ecosystem here — poisoning the land and water will harm the entire food chain.’
Extracting lithium from ore and separating it from boron cause more toxic environmental impacts than producing it from brine, the method used in the salt lakes of the Andes and the Rhine Rift Valley. Mining requires a lot of water and use of greenhouse gas-producing energy and is a potential cause of serious pollution. During excavation and pumping, the chemical balance of surrounding rock and deep deposits may be disturbed by sudden oxidisation, which can lead to a process called acid mine drainage. This poses a major threat as it can release tonnes of harmful metal compounds (of copper, lead, nickel, zinc and arsenic) into the water system.
Given the value and potential of the agricultural land, livestock and crops grown there, the anticipated harms far outweigh the benefits of lithium and boron mining, according to several experts. Unofficial projections suggest that Rio Tinto would make profits of about €4bn during the first ten years of operation, while mining licences would bring in just €300m for the Serbian state. However, opponents of the project insist that the revenue from agricultural production in the region could reach €80m a year with minimal state investment, which is currently non-existent. Even setting aside the project’s potentially devastating environmental consequences, the economic benefits to the population are questionable.
Serbia, like most Central and Eastern European states since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has lost control over its own development and become dependent on Western investment. In these circumstances, all external investment is regarded as welcome, irrespective of its long-term impact. It was ultimately suspicion of corruption that mobilised Serbs against Rio Tinto. People were outraged less by the source of the funds than their destination, when investigative journalists revealed that Rio Tinto had taken on a subcontractor owned by the uncle of Serbia’s mining minister.
‘You could be cynical and say that projects that may be harmful for the country can actually be very beneficial for local decision-makers and their families,’ said Nebojša Katić. ‘This concerns not only politicians, but also all the experts involved in the decision-making process, who should be protecting the public interest, but are only protecting their own.’
What’s needed is ‘enormous pressure’
When farmers refused to sell their land to Rio Tinto, the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) stepped in and tried to force the sales through by declaring the Jadar project of national interest and proposing a law to speed up the expropriation process within a time limit of five days. This decision led to an environmental and social mobilisation unprecedented in post-socialist Serbia; the blockade of roads and bridges was the first shot across the government’s bows in ten years. This forced President Vučić to publicly promise to withdraw the law on expropriations, table a new bill on impact studies, and end collaboration with Rio Tinto. ‘The protests showed how this power works: the only thing that will get a reaction is enormous pressure targeting capital flows using roadblocks and backed by a wider public than those who’re concerned about environmental issues,’ said Iva Marković, a leading environmentalist.
Public debate on social priorities
This movement also proved Serbia could break out of the vicious circle of postwar divisions between nationalists and liberals, which has taken attention away from the impoverishment of the working class, the destruction of industry and natural resources, and the brain drain of highly educated professionals to the West. Unlike the Kosovo question, the environmental issue is a liberating one, which focuses public debate on social priorities. When the issues of clean water, fertile land and the equitable distribution of national resources come up, class divisions reappear.
In the April 2022 general election, the mobilisations led to a decline in support for the SNS, which nevertheless retained a relative parliamentary majority, but also to the creation of a union of the left and the Greens in the Moramo (We Must) coalition. For the first time since 1990, it will have representatives in the national parliament and the local assembly in Belgrade, where it received 11% of the vote.
However, the Jadar project is far from buried, according to representatives of companies linked to Rio Tinto. ‘The two parties will meet and try to reach a mutually beneficial agreement,’ according to a source from a company that is collaborating with the Ministry of Mines. Statements from Rio Tinto back this up. ‘We very much hope that we will be able to discuss all of the options with the government of Serbia now the elections are out of the way,’ its chairman Simon Thompson told the company’s annual meeting in Australia. ‘We’ve certainly not given up on Jadar, because, quite frankly it’s a perfect project,’ chief executive Jakob Stausholm said. ‘They’re just hiding, I don’t think they’ll leave,’ said Trbović Petković, who lives in the area. Local organisations, which don’t believe the promises politicians make on television, remain on their guard.
‘The war in Ukraine has shifted attention,’ said Moramo’s Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta. ‘But now citizens will have representatives in parliament, because we come straight from the streets. We’re getting people from Gornje Nedeljice to testify in the National Assembly. Our aim is to make boron and lithium mining illegal throughout Serbia.’ If the government tries to revive the Jadar project under ‘friendly pressure’ from the EU, they can expect pushback.
Source: Le Monde