Jadar could have made Serbia billions of dollars richer
Jadar could have made Serbia billions of dollars richer if not for voiding Rio Tinto’s lithium exploration licences in January. Serbians might have made the right decision after finding out the real plans of the project.
Europe’s largest lithium mine
The Jadar lithium project is Europe’s largest lithium mine, with a supposed $2.4 billion fund from Rio Tinto. The said lithium mine could produce 1 million electric vehicle (EV) batteries. However, locals of Jadar Valley opposed the project, not willing to sacrifice their land. They don’t want to replace their sweet and juicy raspberries and abundant bees with batteries for electric vehicles. Besides, the damages that mining will create are irreparable.
Rio Tinto found a new type of mineral called jadarite, containing borates and lithium. Jadarite was discovered in Jadar, hence the name of the mineral, in 2004. According to the giant mining company, these materials play a key role in the green transition. Lithium is important in manufacturing EV batteries. Borates, on the other hand, are useful in making wind and solar projects.
The supposed Serbia Jadar Lithium Project is one of the planet’s biggest greenfield lithium projects. Jadar’s high-grade nature and extensive deposit provide the possibility of a mine that can supply lithium for EVs for several decades. The abundance of boron and lithium deposits can make Serbia a key world producer.
If the project pursues, the initial mine’s commercial production is anticipated no earlier than 2027. The yearly production would be 58,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate and 160,000 tonnes of boric acid (B2O3
units). The production of sodium sulphate1, on the other hand, will be 255,000 tonnes.
Lies emerged about the Jadar Lithium Project
Gornje Nedeljice locals had peace of mind when the government decided to revoke Rio Tinto’s licence for mine jadarite. In fact, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced it herself.
However, not everyone is convinced, especially Marijana Petković, a local campaign group Ne Damo Jadar member. She said, “I want the western countries to have the green transition and to live like people in Jadar. But that doesn’t mean that we need to destroy our nature. We started to fight against the mine when they found out the company was lying to us for 14 years; when we found out how big the mine really is.”
There’s a prevailing scepticism about the cancellation of the Jadar lithium project. The government only nullified the project to end protests that could mess up the presidential and parliamentary elections (April 3). It could resume if there were reelection of the government.
“Once re-elected, we expect the SNS will maintain its pro-mining stance. The fact that the government has so far refused to consider a potential lithium mining ban in Serbia points in this direction. This gave environmental protests an anti-government element and proved to be a unifying force for the historically fragmented political opposition in Serbia,” said Capucine May, Verisk Maplecroft expert.
However, Rio Tinto repudiated that this wasn’t their intention. They said it was not their plan or didn’t fulfil any activities or actions to the project’s legal stature.
They say that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. But the truth will always find a way to reveal itself. Locals found out that Jadar Lithium Project won’t just take 20 hectares of land but 600 hectares! It’s almost the size of 10,000 tennis courts, European Views writes.
Locals don’t trust mining companies
Only red-roofed houses interrupt the vast carpet of fields that surround the village of Gornje Nedeljice, in western Serbia. To resident Marijana Petković, this is the most beautiful place in the world. She’s not against Europe’s green transition, the plan to make the bloc’s economy climate neutral by 2050. But she is among those who believe Serbia’s fertile Jadar Valley—where locals grow raspberries and keep bees—is being asked to make huge sacrifices to enable other countries to build electric cars.
Around 300 meters away from Petković’s house, according to the multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, there is enough lithium to create 1 million EV batteries, and the company wants to spend $2.4 billion to build Europe’s biggest lithium mine here. But Petković and other locals oppose the project, arguing it will cause irreparable damage to the environment. When asked about that claim, a spokesperson for Rio Tinto told Wired that throughout the project, the company has “recognized that Jadar will need to be developed to the highest environmental standards.” Petković is not convinced. “I want the western countries to have the green transition and to live like people in Jadar,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that we need to destroy our nature.”
Officially, the Jadar mine is not happening. After months of protests against the project, the government conceded, and in January it was canceled. “As far as Project Jadar is concerned, this is an end,” Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić said on January 20, after Rio Tinto’s lithium exploration licenses were revoked.
There is widespread suspicion, however, that the project was canceled to stop protests overshadowing the presidential and parliamentary elections on April 3, and could restart if the government is reelected. “This might have been a pre-election ploy,” says Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European history and politics at Austria’s University of Graz. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the government picks up this issue again once the elections are done, because they see the economic benefits.” A Rio Tinto shareholder expressed a similar expectation to Reuters, adding they expect the mine to be renegotiated after the vote. Rio Tinto denies this is its intention and says it has not planned or implemented any activities contrary to the project’s legal status.
Europe has big plans to phase out fossil-fuel cars. In July, the European Union proposed a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035. The bloc wants to replace those cars with electric vehicles, built with locally produced raw materials like lithium. The top lithium producers are currently Australia, Chile, and China. But Europe has ambitions to produce more of the materials it needs for electric cars at home. These materials “are extremely expensive to ship and are transported across the world several times over,” says Emily Burlinghaus, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany. “So it’s much cheaper and much safer to have these operations close to battery manufacturing plants or auto manufacturing plants.”
In the years that followed, activists say, Rio Tinto employees made an effort to immerse themselves in village life. They turned up to villagers’ weddings and celebrated religious holidays with them. Adverts were also beamed onto local TVs telling villagers if they work with Rio Tinto, together they could save the planet.
Relations with locals were good in these years, according to Petković, who is a member of the local campaign group Ne Damo Jadar. The villagers weren’t too worried when Rio Tinto said it wanted to build a modest mine on just 20 hectares. “They said it is going to be a modern mine that will not damage nature,” Petković says. But last year, locals discovered that plans for their village had drastically changed. Rio Tinto wanted to build on 600 hectares, nearly the size of 10,000 tennis courts.
“We started to fight against the mine when they found out the company was lying to us for 14 years; when we found out how big the mine really is,” says Petković. Environmental concerns also started to emerge.
The Guardian obtained a study, funded by Rio Tinto, which outlined how the mine would cause irreversible changes to ecosystems and local rivers. The study recommended “the abandonment of planned exploitation and processing of the mineral jadarite.”
It was at this point that local anger toward Rio Tinto ignited national frustration toward Serbia’s relationship with foreign mining companies. Investors are drawn to the small country because it borders the EU but does not have the same strict regulations, says Bieber.
In April, thousands of people took part in protests in the capital Belgrade that became known as Serbia’s “environmental uprising.” Those protests continued on and off through the rest of the year. The movement “is not about one company,” says Žaklina Živković, an activist with the Right to Water initiative, adding that the government plans to open 40 mines in the next 15 years, including seven lithium mines. “Rio Tinto is a metaphor for all of the different investors and all the mines that are being planned in Serbia,” Živković says.
Arriving soon after a year marked by protests, this weekend’s election was supposed to be the breakthrough movement for Serbia’s environmentalists, says Engjellushe Morina, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Just as we were expecting that there will be a bit of a win for environmentally friendly movements in Serbia, we have the Russia debate,” she says, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
She believes the return of war to Europe has empowered the ruling coalition parties and the incumbent president, Aleksandar Vučić. The ruling coalition which approved the mine, led by president Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party, was comfortably leading in polls as of Thursday.
Back in the village of Gornje Nedeljice, Petković has the sense that Rio Tinto is not worried about the election’s outcome. She believes the company has invested too much to stop, whatever the result. The miner has created its own technology to extract the jadarite, which is found nowhere else in the world. Since the government canceled the project, Petković says, there have been no signs Rio Tinto is preparing to leave. The machinery stayed, and the miner kept buying up local real estate, she claims.
On March 30 another activist organization, Marš sa Drine, published the details of a phone call that they claim proves Rio Tinto is preparing to restart work on the mine after the election. The phone call was between a University of Belgrade professor involved in the Rio Tinto project and an anonymous source impersonating an employee of Rio Sava, Rio Tinto’s Serbian subsidiary. In the conversation, the two discuss the arrival of equipment from the German company DMT and an Austrian company called Thyssen, which the professor said is “likely” to arrive in April. Neither DMT, Thyssen, nor the professor replied to WIRED’s request for comment. In a statement, a Rio Tinto spokesperson described the “alleged” recording as “misinformation,” adding that the agreement with the two suppliers was signed before its permission for the mine was withdrawn.
“They lied to us in January,” Marš sa Drine said on Twitter, urging their followers to vote against the project on Sunday. “Why is any equipment, no matter whether it’s a bolt or a bulldozer, being discussed within the context of a project that has been canceled?”
Some believe that Rio Tinto has faced so much opposition in Serbia because of the company’s legacy, associated with multiple cases of environmental damage. “Mining companies have been viewed so negatively historically that it doesn’t matter in the eyes of the public if they are transitioning to minerals that are being used for the energy transition,” says Burlinghaus.
Resistance to EV mining across Europe is not Nimbyism, says Diego Marin, associate policy officer for environmental justice at the NGO the European Environmental Bureau. “Communities are saying, ‘We’re having our areas devastated and sacrificed to make what? Cars for rich people that our communities can never afford,’” he says. “In the end, we pay the price that our air gets cleaner but our land gets poorer.” It’s not that these activists don’t want clean air. But an idea is beginning to spread among green groups in Europe: that the green transition is turning into a capitalism rebrand that is still focused on planet-harming mass production.
“The purpose of the green transition is to make an industrial transition sound like it fits in with a solution to a problem that cannot be solved through industry,” says Bojana Novakovic, an activist with Marš sa Drine and also an actress.
Officials have tried to reassure Europeans that this is a new era of mining. “Mining in the past was a very dirty operation,” said Peter Handley, head of the European Commission’s raw materials unit, speaking at a conference on “green” mining in Lisbon last year. “It is becoming highly technological these days.”
But Europe’s environmentalists are divided on whether “green” mining is possible, even by new companies that are untarnished by their history. “I don’t care whether Mother Teresa wants to extract lithium from the Jadar Valley; she wouldn’t be doing it on my watch,” says Novakovic. “There is no green way to extract lithium from fertile soil. Period. It has never been done before”, Wired writes.
Rio Tinto faced a rude shock
On the face of it, there seems to be little in the way of connection between the treatment of Novak Djokovic by Australian authorities and the cooling of the Serbian government towards Rio Tinto. The Anglo-Australian mining giant was confident that it would, at least eventually, win out in gaining the permissions to commence work on its US$2.4 billion lithium-borates mine in the Jadar Valley.
In 2021, Rio Tinto stated that the project would “scale up [the company’s] exposure to battery materials, and demonstrate the company’s commitment to investing capital in a disciplined manner to further strengthen its portfolio for the global energy transition.”
The road had been a bit bumpy, including a growing environmental movement determined to scuttle the project. But the ruling coalition, led by the Serbian Progressive Party, had resisted going wobbly on the issue.
Then came the maligning of the world number one tennis player in Australia. Djokovic had been tormented by a brief spell of confinement in quarters normally reserved for refugees kept in indefinite detention, and eventually defeated in the Full Court of the Federal Court. During the course of events, he saw his visa cancelled twice, first by a member of the Australian Border Force, the next time by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke. Along the way, lynch mobs were thrilled that “Novaxx” Djokovic, that great threat to Australia’s vaccinated innocence, was finally on a flight home.
The Serbian government attempted to intervene. President Aleksander Vučić made a plea to the Morrison government to resist cancelling Djokovic’s visa; the Australian Open was the Serbian tennis player’s favourite tournament, one he had won numerous times.
A diplomatic incident, more murmur than bark, was sparked. “In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic,” promised the Serbian premier. But for an Australian government that has flouted international law and fetishized border control, the call mattered little.
In Serbia, Rio Tinto then faced a rude shock. The Vučić government, having praised the potential of the Jadar project for some years, abruptly abandoned it. “All decisions (connected to the lithium project) and all licenses have been annulled,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated flatly on January 20. “As far as project Jadar is concerned, this is an end.”
Branabić insisted, somewhat disingenuously, that this decision merely acknowledged the will of voters. “We are listening to our people and it is our job to protect their interests even when we think differently.”
This is a bit rich coming from a government hostile to industry accountability and investment transparency. The same government also decided to begin infrastructure works on the jadarite mine before the granting of an exploitation permit. Such behaviour has left advocates such as Savo Manojlović of the NGO Kreni-Promeni wondering why Rio Tinto was singled out over, for instance, Eurolithium, which was permitted to dig in the environs of Valjevo in western Serbia.
Zorana Mihajlović, Serbia’s mining and energy minister, preferred to blame the environmental movement, though the alibi seemed a bit forced. “The government showed it wanted the dialogue … (and) attempts to use ecology for political purposes demonstrate they (green groups) care nothing about the lives of the people, nor the industrial development.”
Rio Tinto had been facing an impressive grass roots militia, mobilised to remind Serbians about the devastating implications of proposed lithium mining operations. The Ne damo Jadar (We won’t let anyone take Jadar) group has unerringly focused attention on the secret agreements reached between the mining company and Belgrade. Zlatko Kokanović, vice president of the group, is convinced that the mine would “not only threaten one of Serbia’s oldest and most important archaeological sites, it will also endanger several protected bird species, pond terrapins, and fire salamander, which would otherwise be protected by EU directives.”
Taking issue with the the unflattering environmental record of the Anglo-Australian company, numerous protests were organised and petitions launched, including one that has received 292,571 signatures. Last month, activists organised gatherings and marches across the country, including road blockades.
Djokovic has not been immune to the growing green movement, if only to lend a few words of support. In a December Instagram story post featuring a picture of anti-mining protests, he declared that, “Clean air, water and food are the keys to health. Without it, every word about health is redundant.”
Rio Tinto’s response to the critics was that of the seductive guest keen to impress: we have gifts for the governors, the rulers and the parliamentarians. Give us permission to dig, and we will make you the envy of Europe, green and environmentally sound ambassadors of the electric battery and car revolution.
The European Battery Alliance, a group of electric vehicle supply chain companies, is adamant that the Jadar project “constituted an important share of potential European domestic supply.” The mine would have “contributed to support the growth of a nascent industrial battery-related ecosystem in Serbia, contributing to a substantial amount to Serbia’s annual GDP.” Assiduously selective, the group preferred to ignore the thorny environmental implications of the venture.
The options facing the mining giant vary, none of which would appeal to the board. In a statement, the company claimed that it was “reviewing the legal basis of this decision and the implications for our activities and our people in Serbia.” It might bullyingly seek to sue Belgrade, a move that is unlikely to do improve an already worn reputation. “For a major mining company to sue a state is very unusual,” suggests Peter Leon of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. “A claim under the bilateral treaty is always a last resort, but not a first resort.”
Another option for punters within the company will be a political gamble: hoping that April’s parliamentary elections will usher in a bevy of pro-mining representatives. By then, public antagonism against matters Australian will have dimmed. The Serbian ecological movement, however, is unlikely to ease their campaign. The age of mining impunity in the face of popular protest has come to an end.
Rio Tinto is on rocky ground in Serbia at the moment
Australian mining giant Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) is on rocky ground in Serbia at the moment as continued environmental protests put pressure on the government to suspend its planned $3.34 billion lithium mine.
The development is part of Serbia’s efforts to introduce investment and boost economic growth, but activists have staged protests and blocked roads including in the capital of Belgrade. The protestors not only want to ban lithium extraction by Rio, but any other company.
On Saturday, international reports quoted Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic as saying the government was close to accepting all requests from environmentalists and may soon decide to annul all contracts related to the US$2.4 billion (A$3.34 billion) project.
“We have worked in a transparent way, we have listened to the people,” Ms Brnabic said.
Land allocation scrapped last month
Rio is proposing to develop the lithium and borate mine near Loznica in the western Jadar Valley, but the local municipality scrapped a plan to allocate land for it a few weeks ago.
At the time, international reports quoted the chief executive officer of Rio’s Serbian arm Rio Sava Exploration, Vesna Prodanovic, as saying a pause will enable the company to engage in a public dialogue about the project in a bid to “reconsider and possibly improve” technical solutions for the mine.
Despite Rio stating any development would meet all domestic and European Union environmental standards, green groups continue to say the project will cause irreparable damage to the area.
The protests are also problematic for President Aleksandar Vucic ahead of April elections. Mr Vucic has repeatedly declared that opening the mine would depend on the outcome of an environmental study and a referendum.
Rio Tinto to acquire Argentinian lithium project
The green pushback in Serbia isn’t stopping the major miner from pursuing other international lithium opportunities, with the company announcing its intention to buy the Rincon lithium project in Argentina for $825 million.
Last month, Rio entered into a binding agreement to acquire the project from Rincon Mining, a company owned by funds managed by the private equity group Sentient Equity Partners.
Rincon is a large, undeveloped lithium brine project located in the ‘lithium triangle’ in Argentina’s Salta province. The project is regarded as a long-life, scalable resource capable of producing battery-grade lithium carbonate and Rio claims it has the potential to have “one of the lowest carbon footprints in the industry”.
“This acquisition is strongly aligned with our strategy to prioritise growth capital in commodities that support decarbonisation and to continue to deliver attractive returns to shareholders,” Rio chief executive officer Jakob Stausholm said.
Once acquired, Rio plans to firm up a JORC compliant resource for the project and undertake work to determine strategy and timing and secure updates to existing environmental impact assessment permits to allow development and production.
The project is currently held through an Argentine branch of an Australian company and as such, completion of the transaction is conditional upon approval by Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB). The acquisition is expected to be completed in the first half of 2022.
How much has Rio Tinto invested in Serbia so far and why is it “pumping” costs
The management of “Rio Tinto” points out that the “Jadar” project is transparent, but the exact amount of funds, intended for lithium and pine mining and mine start-up, has not been published, although according to the submitted study it can be concluded that the budget was prepared in advance.
Miroslav Mijatović, from the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT), notes for “Nova” that the main question is why “Rio Tinto” hides the costs of previous investments and that there is a real fear that the costs will be artificially increased to add value to the project.
In the period from 2004 to 2020, “Rio Tinto” invested 209.1 million US dollars in the costs of field geological works, according to the documents of this company, obtained by the daily “Nova”.
– What is worrying is the data from the Elaborate, from which it can only be concluded that the final investment figure of “Rio Tinta” is slightly more than 200 million dollars. However, we have heard that over 450 million euros have been invested this year alone, although no work has been done on the ground throughout the year – warns Mijatović.
– In the study, almost all data on investments are obscured. There is a real fear that “Rio Tinto” will “wake up” investments, because the ore rent for lithium and boron is charged in the amount of five percent of net income – our interlocutor explains and adds that it is realistic to imagine a situation in which “Rio Tinto” will not show actual profits until the investment pays off.
According to earlier announcements from this company about the amount of lithium and boron production, Serbia would receive about seven million euros a year, along with 23 million, which would follow from the profit tax.
Commenting on the mentioned data, Mijatović states that, in the best scenario, Serbia will remain without ore rent for at least five years.
In a statement given last Monday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic pointed out that the “Jadar” project would not be withdrawn.
“That project is standing still and will not move anywhere. They brought him, and we did everything that the people asked for, and that’s it, “he said, without explaining why, although it is a request of the citizens, the state is not giving up on this project.
Lack of information and insufficient transparency, ie vagueness of the top of the state and the management of the company “Rio Tinto”, contributed to the debate in which the question dominates whether the government does not give up the “Jadar” project, due to possible penalties that Serbia would pay.
On the other hand, Mijatović points out that he is convinced that the citizens of Serbia will not return the money to “Rio Tinta”, and that it is unbelievable that compensation for damage is being mentioned now.
– Now some bilateral agreements are mentioned, and “Rio Tinto” persistently hides costs from the public. I would rather say that someone individually promised help to this company and took money for it. If you take a good look, you will see that the laws in the last 15 years have been compared because of them – concludes Mijatović.
A study on the resources and reserves of boron and lithium in the Jadar deposit near Loznica, prepared by Rio Tinto and adopted by the Ministry of Mining and Energy on January 6 this year, states that this multinational company has invested more than $ 200 million to cover the costs of field geological works, which include exploratory drilling for all programs, laboratory analysis, testing, as well as the costs of the project team and study work.
Although this document shows how much has been invested so far in geological research and that there is a predetermined figure for exploitation, “Rio Tinto” has not yet disclosed data on how much money is intended for exploitation.
Where is the cost of mining circuit infrastructure
“Capital costs of exploitation consist of the costs of mining works, the costs of mining infrastructure and facilities on the surface. The latter include facilities, installations and works on the surface of the terrain that are not covered by the costs of exploitation, ie preparation of mineral raw materials. “These are costs for the construction of mining facilities, such as offices, bathrooms, workshops, internal roads and other infrastructure on the surface of the terrain that is not included in other cost items,” the Rio Tinto document states.
Thousands of protesters blocked roads across Serbia due to the arrival of Rio Tinto
Crowds chanted slogans condemning government of Aleksandar Vučić, which backs planned Anglo-Australian $2.4bn mine
Thousands of demonstrators blocked major roads across Serbia on Saturday as anger swelled over a government-backed plan to allow mining company Rio Tinto to extract lithium.
In the capital, Belgrade, protesters swarmed a major highway and bridge linking the city to outlying suburbs as the crowd chanted anti-government slogans while some held signs criticising the mining project.
Smaller protests were held in other Serbian cities, with small scuffles between demonstrators and counter-protesters in Belgrade and the northern city of Novi Sad, according to local media reports.
“They allowed foreign companies to do whatever they want on our land. They put us on a platter for everyone who can just come and take whatever they want,” said Vladislava Cvoric, a 56-year-old economist, during the protest.
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic shared a photograph of the protest on Instagram and commented that “clean air, water and food are keys to health”.
“Without that, every word about ‘health’ is obsolete,” Djokovic said.
The protests followed similar demonstrations last week, during which masked men attacked one gathering in western Serbia’s Sabac – sparking outrage on social media and accusations the government was using hooligans to suppress the movement.
Substantial deposits of lithium – a key component for electric car batteries – have been found around the western town of Loznica, where the Anglo-Australian company is buying up land but is still awaiting the final green light from the state to begin mining.
Rio Tinto discovered lithium reserves in the Loznica region in 2006.
The company intends to invest $2.4bn (€2.12bn) in the project, according to Vesna Prodanovic, director of Rio Sava, Rio Tinto’s sister company in Serbia.
Critics have accused president Aleksandar Vučić’s government of setting the stage for illegal land appropriations and ignoring environmental concerns.
The demonstrations come months ahead of likely national elections in 2022, with critics of the protests accusing organisers of stirring controversy to undermine Vučić before the polls.
Thousands of protesters in Belgrade and other Serbian towns blocked main roads and bridges Saturday to decry a planned lithium mine
Communities are taking on metals and mining giant Rio Tinto to stop the construction of a lithium mine
In the Jadar river valley of western Serbia, communities are taking on metals and mining giant Rio Tinto to stop the construction of a lithium mine that threatens land and livelihoods across the region. Rio Tinto is a British-Australian corporation with joint headquarters in London, UK, and Melbourne, Australia. This article introduces the Jadar Project, the purposes and impacts of lithium mining, and Rio Tinto’s long legacy of destruction around the world.
What is the Jadar project?
In the early 2000s, Rio Tinto discovered a mineral in Serbia’s Jadar valley which came to be known as “Jadarite“. It is a lithium sodium borosilicate mineral, referred to as lithium and borate in this article. So far, this is the only place on earth where this particular mineral has been found. Rio Tinto tout it as one of the most significant lithium deposits in the world and have been exploring its potential for the last 15 years. The proposed mine in Serbia is expected to supply an estimated 10% of the growing global lithium demand.
The Jadar project is said to threaten more than 15,000 agricultural households in the town of Loznica and the Krupanj municipality, and the health and well-being of the communities of Loznica, Šabac and Valjevo. Households that sit directly on the proposed site of the mine face expropriation if they do not sell their land.
The project is currently at the feasibility stage (obtaining permits, buying land, completing technical documentation), yet Rio Tinto has already committed $2.4 billion to the development. Construction is then projected to take four years. Rio Tinto predicts the mine has 40 years of exploitation.
Yet locals aren’t letting it pass without a fight, taking their protests to Rio Tinto. Marija Alimpić, from the Protect Jadar and Rađevina association, says:
“Resistance among the locals is growing, their anger is growing. We’re prepared to stop the construction of the mine, and we’re convinced that there will be no mine. It remains to be seen how long it will take for them to realise this.”
Lithium mining and the electric vehicle boom
Borates, which Rio Tinto plan to extract from the Jadarite, are used in detergents, cosmetics, fibreglass, mobile phones, solar panels and synthetic fertilisers (see Corporate Watch’s report on synthetic fertilisers and climate change here).
Lithium is commonly used in batteries (pretty much anything mobile: phones, laptops, electric cars, e-scooters, bluetooth earbuds, etc.), lubricants, glasses and ceramics, military and medical technologies, pharmaceuticals, nuclear reactors and spacecraft.
Demand for one lithium-reliant product however dwarfs that of all others: the electric car. With many people looking to reduce their impact on the environment, or not wanting to shell out for petrol, the electric vehicle (EV) industry is experiencing a boom, especially in Europe. Growth in EV subsidies and regulations on conventional vehicles have also boosted the market. Sales of electric vehicles increased by 43% in 2020, despite a drop in car sales overall. In Europe, the largest consumer has been Germany and the main beneficiaries have been Renault, Tesla and VW.
Rio Tinto describes the Jadar deposit as being located “at the doorstep of the European automobile industry”; by 2030, the European Commission wants to place at least 30 million electric cars on Europe’s roads. In line with the European Union’s green transport agenda promoting electric vehicles, the Jadar region of Serbia, like others in Europe and the Americas, has effectively been marked a ‘sacrifice zone’ for the ‘green’ energy industry.
How “Green“ are lithium batteries
The impacts of lithium mining is a major study in and of itself. Here we list just the tip of the iceberg of the industry’s impacts across the planet.
Lithium extraction requires huge amounts of water, approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of the mineral. More than half of the world’s lithium resources lie beneath the salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, one of the driest regions on Earth. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, lithium and other mining activities consumed 65 percent of the region’s water, causing groundwater depletion, soil contamination and other forms of environmental degradation, forcing local communities to abandon ancestral settlements.
Communities resisting the mine in Serbia fear for the mine’s tailings. These are the toxic residues of chemicals, rock and water left over from the mining processes. How tailings are dealt with accounts for many of the major pollution impacts of mining (learn more in London Mining Network’s explainer). The only tailings site publicly announced so far is in Radjevina, which would involve the destruction of 170 hectares of forest. The land is home to many protected species and nearby villages depend on its underground waters.
In 2014, one hundred thousand cubic metres of tailings from an antimony mine were released into the Kostajnik River (a Jadar tributary) after a record rainfall triggered floods and landslides. The Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) found elevated levels of arsenic, lead, copper and zinc in local waterways. The government also reported that 360 hectares of soil were affected by heavy metal contamination. The Jadar valley is a floodplain, and after many decades of experience with pollution from mining in their communities, locals fear the new project would spell disaster.
Chemical leakages from tailings sites can be fatal. In May 2016, masses of dead fish were found in the waters of Tibet’s Liqi River, contaminated by a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine run by Chinese company BYD. Cow and yak carcasses were also found floating downstream after having drunk contaminated water. The Free Tibet campaign produced a report on BYD and the effects of lithium extraction in Tibet.
A number of toxic heavy metals are also needed as components of lithium batteries for electric cars and other consumer goods. One of these metals is cobalt. An investigation into child labour in Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt industry revealed that tens of thousands of children were employed in the mines – two years after the publication of a damning Amnesty Internetional report about human rights abuses in the cobalt trade. There are many health risks associated with cobalt mining, including serious lung disease.
In Serbia, locals can already see the damage caused by Rio Tinto’s exploratory activities. The Protect Jadar and Rađevina association says the area is riddled with saline aquifiers, some of which will need to be drained to access the mineral. They claim that the many exploratory drill holes made by Rio Tinto have disturbed the underground waters. Grass and vegetation is no longer growing around the holes, and locals fear contamination of their drinking water. A well in the village of Gornje Nedeljice is reportedly no longer safe to drink from.
Rio Tinto’s Jadar mine also threatens the important cultural heritage of the area. According to Marija Alimpić, more than 50 prehistoric archeological sites lie in the Jadar Valley, including a 3500 year-old necropolis which reportedly stands in the path of a second tailings waste area.
Rio Tinto’s legacy of destruction
Serbia’s government is claiming that the mine will bring an ‘economic revival to the entire country’. But campaigners ask if Rio Tinto can be trusted, given that the company has a very long legacy of social and environmental harm across the world. London Mining Network has produced a detailed overview of the company’s impacts around the world including:
- The Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine in Mongolia that threatens Indigenous communities and continues to raise serious concerns about water usage in the arid desert region.
- An ilmenite mine in Madagascar that contaminated the lakes and rivers where local people fish and collect drinking water, with levels of uranium and lead approximately 50 times and 40 times higher, respectively, than World Health Organisation guidelines for safe drinking water.
- Rio Tinto recently destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Australia in order to expand an iron ore mine.
- In Bougainville and West Papua, the company was accused of sidestepping responsibility for the destructive impacts and persisting dangers caused by the Panguna and Grasberg mines, as detailed in the London Mining Network’s 2020 report, ‘Cut and Run’.
- Along with fellow mining giant BHP, Rio Tinto has been seeking to develop a massive copper mine near Superior, Arizona for the past 26 years. The proposed mine would destroy religious and sacred indigenous land known as Oak Flat and potentially destroy up to 6,000 hectares of public land.
The First Nation Innu communities of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac John in Canada are in the throes of a $900 million lawsuit over Rio Tinto’s mining impacts. They said:
“While Rio Tinto is anxious to uphold its image as a model corporate citizen…the Uashaunnuat and MLJ can attest that, in their own experience, these are nothing but empty words. [The company] has undertaken all of its projects without the consent of the Uashaunnuat and MLJ, in violation of our rights”.
Despite its corporate spin, Rio Tinto’s mining activities leave a trail of pollution, exploitation and repression behind them.
Blood on their hands – who is financing the mine?
The UK’s Rio Tinto plc holds a 100% interest in the Jadar Project. Rio Tinto is one of the biggest mining companies in the world. It is a ‘public’ company, meaning its shares can be bought and sold on the London Stock Exchange. As a result it has a huge number of shareholders, none of whom owns close to a majority of the company’s shares. The biggest single investor, holding 14% of Rio Tinto shares, is Chinalco, a huge aluminium producing company owned by the Chinese state. Market databases show the next biggest shareholders are the giant investment funds Blackrock, Vanguard and Capital, with 11%, 8% and 7% respectively.
Rio Tinto is run by Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm, previously the Chief Financial Officer. He leads the Executive Committee of the company, comprising the managers that head up different Rio Tinto businesses. Click here to find out who they are.
Stausholm also sits on the board of directors, which is chaired by Simon Thompson. The board is not involved in the day-to-day running of the company but features various corporate bigwigs intended to reassure shareholders the company is in ‘good’ hands. Click here to find out who else sits on the board and the other corporate appointments they enjoy.
A global shift towards hybrid and electric cars is dependent on lithium batteries and has resulted in a ‘lithium rush’, with several companies, supported by governments, scrambling to exploit lithium deposits around the world. This is ‘green capitalism‘ at its finest. Thriving on the crises of climate change and pressures to phase out fossil fuels, whole new markets are created where corporations can continue to wreck the earth to create ‘ethical’ consumer goods whose exploitative and polluting impacts are hidden thanks to the global nature of the economy.
At a protest as part of indigenous resistance to lithium mining in Argentina, one hand-painted sign said “We don’t eat batteries. They take the water, life is gone.”
Is an alternative to Rio Tinto being prepared in Serbia?
Part of the public in our country still resents the plan of the multinational corporation to open a lithium mine in the Jadar Valley
Since it has long been known that Aleksandar Vučić is trying to achieve the most convincing victory in the race for a new presidential mandate, ie that he does not want to lose a single vote because of Rio Tinto, it is possible that a more suitable world company will be found. In that context, it is speculated that some German and Chinese corporations are “in the game”.
Although President Aleksandar Vučić said at the beginning of the year that he was “dying of laughter” due to the undisguised resistance of the public in Serbia to the plans of the Anglo-Australian corporation Rio Tinto to open a lithium mine and a metal processing complex in the Jadar Valley, several top scenarios are being considered , having in mind the unenviable reputation of the mentioned company. According to unofficial information from Demostat, it should not be ruled out that official Belgrade may abandon the project due to citizens’ concerns that the environment and human health will be polluted, or that another partner will be involved instead of Rio Tinto, “which is not so compromised internally but and internationally ”.
It is often claimed that the whole process of presenting the idea of starting with the exploitation of “jadarite” ore (a combination of lithium and boron, which Rio Tinto discovered in 2004 while exploring the area of Western Serbia), was “clumsy, unprofessional and non-transparent”, so currently represents one of the most unpopular topics in Serbia. As it is explained: “The inconsistent messages sent so far on this topic by the President of the Republic, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and representatives of Rio Tinto itself, as well as the politicization of this issue by almost all actors on the domestic scene, have led to widespread aversion to the project. and it is believed that Rio Tint will be widely discussed during the upcoming election campaign. ” Since it has long been known that Aleksandar Vučić is trying to achieve the most convincing victory in the race for a new presidential mandate, ie that he does not want to lose a single vote because of Rio Tinto, it is possible that a more suitable world company will be found. In that context, it is speculated that some German and Chinese corporations are “in the game”.
It is believed that the company Rio Tinto was wrong to place the video on all televisions with national frequencies in our country. Marketing experts estimate that it is “the cheapest propaganda, which additionally strengthens the negative attitudes towards this project, and also increases the number of opponents of Rio Tinto.”
As for Chinese companies, it is speculated that many of them are interested in the exploitation of jadarite because the production of lithium batteries, which are used, among other things, for electric cars, is massive in that country. To illustrate, it is estimated that about 80 percent of lithium is imported to the Chinese market. “If the Serbian authorities enter into negotiations to find an alternative to Rio Tinto, German and Chinese companies could offer to close the entire production cycle. This means that both of them have the opportunity to invest in addition to the mine in the factory of lithium batteries and plants for the production of electric cars that use such batteries “, notes the source of Demostat.
Chinese companies already own numerous lithium mines in Australia and South America, which is why the West considers Beijing the most competitive in the race for lithium. Among other things, the European Union does not hide that it is seriously counting on the largest possible production of electric vehicles in order to achieve the ambitious goals of preserving the environment. Last year, the EU included lithium on the list of key raw materials for the “green agenda”, and it is estimated that Europe will need as much as 18 times more lithium by 2030 compared to the current situation, and 60 times more by 2050. Moreover, prestigious car companies such as Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar are increasingly launching models with electric motors on the market, but batteries are still a limiting factor, as existing lithium quantities cannot meet production needs.
When it comes to potential partners from Germany for the lithium exploitation project in Serbia, it is considered that the capabilities of the German-Australian company Vulcan Energy Resources (VUL.AX) should not be underestimated. According to German media reports, VUL.AX claims that they can provide carbon-neutral lithium (which would mean reducing carbon emissions as much as possible). The stated goal, it is claimed, can be achieved if geothermal energy is used during exploitation. Research in this segment is largely conducted by the German company EnBW (EBKG.DE).
Serbia fears disaster over Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto announced in July that it would invest $ 2.4 billion in a project in the Jadra Valley in western Serbia, above the Cer and Gucevo mountains, in the construction of what they say is the largest lithium mine in Europe and one of the largest lithium mines in the world. The British “Guardian” also dealt with this project, stating in its text that the inhabitants of the Jadra Valley are afraid of an ecological catastrophe, and that at the same time a commercial showing Rio Tinto as an ecological savior and a bastion of transparency was shown on television.
Over its 150-year history, Rio Tinto has made $ 10.4 billion in profits in 2020, facing allegations of corruption, environmental degradation and human rights violations.
Simon Trot, CEO of Rio Tinto for iron ore, admitted earlier this year that the company was “not proud of its history” at its Marando mine in Western Australia, where hundreds of ancient artifacts were dumped in landfills. This summer, the company agreed to fund an “environmental and human rights impact assessment” of its former copper and gold mine in Panguna, Papua New Guinea, where a billion tons of mine waste is claimed, which continues to produce catastrophic damage.
That is a very problematic past. One critic said Rio Tinto could be seen as a “poster for corporate embezzlement.” But for Rio Tinto’s management, the future is also a cause for concern despite the current big profits. The price of iron ore is under pressure from mass Chinese production, and there are criticisms for managing a copper mine in Mongolia.
The company now estimates that during the expected life of the mine in Serbia, about 40 years, it will produce 2.3 million tons of lithium carbonate for batteries, a mineral critical for large batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage, and 160,000 tons of boric acid per year. for renewable energy equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines.
Rio Tinto can “boast” that the mine will make it one of the ten largest lithium producers in the world and could produce enough for more than a million electric cars a year. It expects annual car sales to jump from 1.2 million vehicles in 2017 to at least 23 million in 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.
The EU, with which Serbia has an association agreement that facilitates trade and regional financing, imports all its lithium for batteries outside Europe. Negotiations on the supply of leading German car manufacturers have begun. The Rio Tinta project is gaining momentum, but upset and angry activists, including thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of Serbian cities in Loznica and Belgrade in recent months, say they are responsible for about a fifth of the country’s catastrophe. agricultural production.
Lithium was accidentally discovered 17 years ago
It has been 17 years since Rio Tinto geologists accidentally discovered lithium in one of two wells in a corn field in the Jadra Valley. The team looked for borates, which are used in fertilizers and building materials, but found something unexpected: borates and lithium in one mineral, a combination that will be named jadarite, named after the valley, writes the Guardian.
Mariana Petković (47), a teacher, who lives with her husband and two daughters in Gornji Nedeljice, one of the nine villages that will be most affected by the mine. He remembers the day they arrived from Rio Tinto.
“They took samples and were there all the time. We met them, invited them for coffee, lunch, for holidays and events – they were Serbs. “Then they talked about a small mine, 20 hectares, and that we would never even know that it was here,” she said.
In the following years, Rio Tinto began making donations for local purposes.
“After a year or two, the mine will be 80 hectares at once. Then, in September last year, we received letters in which we were told that our land had been changed from agricultural to construction. I remember that a friend invited me to her house where a group of women was asked by a lady from Rio Tinto what we wanted from the mine, what opportunities we would be interested in… We were idiots, we didn’t pay attention, “she said.
According to the spatial plan announced by the Government of Serbia in March, the zone of danger of subsidence will cover 850 hectares, the size of more than 1,000 football fields.
The mine will be located on an area of just over 200 hectares on the banks of the Korenita River, a tributary of the Jadra, and several hundred hectares will be separated from landfills and new traffic infrastructure. In 2014, the Korenite flood led to the overflow of the dam into a closed coal mine, spilling toxic material over agricultural land. Rio Tinto says it plans to turn liquid waste from the mine into dry “cakes” to make it safer to store.
The mine will involve the relocation of 81 households, voluntarily or someone else, and the purchase of fields from 293 landowners. The company has already bought 80 percent of the land and property for “unheard of sums”, which in some cases amount to hundreds of thousands of euros, based on payments of 470 euros per square meter.
In the village of Mrs. Petrović, 30 houses were bought. Knowing that their property is destined to be destroyed, the owners remove the windows and doors, and even the roofs, leaving empty scenes for those who have resisted Rio Tinto’s money or have yet to be offered something.
Near the proposed works is the Paulje necropolis from the period 1,500-1,000 BC, the largest cemetery in the central Balkans from the Bronze Age. Rio Tinto paid for the local museum’s archeological excavations, and hundreds of artifacts have been discovered so far.
“They will never redeem me”
Zlatko Kokanovic, 45, a veterinarian who cultivates about 32 hectares of land with his brother, said he rejected Rio Tinto’s attempts to lease the land.
“They will never buy me back – they can only steal it from me,” said the father of five children.
Lithium production in this area can lead to great damage to the environment, creating 57 million tons of waste during the life of the mine, writes the Guardian. The average demand for water is estimated at 6-18 liters per second, which is about 1.3 liters of water for every kilogram of product.
“These mines are mostly opened in deserts precisely because of the harmful impact on the environment. The waterfalls of the rivers Drina and Sava are endangered, from which about 2.5 million people are supplied with water “, says Prof. Dragna Djordjevic, head of the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Engineering at the University of Belgrade.
Rio Tinto, however, denies it. The company commissioned 12 environmental studies, and none were made available to the Guardian. The company declined interview requests.
Although the Jadar project does not yet have the necessary building permits, Rio Tinto is confident that the Serbian Ministry of Environment will give the green light when it submits its environmental impact assessment, later this year.
“Almost all species at this location can be found in Western Serbia or beyond. In other words, there are no species that cannot continue their life outside this territory, which means that the impact on biodiversity will be minimal, “a Rio Tinta spokesman said about the main locality.
Vucic “dies of laughter”
In January, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, said on television that he was “dying of laughter” because of the protest.
“We do not have the sea and natural resources that will bring us millions. We have jadarit and I die laughing when I hear people protesting about it. They are protesting down there, in Western Serbia, because of Rio Tinto, and they say that it will be a catastrophe. No, they won’t. “There will be no catastrophe there,” he said.
Ćuta: Vučić thinks he is God while Gornje Nedeljice looks like Vukovar
Vucic hinted that he could put the issue to a referendum, but Miroslav Mijatovic of the NGO Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team worries that the government is revising the rules on such votes.
“Both the previous government and this current government are clientelistic towards the company and adapt the laws to their needs,” he said.
Rio Tinto says it will create 2,000 jobs during mine construction and 1,000 long-term positions giving a one percent direct and four percent indirect contribution to GDP. But it is difficult for people who are fighting against the plan to see beyond the immediate destruction of the long-standing community and way of life, reports the Guardian.
Dragan Karajčić (51), the president of the parish council, who has corn and soybean fields near the place where the landfill will be, said that Rio Tinto’s record was that he “left deserts behind”.
“Even if they were planning a chocolate factory on behalf of Rio Tinto, I would not give up my country,” he said.
Ratko Ristic, a forestry professor, lobbied at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts against the Jadar mine, claiming that “the possible benefit for Serbia is between seven and 30 million euros a year, the possible income from advanced agricultural activities in the same area would be more than 80 million euros.” annually without pollution or relocation. ”
The petition against the mine has more than 130,000 signatures, which is about two percent of the population of Serbia. The company already had to pay small amounts of compensation due to leaks in the fields where it conducted research.
The “Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team” filed a criminal complaint with the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Loznica against Rio Tinto, founded in Serbia as Rio Sava Exploration, claiming that it acted contrary to its research permits by illegally dumping waste, and that trucks crossed weak bridges.
Rio Tinto claims that it has not been contacted regarding these allegations, and the competent authorities have confirmed that the activities of Rio Sava Exploration are in accordance with the applicable legislation.