Serbia, New energy and mining minister pushes Rio Tinto lithium project forward

Residents of this region and members of the Association Ne damo Jadar have been pointing out since the beginning of the year that “the end of the Jadar project” was only a pre-election promise and that Rio Tinto does not intend to leave and abandon the construction of mines in western Serbia. If there were those who believed the words of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, that the construction of the mine was abandoned, the recent statements of the new Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Đedović, made it clear that the story about lithium in Serbia may have its continuation.

The minister’s words that “all countries that have some natural resource, but do not use it, are at a loss” and that “Serbia is lucky to have reserves of a very important mineral”, confirmed that Rio Tinto will most likely stay.

Zlatko Kokanović, vice president of the Citizens’ Association “Ne damo Jadar”, believes that the new minister was appointed to this position to “push the project forward”, but that she will not be able to do that.

“This is an indicator that the Government of Serbia is actually the government of Rio Tinto and that Serbia is ruled by foreign powers, American, English, Canadian and Australian, and all the lobbyists who are pushing the project are not doing it for nothing”, says Kokanović.

He points out that he agrees with the minister that any country that does not use its natural resources is at a loss.

“We have agricultural land and a lot of water, which is a resource that is the greatest wealth for the one who owns it, because the future of the world is food, water and air”, emphasized the interviewee of Danas.

He believes that, if the state were to distribute the money it plans to invest in housing to agricultural households, it would be returned tenfold.

“If our valley was turned into greenhouses, canalized and consolidated agricultural plots, we could produce and export healthy, local, organic food at fabulous prices, because the world lacks quality food”, explains Kokanović.

The problem, he says, is that the government does not respond to people who live alone from their work and who can freely express their opinions and attitudes and be forgiven for them.

“Their goal is to put citizens in cages, in factories, and make everyone dependent on those companies, so they will have to obey and literally become slaves”, says Kokanović.

That luck is not in mining, he cites the examples of Bor, Majdanpek, Smederevo and Zrenjanin.

“Look at how people live in places where they have mines. Maybe the first generations, ten years after the opening of the mine, lived well and prospered, that’s why now their grandchildren are cursing them, because they left them with mockery and pollution”, he says.

He notes that Bor and Majdanpek are the cities with the highest rate of cancer patients.

“We have three environmental bombs in Loznica, the failed Viskoza, Zajača and the Stolice tailings, where there was an antimony spill in 2014. In Zajaca, children have lead in their blood, and this government also brought us the companies Mint and Adijent”, reminds Kokanović.

He says that these factories operate normally in Serbia, even though they still do not have usage permits.

“They have construction, but they don’t have utility, because they haven’t solved the waste water system, and it’s an open secret in Loznica that unprocessed water from these factories ends up in the Drina. When the Drina is polluted, there is the Sava and the Danube, and we are left without drinking water. When we run out of water, the whole country is in trouble”, he warns.

He notes that money can be obtained in a much simpler and more harmless way, without pollution.

The message to the minister, he says, is to declare decisively whether he is for or against the Jadar project.

“And to confirm for us whether it is true that she received Serbian citizenship ten days before she became a minister, and whether her husband is one of the consultants at Rio Tinto?” “How much of a patriot can one be, to go from a salary of 10,000 euros to 1,000 euros, or is something expected of her in return”, asks Kokanović.

He hopes, he says, that all this is not true and that the new minister will help pass the Law on the permanent ban on research and exploitation of lithium and boron on the entire territory of the Republic of Serbia.

The minister has her hands full

Marijana Petković from the Ne damo Jadar association points out that before making any decision, Minister Đedović should read the proceedings of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) entitled “Project Jadar – What is known?”

“The professional public and the Academy of Sciences gave their opinion on this project, as well as the Faculty of Biology, which conducted a study, but which was never published because it was negative for Rio Tito. Minister Đedović should consider the demands submitted by the Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS) and work in the interests of the citizens, as the Constitution obliges her to do.

He concludes that the minister has her hands full, and that the people will not allow her to choose between lithium and water, Danas writes.

Serbia, Entire country needs to be blocked if Rio Tinto continues its lithium project

Member of parliament Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta from the Together party accused the government that it sold Serbia’s natural resources to foreigners and called on environmentalist organizations and the population to revolt against mining projects. “We will not let that happen peacefully,” he stressed and threatened that the central Gazela bridge in Belgrade would be blocked together with the entire country if Rio Tinto continues with its lithium project.

The new Government of Serbia is facing discontent among environmental activists and the local population about mining projects just like the former cabinet of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, but the difference is that now they also have representatives in the National Assembly. Head of the parliamentary Environmental Protection Committee and copresident of the Together (Zajedno) party Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta said the committee’s next meeting would be held in Loznica.

Rio Tinto is still working on its project for lithium mining and processing in the area in western Serbia even though the government formally halted it in January.

The National Assembly still didn’t fulfill its legal obligation to schedule a debate on the people’s initiative to permanently ban lithium exploration and exploitation, Jovanović pointed out

Ahead of the vote on the appointment of the new government, Jovanović called other lawmakers and ministers to also come to the meeting and explain why the company still has an office in the village of Gornje Nedeljice in the territory of the city of Loznica. Furthermore, he pointed out that the National Assembly still didn’t fulfill its legal obligation to schedule a debate on the so-called people’s initiative to permanently ban lithium exploration and exploitation. The petition was signed by 40,000 people, said the top official from the green left Together party.

Jovanović, one of the leaders of protests held in the past two years against Rio Tinto’s Jadar project, accused the government that it is working for foreign interests. “Serbia is an ecological time bomb. You gave the Russians our gas and oil. To the Chinese you gave our copper and gold. Now another predator needs to be appeased, and its name is Rio Tinto. There are more than 50 mines in the new spatial plan”, he stated.

Moreover, exploration was approved for 70 potential gold mines and more than 60 lithium mines, Jovanović asserted.

Serbia is an ecological time bomb, the head of the parliamentary Environmental Protection Committee warned

“That is 15% of our territory. Well, do you think we will peacefully watch how your foreign pals plunder our gold, our lithium and our natural resources? And you plan to let peasants become environmental refugees. I am calling on all environmentalist organizations, all citizens. There is a keyword for 2022, namely revolt. We will not let that happen peacefully”, he threatened. Jovanović claimed that the Gazela bridge on the highway in central Belgrade would be blocked again, together with entire Serbia, if Rio Tinto continues with its project, Balkan Green Energy News reports.

Lithium mines are not Serbia’s potential

The Alliance of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS), reacting to the statement of the Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Đedović, that she will consider how to implement the exploitation of lithium, assessed that with the first advertisement, she made it clear why she came to that position, the non-governmental organization announced.

Didn’t anyone instruct the new minister when he offered her to sit in a chair from the white world, that she should work in that position in the interest of the people and the state? Understandably, none of the colleagues could take on that duty, because they would probably choke in the middle of a sentence, SEOS points out.

That association tells the minister that lithium mines are not Serbia’s potential, neither in the economic sense nor in any other sense.

And the fact that our non-renewable mineral in the non-renewable land that feeds us is essential to the world’s renewable energy sources is not our concern. We don’t want green pastures and bills for white world starched shirts to go over our hump, states the SEOS press release, Danas reports.

The Rio Tinto Company has not left Serbia

The Rio Tinto Company has not left Serbia and, judging by environmental associations in the country, has not stopped its lithium exploitation project in the Jadar Valley, even though the government’s decree from 20th January was supposed to put an end to the company’s lithium exploration.

According to Zlatko Kokanović, a resident of Gornje Nedeljice, Rio Tinto has not given up on lithium in Serbia and has no intention of giving up.

“Twenty days ago they bought a house that is not in the mining area but along the motorway route. Their activities were supposed to be stopped by the government decree from 20 January, but the only thing that has been done is the conversion of land from residential to agricultural use again,” emphasises Kokanović from the Ne Damo Jadar Association.

He says that on 10 August, the municipal administration issued 45 decrees stipulating the demolition of dilapidated houses and that the Association and the public were only informed about it at the beginning of October.

“We asked the municipal administration to see the decree and all the planning documents, so we can inspect them and determine who authorised the demolition without a building permit, but also to tell us where the waste will be disposed of”, Kokanović notes.

The local administration responded that they intend to dispose of the waste on their farmland, which, as he says, cannot be used as a landfill site.

“The inspection did not do its job and we sent a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture to do something about it as there are many agricultural plots devastated and not used for the intended purpose,” he notes.

Kokanović adds that he is waiting for an answer and expects the new Serbian government to adopt a proposal for a permanent ban on the exploitation and processing of minerals containing lithium and boron on the territory of the whole of Serbia.

“Only then will the project be finished. When the new government is formed, we will again send a letter in which we are urging for Rio Tinto to leave the country and demanding that no other such company be allowed to operate here’, Kokanović underlines, Serbian Monitor writes.

Rio Tinto’s Serbian saga offers a lesson in critical minerals

The failure of the Jadar Project in Serbia should be viewed as an opportunity for all role-players to recalibrate their processes in line with ESG principles

The northern hemisphere’s summer of 2022 will be remembered as one of the hottest in recorded history. For example, Nasa reported that June was one of the hottest Junes on record. The UK, in turn, experienced record temperatures in July.

On May 14, the city of Jacobabad, Pakistan, became the hottest city on Earth, when temperatures peaked at 51ºC. Contemporaneously other parts of the world suffered devastating climate change-related fires (such as those that blazed across France) or floods (including the August 8 large-scale floods in Seoul).

These events provide an unfortunate prelude to the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference scheduled for November (better known as COP27), which is now less than three months away. While it remains critical for governments across the world to remain committed to the undertakings provided under the Paris Agreement, words without actions are of little value to those who are being (or will soon be) affected by increasingly severe weather events.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the demand for clean energy solutions has significantly increased. The sale of electric vehicles is an important example. According to EV-Volumes data, more than 900,000 new passenger plug-in electric cars were registered in June 2022. This represents a 54% increase year on year. If the trend continues into the second half of the year it could lead to more than 1-million electric cars being sold each month and more than 10-million over the course of the next year.

The single most important impediment to this growth trajectory, according to a July 2022 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), is the supply of critical minerals and metals used in the manufacture of batteries. According to the IEA, battery and minerals supply chains will have to expand tenfold to meet government electric vehicle (EV) ambitions.

Following the increased demand for battery metals during the pandemic the prices of raw materials such as cobalt, lithium and nickel surged. In May lithium prices were more than seven times higher than in early 2021 owing to unprecedented battery demand and a lack of sufficient investment in new supply capacity.

The demand for key minerals such as lithium will only increase as the global community continues to race towards net zero by 2050. Whether or not we will succeed depends on access to the required minerals.

Controversial Jadar Project lithium mine

On April 3 Aleksandar Vučić was re-elected for a second term as president of Serbia, with the coalition formed around his party, SNS, winning the most seats in the National Assembly, albeit falling short of an outright majority. Vučić’s re-election followed the widely publicised January 20 cancellation of what became known as the controversial Jadar Project, the proposed development by Rio Tinto of a $2.4bn lithium mine in Serbia.

While the government’s actions raised new questions surrounding the future of the lithium mining industry in Serbia, in the light of the IEA’s recent report it also poses existential questions for global supply chains.

The cancellation of the Jadar Project followed months of countrywide protests over the potential environmental impact of the project. The affair gave rise to intense speculation over the introduction of a possible blanket ban on lithium mining in Serbia; president Vučić’s previous administration had promised to defer such a decision until after the election.

The introduction of such a ban would prove to be a mistake. The mineral deposits at the heart of the Jadar Project are located underneath a river system in an agricultural area that is prone to flooding, giving rise to a material environmental risk. The Serbian government did not have a direct stake in the proposed lithium mine and so could not justify the project on the basis that it would fill public coffers. The government consequently did not believe it could do what governments elsewhere do when they have a fair deal: politically and publicly defend it.

The Serbian government had hoped to use the project as a basis to attract further investment across the batteries sector, including the manufacturing of batteries and battery-reliant products, such as EVs. However, the government was unable to present to the public concrete assurances that the project would lead to the creation of more than a small number of relatively low-skill mining jobs. As a result there was a widespread sentiment among the Serbian public that the main beneficiaries of the Jadar Project would be European carmakers and consumers, who would benefit from Serbia’s cheaper labour costs at the expense of the Serbian environment.

By December 2021 thousands of people across the country had began protesting, and the matter quickly became the leading electoral issue in the build-up to the general election on April 3 2022. As a result, on January 20 the government announced that it was revoking all of Rio Tinto’s permits relating to the project, with the promise that it would consider introducing an outright ban on lithium mining following the general election.

Although the Jadar Project was ostensibly cancelled over concerns regarding the potential of environmental damage, it is important to note that Rio Tinto had complied with all applicable local laws. The project was cancelled prior to the completion of a final environmental impact assessment, as mandated by Serbian law, meaning the public furore over the potential environmental damage was not supported by a comprehensive scientific assessment.

The failure of the Jadar Project is therefore an important example of a mining project being cancelled owing to reaching a critical level of opposition from the public, also referred to as a loss of the “societal licence” to operate that may not have existed in the first place.

Managing the ‘S’ in ESG

The episode illustrates the reality that public acceptance is the currency on which mining companies trade. Such acceptance of a mining company can make or break a project, including one with strong central government backing. Accordingly, mining companies must be sensitive to the fact that globally the sector is often not trusted by communities for a variety of reasons (often outside the control of the companies themselves).

Companies must become better at convincing communities, authorities and the public that they can be trusted because they have a well developed understanding of the social risk factors that are most relevant to each individual project, rather than adopting an unchanging, one-size-fits all approach. The lack of a social impact assessment in Jadar (with an integrated human rights impact assessment), in line with industry best practice (though not required by Serbian law) proved fatal in this regard.

At the same time, the failure of the Jadar Project cannot rest on Rio alone. Jadar’s host government partner, the previous Vučić administration, expended political capital in promoting and advocating for the project until the affair became a serious electoral risk. The public was not persuaded by arguments that the project had been conducted in accordance with the applicable regulatory regime, largely because the regulatory regime itself simply was not aligned with the public’s evolving expectations. Governments, as well as mining companies, should be mindful of the fact that public-interest projects are always subject to scrutiny under the evolving criteria of societal expectations.

This is not in itself a new concept; it is simply the case that the public expectations on mining companies are increasingly becoming much more demanding than the legal requirements imposed by national regulatory regimes. The episode should be seen as a timely reminder for national regulators and mining companies should recalibrate their processes to be founded in environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles. Moreover, if governments and national regulators wish to remain the final decisionmakers over which mining projects are deemed to be in the public interest, they must ensure that the legal and regulatory regimes in place reflect the evolving expectations of the public in each stage of the development and operation of a mine such as Jadar.

The role of international financial institutions should likewise not be overlooked in this regard. Although they did not feature prominently in the Jadar Project, similar projects in developing countries are often financed (at least in part) by large international financial institutions such as the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation or the US Development Finance Corporation. In view of the importance placed by stakeholders on the reputation of mining companies, the backing of those international financial institutions is often used to buttress the credentials of sensitive projects.

Where this is the case the relevant international financial institutions are well placed to guide, through their well-developed performance standards, both mining companies and governments in navigating the challenges associated with obtaining and maintaining a project’s societal licence. This may include, where appropriate, making the availability of financing conditional on the relevant mining company satisfying certain ESG-linked criteria.

History is the best teacher

It is clear that the failure of the Jadar Project has exposed a breakdown in public trust and fault lines between the expectations of mining companies, governments and the wider public. However, extractive resources which are associated with “green” industries, such as lithium, present a unique opportunity to combine economic development with the advancement of the transition to low-carbon energy sources. Despite the associated challenges, entirely foregoing the extraction of such resources would be a mistake which is likely to have worse environmental consequences in the long run.

Accordingly, rather than resulting in a ban on lithium extraction, the failure of the Jadar Project should be viewed as an opportunity for investors, governments and international financial institutions to recalibrate their processes in line with ESG principles, to facilitate the sustainable growth of the mining sector. To achieve this a delicate balance must be struck between the ability of companies to turn a profit and the need to promote sustainable economic development and combat the effects of climate change in line with societal expectations and the concerns of the broader citizenry, Business Live writes.

Rio Tinto continues to buy land near Loznica

Rio Tinto continues to buy a land in Gornje Nedeljice, a village in the municipality of Loznica. That’s why the locals are wondering if  Prime Minister Ana Brnabić really put an end to the Jadar project? They are also concerned by the fact that the President of Serbia, as well as some ministers, are repeating that the biggest mistake is giving up on lithium mining.

Not so long ago in January, after protests organized by citizens throughout Serbia, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić put an end to the cooperation with Rio Tinto. “It’s all over and all requests have been met,” Brnabić said at the time. The Jadar spatial plan was cancelled, and therefore all permits and all agreements with Rio Tinto were cancelled. However, the company has not left Serbia and is still working.

“On the first of August, on the day of the constitution of the National Assembly, Rio Sava bought one household and one plot and transferred them to their own. This terrain is needed for the construction of a high-speed road.

“They didn’t do anything, they just used everything before the elections to calm down people, and it would be a shame if they misused it in the new government and if they would consider that project,” says Zlatko Kokanović, a resident of Gornje Nedeljice.

Apart from the President of Serbia, the current ministers are also saying that the Jadar project should not have been cancelled.

“I used a metaphor that is recognized all over the world, and that is that with lithium Serbia could have invented the Internet. Everywhere in the world when you say that, you think of something revolutionary, of something that fundamentally changes things, that’s what the Internet brought to humanity, it changed business and communication, lithium could have been that chance for Serbia, I will always advocate for better living and business conditions for all citizens of our country”, said the Minister of Construction Tomislav Momirović.

Zlatko Kokanović says that “the point is not what we could get with that lithium, but what we would lose”. “There are tens of thousands of people engaged in agriculture, and now they want to open a factory and employ 500 workers, while 10-15 thousand people will be left without their land and their primary occupation which is agriculture”, says Kokanovic.

The fight for a healthier environment continues also in the parliament. The Democrats are looking for a special session of the Assembly that would produce, as they say, a strategy for the environment, and they say that Rio Tinto was not present at the current level in 2004.

“The topic of Rio Tinto was not of great importance at that time, the mineral was researched all over the world, we could not know what it would turn into at that moment, it only later developed into such a serious problem, and the problem is not that a mine is going to be opened in Serbia, but that ecological standards have not been defined”, said the member of the Democratic party Branimir Jovančićević, Serbian Monitor writes.

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.”

Rio Tinto’s charm offensive in Gornje Nedeljice started soon after the mining group discovered an entirely new type of mineral in the area in 2004. The mineral, called jadarite in tribute to the Jadar Valley where it was found, contained both borates and lithium—two materials that Rio Tinto says have a role in the green transition. Lithium is used in EV batteries while borates can be used in wind and solar projects.

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.

Source: counterpunch.org

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.

Source: smallcaps.com.au