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"We are the last line of defense": Serbian activists rise against mining corporation

October 16, 2021
tags:#Serbia, #mining, #jadarite, #lithium, #Rio Tinto
by:Katarina Panić
For many in the Jadar river valley in Serbia, land is not merely a home but a source of income. Now, an impending lithium mining project by Rio Tinto is threatening to upend the lives of these villagers and deprive them of their land. With the government effectively in the pocket of the investors, environmental activists remain the villagers' only ray of hope.

'It is unacceptable for us to sell this soil for mining purposes,' is the common chant by villagers nowadays. 

'We will do everything according to the law and abide by ecological standards,' respond the investors.

'We will call for a referendum, if necessary,' chime in the authorities.

"Finally, the environment has become the top issue in the country!" exclaim local activists.

Discovering lithium in Serbia 

In 2004, during geological explorations in Serbia, the Anglo-Australian multinational metal and mining corporation Rio Tinto discovered the mineral jadarite, named after the nearby Jadar tributary of the Drina river which runs by the town of Loznica. The mineral contained lithium - the essential component in batteries.

With an estimated 200 million tonnes of ore, it is now believed that the area around the Loznica is one of the most abundant deposits of lithium in the world.

Due to the expansion of the electric cars industry, it is projected that the global demand for lithium will grow fourfold in less than ten years. Rio Tinto, therefore, is in a hurry to start the mining. The area's residents, however, do not seem excited about the idea.

ACTIVISTS Raise their demands

“If we notice any [machinery] moving towards the field, we will organise ourselves immediately [...] and we will defend our nature with our bodies, just as we did with the water last year," Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta, an environmental activist, told FairPlanet. "It will be a general mobilisation with thousands of people there. That is our plan for the future: we wait for them at the barricades." 

The studies on the project's feasibility and environmental impact are due by the end of the year. Relying on the results of these assessments, the government has repeated that there is no need for civil resistance to the mining before these two primary documents are on the table.

However, activists worry that the studies won’t be conducted independently, as they are funded by the project's investor and are therefore likely to be written in the latter's favour. Such is the praxis not only in Serbia, but in the neighbouring countries too, activists highlight.

In April, a massive protest in the capital Belgrade took place against the deforestation, construction of hydropower plants and air and water pollution caused by various industries. At that time, demonstrators have demanded that the government expose all classified documents related to contracts and agreements with Rio Tinto.

Protesters then claimed that the government did nothing about their requirements, so they organised additional demonstrations in September and temporarily blocked traffic in the capital. This time, protesters focused specifically on Rio Tinto, demanding that the government annul all its obligations to the investor.

“This is an environmental uprising," Jovanović said. "We gave a clear message: Rio Tinto, go away. People have united regardless of their political agenda. Finally, the environment became the top issue in this country."

relocating villagers IS THE RED LINE 

The valley of the river Jadar is one of the most populated rural areas in Serbia, with some 18,000 people leading a stable life off of agriculture. Unlike most villages in the rest of the country, which face a demographic collapse, the Jadar river valley is home to towns such as Gornje Nedeljice, which has about a thousand inhabitants, plenty of families with three children, and a school with 200 pupils; the towns farmer also produce roughly one million liters of milk annually. 

“This is about survival. If our government agrees to relocate people from their homes to please investors, then no one else will protect us but ourselves," Jovanović said. "For our air, food, water and soil, we are the last line of defense."

"There are a lot of examples from abroad of how Rio Tinto makes a catastrophic landscape and violates human rights where it operates," he added. "The most recent case is the demolition of the Aboriginal sacred site, which had evidence of 46,000 years of continuous human occupation and was considered the only inland prehistoric site in Australia." 

In May, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) organised a scientific gathering titled Jadar Project: What is known?, where a group of academicians warned the government that the jadarite mine could cause irreversible damage to an area as big as 516 football stadiums.

Rio Tinto later accused SANU of spreading panic. The government emphasised that the project is a 450 million dollar investment, which would employ more than 2,000 people in its initial stages and span across more than 50 years of exploitation.

Furthermore, in an attempt to discredit the project's opponents and create a false image that they are all on the same side, the government chose not to mention activists such as Jovanović. 

Stefan Slavković, a journalist at the Serbian weekly NIN, wrote in his op-ed for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network that “environmental activism has significant, if not the most significant potential, to seriously challenge the authoritarian and environmentally-harmful, neoliberal policies of Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s, SNS."

Image by: Stefan Kostic

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
Embed from Getty Images
Protesters demonstrate against the opening of a Rio Tinto Group lithium mine near the Parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia.
© Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Jakob Stausholm, chief executive officer of Rio Tinto Plc, second left, and Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's president, second right, during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Belgrade, Serbia, on Tuesday, 1 June, 2021. Rio Tinto has spent some $250 million and earmarked another $200 million, since the lithium-rich mineral, Jadarite, was discovered in 2004 in western Serbia.
© Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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