One of the most significant lithium mining projects globally, strongly supported by the government in Belgrade, might be leading Serbia, one of the key countries in the Balkans, towards a significant period of destabilization and turmoil. Street protests were already held in the country in November and new demonstrations are planned for December.
Environmental organizations, civil society groups, activists and opposition parties are protesting against a major investment of the mining giant Rio Tinto near Loznica, in western Serbia. Rio Tinto, a mining company with a reputation for causing serious environmental damage in different parts of the world, is planning to invest more than two billion euros in the so-called “Jadar Project” in Serbia. The project is named after “jadarite”, a mineral Rio Tinto discovered in Serbia in 2004.
According to the company, Jadar would produce battery-grade lithium carbonate, crucial for producing batteries for electric vehicles and storing renewable energy, and borates, increasingly needed for wind turbines and solar panels. The Jadar project is expected to become operative by 2026, subject to receiving all relevant state approvals, environmental permits and licenses. The development would include the realization of an underground mine that would produce 58.000 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 160.000 tonnes of boric acid and 255.000 tonnes of sodium sulphate. The company said the project would create thousands of jobs both during construction and during the exploitation of the future mine, one of the largest planned in Europe. “We are committed to upholding the highest environmental standards and building sustainable futures for the communities we operate in,” Rio Tinto assured.
However, experts and environmental activists in Serbia claim that the Jadar mine will destroy farmland, animal life and precious rivers, without significantly contributing to the economic development of the country. The Jadar project could negatively affect the lives of more than 19.000 people in the Loznica area only and destroy highly fertile land, they said. A massive toxic tailing is also planned in the valley between the Jadar and the Korenita rivers, allegedly putting at risk the basins of Drina and Sava rivers, from which about 2,5 million people in Serbia are supplied with water.
While Rio Tinto is waiting for the final necessary authorisations for the mine and ore processing, the Parliament in Belgrade adopted two controversial laws on expropriation and referendum reform, condemned by activists and the opposition in Serbia. The law on referendum could hamper popular initiatives by establishing high administrative fees for a consultation, critics said. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the government said they would organize a referendum on the Jadar project. The new expropriation law could allow the mandatory acquisition of private land by the state within only eight days. The opposition in Serbia argued that the laws will pave the way for Rio Tinto and other foreign mining companies, for instance, the Chinese Zijin copper miner, to circumvent popular discontent and to carry out projects more quickly and with fewer controls by the state.
To protest against the laws and the Rio Tinto project several thousand demonstrators, including anti-government protesters, went to the street simultaneously in Belgrade, halting traffic on the most important Serbian highway, in Novi Sad and other smaller towns on November 27 in what they say was just a “warning blockade”. They managed to stop traffic on main bridges and roads for one hour. At the roadblocks there were scuffles with the police, while activists claimed supporters of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of President Vucic violently attacked them in the city of Sabac. Several people were detained by the police, in one of the tensest days Serbia witnessed in years.
The environmental protests in Serbia may escalate in December, with the organizers of the first blockade claiming that it was just the beginning of more massive demonstrations that could bring Serbia to a halt. “We promised to block roads again if President Aleksandar Vucic signed the law on referendums and we are calling the Serbian public to join us. This time the roadblocks will be in place for more than an hour and in more places in Serbia,” the Alliance of Ecological Organizations of Serbia (SEOS) warned, confirming a new blockade for December 4. Demonstrators want the government to rethink the new laws on referendums and expropriation and to reconsider the Jadar project. The authorities said the protests are political.
If the new demonstrations turn violent again, they might cause further tensions and turmoil and even lead towards a significant destabilization of the country, ahead of the 2022 elections.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.