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Is the Jadar mine a fair deal for Serbia and Europe’s green transition agenda?

After months of grassroots-driven protests against lithium exploitation in Western Serbia that culminated in demonstrations in the country’s capital Belgrade, the Serbian government revoked the decree and spatial plan for the development of a lithium mine and mineral processing plant in the Jadar River valley, Serbia.

According to the official press statement which was released after one of the government sessions in January, the Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabic announced to the public that all administrative acts related to Rio Tinto were annulled, including permits, resolutions and decisions.

“We have never had contracts with Rio Tinto, as we have said many times”, Mrs Brnabic assured the public, emphasising that the government “[…] fulfilled all the demands of environmental protests and put an end to Rio Tinto in Serbia.”

Rio Tinto, a global mining giant with a vexed history of extraction operations in various parts of the world, has been exploring the valley for over 15 years. It has sought to build one of the world’s largest greenfield mines there and planned to spend 2.4 billion US dollars on extraction and exploitation of the endemic jadarite, the mineral containing industrially important elements – lithium and boron.

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Boron is a mineral used in alloys, ceramic, glasses and other applications. The borates or boron-oxygen compounds that the mine can produce are needed for the development of renewable energy equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines. The second element contained in jadarite – lithium is used in the production of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. In other words, this complex mineral is key to the development of technologies that are anticipated to drive decarbonisation and green energy transition, helping the world and Europe, in particular, meet its climate targets.

First saleable production from the mine was expected by 2027 and over its 40-year life span, it could generate 2.3 million tonnes of lithium carbonate. With the mine’s annual production capacity of 58,000 tonnes of lithium, 160,000 tonnes of boric acid and 255,000 tonnes of sodium sulphate, Rio Tinto would enter the world’s top ten lithium producers list.

Concerns over Jadar mine

It is estimated that in total, the mine could supply 10 per cent of the world’s demand for lithium and support the neighbouring EU’s digital transition agenda. However, the opposers’ worries over the lack of transparency and the disregard toward involving the public in consultations on the project combined with the irreparable alterations the mine can make to the environment as well as the livelihoods of the region’s residents, has driven the wave of resistance.

Rio Tinto has noted that it acknowledges the public discontent.

“Understandably, there are significant concerns about the potential impact of the mine on the local communities of the Jadar valley and we understand that we need to show that these concerns can be addressed and managed,” reads the company’s statement.

Marnie Finlayson, Managing Director of Battery Minerals at Rio Tinto commented that “we are working hard to establish trusting and respectful relationships with Jadar communities, including landowners, the Government of the Republic of Serbia and all other relevant stakeholders such as NGOs and civil society organisations. And we remain committed to optimising the economic and social benefits while minimising any negative impacts to the community and the environment.”

The local citizens, on the other hand, do not agree that adequate measures have been taken. Throughout the pushback against the mine development, they have argued that if deployed, lithium extraction and processing facilities would kill the local high-quality agriculture-based economy and inevitably threaten more than 15,000 agricultural households in the town of Loznica as well as the Krupanj municipality. On top of that, the project would jeopardise the health and well-being of citizens of the communities of Loznica, Šabac and Valjevo.

The environmental organisations that have investigated the case and rallied around, pointed out that among numerous problems with the project, not disclosing crucial information about how lithium will be extracted and what the impacts will be on the local population, remains most controversial.

Economic path of Serbia and pitfalls of the Jadar project

Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Mining and Energy, Zorana Mihajlovic has confirmed that a broad public debate is needed on the future development and use of critical mineral raw materials in Serbia. However, she emphasised that insisting on the moratorium of Jadar can endanger the economic development of her country.

According to her, a lithium mine, a battery factory and an electric vehicle factory would increase Serbia’s GDP growth by another 15 billion euros.

“[…] For me, the moratorium means stopping mining, partly energy or some other economic branch and that means stopping development and opening the question of what our country will look like in the future. I think it is possible to find a common solution not to stop development but to have a healthy environment.”

During another public appearance, the Minister underscored that Serbia cannot rely on agriculture alone and that it needs mining, adding that “[…] I regret that we did not receive the results of the study on the impact on the environment, then everyone who was against, for various reasons, would see that this is a new technology. It would be an underground mine, fully digitalised, with the latest technologies, highly sophisticated equipment […].”

While the local residents and environmentalists are not convinced that the Jadar mine would not bring about major disruptions, they are not the only ones raising flags.

The Academy of Engineering Sciences of Serbia (AINS) has released a statement in which the experts alert all stakeholders about the negative consequences of lithium mining in Jadar Valley.

Pointing out that the strategic decision of Serbia’s government to support the Jadar project was not preceded by “an appropriate, independent professional analysis at the national level”, its realisation “in line with the needs of investors, cause wider social consequences and prevent the potential development of green agriculture and healthy food production in the region.”

Furthermore, the signatories warn that the “realisation of the Jadar project potentially carries the risk of natural radioactive radiation sources, which there is no information about.”

In addition, the statement underlines that “[…] sensitive and highly risky issues are fully neglected in the process of analysis and approval of the Spatial Plan of the Jadar project.”

Now, when the world’s next major lithium mine project is cancelled, the people on the ground stay vigilant. They fear that the halt of the project is not permanent and that it may renew after Serbia’s general elections in 2022.

Europe’s green transition agenda needs better policy safeguards

The European Commission estimates that for electric vehicle batteries and energy storage, Europe would need up to 18 times more lithium and five times more cobalt in 2030. In 2050, almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt will be necessary. Notably, the sourcing and production of raw materials are a priority in the European Green Deal and access to these resources is a strategic security question for Europe’s ambition to enable the green transition.

In 2020, the Commission has proposed to accelerate and facilitate procedures for the approval of mining projects not only in the EU but its neighbours, such as Norway, Ukraine and the Western Balkans.

For Aleksandra Antonowicz-Cyglicka, human rights and community support coordinator at CEE Bankwatch, this means that if the EU’s green agenda is to be effective, the Commission must “incorporate policies that ensure the use of less exploitative and toxic-safe technologies; the restoration of the old mining sites; strict environmental, social and human rights due diligence for mining projects; and finally, the right for the communities affected by the mines and surrounding facilities to have a say.”

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