Serbia: Wave of protests wins victories against lithium mining

By Francisco Norega in

(Castellano) (Português)

In recent weeks, Serbia has seen a massive resistance movement erupt against plans for lithium mining, which the population sees as a risk to land and water, in a country already marked by high levels of pollution. After three consecutive weeks of national protests, the growing popular mobilisation has scored several victories.

After a few months of smaller, localised protests, the first wave of nationwide mobilisations took place on 27 November, when thousands of people took to the streets in different cities to protest against the controversial lithium mine planned in the Jadar region, where the Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto intends to invest $2 billion. They are also demonstrating against two laws passed on 25 and 26 November under an emergency procedure, a strategy used by the Serbian government to pass controversial laws without public debate.

Protests and blockades stopped traffic in several parts of the country, including on one of the most important highways through the capital, Belgrade. In the city of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, clashes break out between protesters and police, and several people were arrested.

In the town of Sabac, 90 km west of the capital, a group of men with their faces covered attacked protesters with truncheons, breaking the blockade to allow buses carrying supporters of the current president, Aleksandar Vucic, to pass through on their way to a Serbian Progressive Party convention in Belgrade. The incident sparked outrage on social media and accusations that the government is using thugs to suppress the movement.

The largest wave of protests in Serbia’s recent history

For the second Saturday in a row, on 4 December, new protests took to the streets of Serbia, with dozens of new localities joining the call and a turnout that grew significantly compared to the previous week. In total, protesters gathered at more than 60 points in cities, towns and roads across the country.

Belgrade, 4 December 2021

It was the largest wave of coordinated protests in Serbia in more than 20 years. Tens of thousands of people sent a clear message to the government to stop Rio Tinto’s Jadar project and all other lithium extraction projects.

In Belgrade, thousands of protesters occupied the Gazela Bridge, blocking the main road linking the centre of the capital to the suburbs on the other side of the Sava River. Three other bridges and several major roundabouts were taken over. In the capital alone, traffic came to a standstill at more than a dozen points.

Savo Manojlović of the Kreni-promeni movement, one of the groups organising the protests, called on the population to block roads, bridges and streets for an extra hour every Saturday until demands are accepted. «This is not going to stop. The people will not allow their land to be taken away from them,» he said in an interview with a television channel.

In the photo above, the banner reads «Stop investors, save nature».

Belgrade, 4 December.

There are also reports of police visiting the homes of activists and journalists to intimidate them and threaten them with criminal charges for promoting the protests. In Novi Sad, a group of counter-demonstrators attacked the protest with bricks and bottles. Several protesters were arrested, both in Novi Sad and in the capital. Several minor incidents occurred at some of the other protests.

The bills and legislation that sparked the protests

To encourage economic growth, the Serbian government has recently made mineral resources available to foreign investors such as Rio Tinto and the Chinese mining group Zijin. Rio Tinto intends to open a lithium mine of about 400 hectares in an agricultural area along the Jadar river, just 14 km from Loznica, a town of 20,000 inhabitants in western Serbia.

The company claims that it would be a «green mine», complying with all Serbian and European environmental regulations, and that the project would create 2,000 jobs during construction and 1,000 permanent jobs. However, these promises do not convince the population, which is concerned about the destruction caused by the mining activity and the pollution of land and water.

At the centre of the protests are also two legislative bills that, according to the protesters, aim to facilitate the exploitation of lithium by multinational mining companies.

The new Expropriation Law would allow for the forced expropriation of land by the state when projects are deemed to be in the «public interest», in an attempt to facilitate the exploitation of lithium by multinational mining companies.

The new Expropriation Law would allow for the forced expropriation of land by the state when projects are deemed to be in the «public interest», within a period of only 8 days.

Critics of this law say it is unacceptable that the government has the right to make the declaration of public interest in a non-transparent, arbitrary manner and without defined criteria, as foreseen in the draft law.

On the other hand, the reform of the Referendum Act would effectively prevent groups and movements from launching referendum initiatives by creating a high administrative fee for such popular initiatives. It would also allow consultations to be considered valid even when the turnout is less than 50 per cent.

Environmental and civil society groups claim that these laws would allow the government and companies to circumvent popular discontent and environmental concerns and move ahead more quickly with projects such as Rio Tinto.

The range of demands widens

The 4 December protests were coordinated by the Kreni-promeni (Change) movement, Ekološki Ustanak (Ecological Uprising), the Akcija (Action) political platform, the Don’t Let Belgrade Drown movement and the Serbian Alliance of Environmental Organisations (SEOS), with the participation of numerous non-governmental organisations, movements and informal groups. SEOS was founded by 6 civil organisations and is a coordination between activists in the growing number of areas where mining companies are prospecting (Rekovac, Jagodina, Jadar, Loznica, Pranjani, Dobrinja, Gornji Milanovac and Požega).

In what was the largest wave of protests in the country’s recent history, demonstrators from different parts of Serbia also gave voice to their own local environmental concerns and problems.

The population of Požarevac, a town east of Belgrade, also protested against a regional landfill project. In Zrenjanin, in the northeast, a protest called by the group Građanski Preokret (Civic Agitation) blocked the site of a controversial tyre factory being built by the Chinese company Linglong, claiming that it would worsen living conditions in the town, whose mains water has already been polluted and unfit for consumption for almost two decades. Other lithium mining projects have also been challenged on the streets in several places, such as in Rekovac in central Serbia, one of the areas where Balkan Mining and Minerals is looking for lithium.

The Serb diaspora community also organised protests in Berlin, New York and at Rio Tinto’s headquarters in London.

Government announces concessions in hopes of calming protests

On the same day, the Serbian President visited the village of Gornje Nedeljice, where Rio Rinto intends to open the lithium mine on the banks of the Jadar River. He met with part of the local population to discuss the project, while another part refused to dialogue with him and blocked the main road to the village. There, following protests, he first hinted at concessions, suggesting changes to the expropriation law.

Faced with the scale of the protests, the government finally announced a few days later, on 8 December, that it was withdrawing the expropriation law from parliament for re-examination and modification by the President, and the subsequent opening of a broad public debate with the participation of workers, professional associations, business representatives and civil society.

Strong popular pressure and the threat of a new round of protests and blockades led to another concession by the authorities: two days later, on Friday, parliament approved the amendments to the referendum law proposed by the government. Not only was the administrative fee for popular referendum initiatives removed and the proposing groups allowed to participate in the body conducting the referendum, but it was established that a referendum on the same issue cannot be repeated for a period of four years, nor can parliament make a different decision from the referendum for the same period.

The government then relented on the two laws that lit the fuse of the protests, hoping to demobilise the revolt against lithium and mining in general and probably waiting for a more propitious moment to give the green light to Rio Tinto and the other mining companies. However, despite the Kreni-Promeni group saying that the main demands had been met and that there would therefore be no point in continuing on the streets, other groups and movements maintained calls for protests for the following day, Saturday.

Third Saturday of protests and the future of the movement

Despite concessions, rain and cold, and although in smaller numbers than on previous Saturdays, thousands of people took to the streets again on 11 December and blocked traffic in the capital and other cities.

Belgrade, 11 December 2021

The protesters demand that Rio Tinto’s project be cancelled for good and that lithium mining be banned. «There will be no truce until Rio Tinto is expelled from Serbia and until lithium mining is banned for good,» said Aleksandar Jovanovic of the Ecological Insurrection movement.

«We have to defend ourselves against these crazy projects that envision the construction of dozens of mines in Serbia,» Irena Radovanovic, a student from Belgrade, told Reuters.

The low turnout is a reflection of Kreni-Promeni’s withdrawal from organising the protests, as the group has announced a shift in focus, dedicating itself to collecting the 30,000 signatures needed to force a consultation on lithium mining, taking advantage of the referendum law’s surrender. However, thousands of people and many of the movements seem determined to continue on the streets until a definitive victory against lithium mining is achieved. Local protests continue at an almost daily pace and Kreni-Promeni himself has made his team of 40 lawyers available to those who continue to participate in the protests and blockades.

On 16 December, the movement achieved another breakthrough: the Loznica municipal council approved the suspension of the development plan allowing Rio Tinto to extract lithium in the Jadar region. In the words of the prime minister, «whether or not there will be a mine depends on the population [in western Serbia] and the environmental impact study».

What are the similarities and parallels between Serbia and Portugal, and what lessons can we draw?

Both Serbia and Portugal are in the targets of mining multinationals. Both have complicit and complacent governments that claim that these projects will create jobs, bring development and prosperity. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they negotiate with the companies the destruction of entire territories and the populations and biodiversity that live there.

Behind the talk of lithium and its importance for the «energy transition», there are plans to extract countless minerals and to gut the territories without scruples.

Both territories are marked by mining activity. In Portugal, we have the examples of the Panasqueira and Borralha mines, their gigantic dumps and the water contaminated by leaching. We know of the cases of cancer suffered by the former miners of Urgeiriça, and of the many other health problems suffered by other villages near the mines, such as the village of Barco.

In Bor (Serbia), where copper has been mined since the beginning of the 20th century, the desolation of the landscape is striking. Three years ago, the Chinese mining company Zijin bought the Serbian company RTB Bor and began open-pit copper and gold mining in the area. Complaints from local residents are multiplying, with cases of roof collapses and cracks in the walls of houses as a result of blasting. Contamination levels are worrying. The company does not respond to complaints, does not pay reparations to the population, and fails to comply with court decisions and environmental regulations.

The companies come in and start acting as if they own the land, disregarding the local people and the environment, even putting themselves above the law. In Jadar, around the area where it wants to open the lithium mine, Rio Tinto has subjected the people to a regime of terror and harassment. Since the summer, the company has been announcing that it has bought land from 36 families, informing the rest that they would be expropriated.

During the first wave of protests in late November, Marijana Petković, from a local group called Ne damo Jadar («We will not give up Jadar»), told Nova TV that «although Rio Tinto has only bought less than a quarter of the land needed for the mine and its facilities, groups of private security guards from the company patrol the villages at all times».

She also complained that nothing grows in the fields surrounding the exploration wells, in a predominantly agricultural area known for producing high quality food. He claims that Rio Tinto, the government and local authorities have ignored the people and their requests for information about the project.

The reports recall the situation in Covas do Barroso, for example, or in the Borralha area.

The companies claim, in pompous press conferences, that the opening of the mine will happen soon; they meet with members of the governments and announce investments; and they harass the populations with threats of expropriation. However, we see how these projects and certainties can fall, through collective efforts and resistance.

As Serbia shows us, if we organise and articulate between movements and groups in towns and cities, it is possible to resist and defend our territory from the plunder, destruction and pollution caused by these projects imposed by governments and multinationals.

This is demonstrated by the struggles in many other territories around the world, such as the case of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. During the month of November, we conducted an interview, together with Jornal Mapa, Flauta de Luz and PtRevolutionTV, with a delegation of the National Indigenous Congress that toured the Portuguese territory as part of the Zapatista Day for Life. To be published soon.

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