Environmental Capitalism in Serbia

The lithium-rich area of Jadar in Western Serbia has been the cause of environmental demonstrations throughout Serbia over the last two weeks. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the planned Rio Tinto mine in the Jadar Valley. The infamous Anglo-Australian mining corporation has been after the Jadar Valley because of its strong potential. The company has projected that over the course of its 40-year life, the mine could generate 2.3 million tonnes of lithium. Thus, transforming Serbia and Rio Tinto into leading suppliers of lithium in Europe. But is it worth it?

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial element in supposedly protecting the environment, therefore the demand for lithium has drastically increased. Within ten years, the lithium industry is expected to grow from 100 to 800-gigawatt hours of yearly production. Yet, the procurement of lithium is not sustainable. Whilst the sole extraction of lithium consumes 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton, the process of obtaining lithium to an industrial disposable level in the proposed Serbian mine would furthermore produce 57 million tonnes of waste. Furthermore, the fact that it is five times more expensive to recycle and re-purpose lithium in comparison to mining new stocks is equally as problematic.

With the increasing dependency on lithium-ion batteries as a source of clean energy, it seems that the future has been decided for the Jadar Valley. Rio Tinto has planned to invest $2.4 billion in the project with the expectation that the mine will transform the company into Europe’s largest supplier of lithium. The company plans to start construction work on the mine in 2022 and is currently in its feasibility phase. It is in the process of purchasing the land needed for the mine. The size of the central mine will be over 200 hectares and will be based on the Korenita River. The site will be surrounded by hundreds of hectares of land, which will provide the area with industrial wastelands as well as transport infrastructure. As part of its feasibility phase, Rio Tinto has already purchased 80% of the land and property required. It has been reported that there have been payouts of $470 per metre square of land and/or property, with the company offering 5% bonuses to those who leave within four months of an offer. With the existence of an area rich with lithium and the potential to transform Rio Tinto into a major supplier, it is no surprise that the company has removed obstacles with money.

Rio Tinto has stated that the project would create over 2,000 construction jobs and boost the domestic supply chain by €200 million, but at what cost? A report commissioned by the company acknowledged that the project would cause “irredeemable damage to the biosphere”, and thus the project should not continue. Its own report, “Environmental Sustainability: Our Approach in Developing the Jadar Project” uses the environment as a façade and a source of justification for the Jadar project. A true example of green capitalism, or severe greenwashing. Especially when considering that the project will have a detrimental impact on 145 protected species including wolves, bats and dragonflies habiting the area. In addition to this, the project threatens to pollute the Drina and the Sava rivers which supplies water to 2.5 million people.

To accommodate the Jadar project the Serbian government has suggested two controversial changes in legislation: the referendum law and the expropriation law. The proposed change to the referendum law would remove the current threshold, which is the participation of 50% of voters plus one, for the referendum result to be considered legitimate. In June 2021, President Vučić announced that there would be a referendum on the Jadar mine to be constructed by Rio Tinto. However, who would be eligible to participate, nearby municipalities or the entire country, is still yet to be confirmed. The removal of the threshold would allow the referendum to be manipulated in favour of the state. Moreover, environmental and civil groups have stated that this law would favour foreign investment and companies over Serbian public opinion. As a result of the mass demonstrations across Serbia, the government have stated that the referendum law will be amended, whereas the expropriation law would be withdrawn for further discussions. The expropriation law would make it easier for the state to obtain private property. The construction of the mine will include the relocation of 81 households as well as the purchase of fields from 293 landowners. In the case that land and/or property was not voluntarily given, the company would resort to expropriation, with or without the changes in the law.

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