Some 2,000 people marched on the Serbian capital of Belgrade this weekend to protest Rio Tinto’s plans to expand lithium mining operations in the country, temporarily blocking a major bridge in the city.
Protesters called on the government to bar international mining corporation Rio Tinto from building a lithium mine in western Serbia, after Rio Tinto pledged $2.4 billion (€2 billion) to the project in July. The project would see Serbia become one of the largest producers of lithium in the world.
Lithium is a necessary component of electric vehicle batteries. Demand for the metal is forecast to increase more than 40% this year alone, and demand for electric vehicles has surged more than 150% compared to last year.
The demonstrations against the Rio Tinto mine were organised by some 30 environmental groups in Serbia amid a growing disillusionment with mainstream politicians over major pollution issues in the region. A further 100,000 people have endorsed a petition against the mine.
“Our demand is that the government of Serbia annul all obligations to Rio Tinto,” declared protest organizer Aleksandar Jovanovic, “we have gathered to say no to those who offer concentrated sulphuric acid instead of raspberries and honey.”
The Serbian government has defended the Rio Tinto mine as a boost to the economy, while the CEO of Rio Tinto has assured Serbians that the company will abide by national and EU environmental regulations.
Despite this, experts have warned that the ecology of western Serbia would suffer under the lithium exploitation project, more so given that the area is currently rich with fertile land and agriculture.
Balkan authorities have come under fire in recent weeks after a new report found extensive and deadly “breaches of legally binding pollution limits” in Western Balkan coal-fired power plants. At the same time, Serbian rivers have been choked by industrial pollution, and many cities lack adequate sewage and wastewater systems.
“We were thirsty this summer, we breathe toxic air and land is being sold out,” protest organisers said in a statement. “Forests are being cut and mines are expanding.”
Balkan states, including Serbia, must significantly expand their environmental protection policies before they can move forward in their respective bids to join the EU. Due to poor economic outlook and high levels of corruption after the conflicts of the 1990s, many countries in the region have long sidelined environmental issues for other priorities.
“File:Salar de Olaroz Lithium Mine, Argentina by Planet Labs.jpg” by Planet Labs, Inc. is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0