Europe’s Biggest Lithium Mine Is Caught in a Political Maelstrom


Arriving soon after a year marked by protests, this weekend’s election was supposed to be the breakthrough movement for Serbia’s environmentalists, says Engjellushe Morina, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Just as we were expecting that there will be a bit of a win for environmentally friendly movements in Serbia, we have the Russia debate,” she says, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She believes the return of war to Europe has empowered the ruling coalition parties and the incumbent president, Aleksandar Vučić. The ruling coalition which approved the mine, led by president Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party, was comfortably leading in polls as of Thursday.

Back in the village of Gornje Nedeljice, Petković has the sense that Rio Tinto is not worried about the election’s outcome. She believes the company has invested too much to stop, whatever the result. The miner has created its own technology to extract the jadarite, which is found nowhere else in the world. Since the government canceled the project, Petković says, there have been no signs Rio Tinto is preparing to leave. The machinery stayed, and the miner kept buying up local real estate, she claims.

On March 30 another activist organization, Marš sa Drine, published the details of a phone call that they claim proves Rio Tinto is preparing to restart work on the mine after the election. The phone call was between a University of Belgrade professor involved in the Rio Tinto project and an anonymous source impersonating an employee of Rio Sava, Rio Tinto’s Serbian subsidiary. In the conversation, the two discuss the arrival of equipment from the German company DMT and an Austrian company called Thyssen, which the professor said is “likely” to arrive in April. Neither DMT, Thyssen, nor the professor replied to WIRED’s request for comment. In a statement, a Rio Tinto spokesperson described the “alleged” recording as “misinformation,” adding that the agreement with the two suppliers was signed before its permission for the mine was withdrawn.

“They lied to us in January,” Marš sa Drine said on Twitter, urging their followers to vote against the project on Sunday. “Why is ANY equipment, no matter whether it’s a bolt or a bulldozer, being discussed within the context of a project that has been CANCELED?”

Some believe that Rio Tinto has faced so much opposition in Serbia because of the company’s legacy, associated with multiple cases of environmental damage. “Mining companies have been viewed so negatively historically that it doesn’t matter in the eyes of the public if they are transitioning to minerals that are being used for the energy transition,” says Burlinghaus.

Resistance to EV mining across Europe is not Nimbyism, says Diego Marin, associate policy officer for environmental justice at the NGO the European Environmental Bureau. “Communities are saying, ‘We’re having our areas devastated and sacrificed to make what? Cars for rich people that our communities can never afford,’” he says. “In the end, we pay the price that our air gets cleaner but our land gets poorer.” It’s not that these activists don’t want clean air. But an idea is beginning to spread among green groups in Europe: that the green transition is turning into a capitalism rebrand that is still focused on planet-harming mass production.





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