(Un)sustainable development: The surge of mining in Serbia

Aug 24, 2022

Copper mine Majdanpek. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

As a country with an exceptionally favorable geopolitical position and an even more favorable mining rent, Serbia is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for mining companies. The discovery of new deposits of lithium and precious metals has only intensified interest in what lies beneath the surface of this small Balkan country. Along with the fact that numerous new deposits have been discovered in the immediate vicinity of protected areas, the question arises about the legal legitimacy of such projects, as well as about their real economic and functional benefit.

The Government of Serbia presents the intensification of mining activities as an important link in the economic development of the country and an opportunity for new jobs, claiming that those who are against it are against the progress of Serbia. Compliance with all environmental protection measures is promised, as well as the use of the latest highly efficient technologies in exploitation. Nowadays, we can hear tales about the importance of environmental protection from the mouth of every other manager, director, and politician. However, ecological and profitable exploitation of ores at the current prices of the required technologies is, least to say, a fairy tale. Doubts about the safety and benefits of such projects become even greater when we also consider the history of the mining companies involved. Some of them left a trail of devastation and social unrest that affected not only small mining settlements but entire countries.

The question arises – is it rational for a modern European country to turn to mining when the greatest wealth is to have unpolluted, fertile land and clean water and air?

What can we learn from Bor?

A copper mine was opened in the vicinity of Mount Stol at the beginning of the 20th century, and next to it a settlement for miners and workers was built, which will later grow into the town of Bor. Then, as today, the Bor mine was managed by foreign investors. At the beginning of the 20th century it was the French Company of Bor Mines, and a century later it was the Chinese multinational company Zijin. Then, as today, the citizens of Bor had a problem with soil and water pollution, which escalated into a protest on May 7, 1935.

Since for the umpteenth time they lost yields in the fields due to acid rain and poisoned soil, the inhabitants of Bor decided to take matters into their own hands and block the factory’s smelter. Periodic clashes between the protesters and the factory and state authorities continued for the next month, but bloody fights and threats were not enough to dampen the spirit of the protesters, and they eventually won – the investor had to pay a three-year tax to all injured persons and build an adequate desulphurization plant. This joint effort of a small group of workers to stop the destruction of natural resources is considered the first environmental protest in Europe. Unfortunately, the victory was ephemeral. Additionally, the amount received for compensation was far from sufficient to reimburse for the long-term devastation caused by the pollution.

The following decades did not bring much improvement. At the beginning of the 1960s, a new copper smelter was built and the capacities were expanded, and a decade later a sulfuric acid factory was built. Although these plants were an improvement over the previous system, the area around the mine was still poisoned, and black smoke still concealed part of the sky.

In 1969, the director of the investment sector of RTB Bor, Živojin Gligorijević, stated that with the completion of the started investment venture, Bor would become an air spa and a place of abundance for the living world. It remains a mystery whether this statement was an unsavory joke or an honest, very naive attitude of Mr. Gligorijević. Times come and go, but more than a century old promises remain unfulfilled. The mining wealth of Bor has enriched numerous foreign investors and domestic entrepreneurs, at the cost of the health of thousands of people and all living things in the area.

Serbia as Swiss cheese

According to the data of the Ministry of Mining and Energy of Serbia, almost 200 permits are currently active for the exploration of ore deposits, a large number of which are carried out in the immediate vicinity of protected areas and some within them. One look at the map of central and southern Serbia reveals the incredible scope of these activities.

The marked areas on the map present land under mining exploration and exploitation activities. Source: The Serbian Ministry of Mining and Energy.

Research activities are carried out to determine the position and approximate the amount of desired ores, with procedures designed to minimally disturb the environment and organisms within it. However, in practice, adequate measures to minimize negative impacts are often not followed in order to save money, and such research activities can cause immense damage locally. Although experts point out that these damages cover small areas and are often not long-lasting, they do not take into account the combined effect of hundreds of these activities. Looking at individual cases, we cannot have a complete insight into the real extent of the damage. The situation in eastern Serbia, where protected areas stand as islands in a sea of ​​mining activities, is especially worrying. Under the impact of research activities are National Park Đerdap, Nature Park Stara Planina, Nature Park Radan, Nature Park Golija, Nature Park Kučaj-Beljanica, and the area of ​​Exceptional Qualities Ovčar-Kablar Gorge.

The Ministry of Mining and Energy claims that all exploration permits were obtained in accordance with the law. The question arises as to which law the Ministry is referring to, given that some of the issued permits cover parts of protected areas where such activities are explicitly prohibited. Despite numerous requests from citizens and civil groups, the Ministry of Mining and Energy refuses to share more information, directly violating the law on free access to information of public importance.

Who’s digging there?

The names of all companies involved in research activities are found on the long list of issued research permits provided by the Ministry of Mining and Energy. The list includes numerous subsidiaries of Chinese, Canadian, and Australian mining giants, so behind the numerous company names lies a much smaller group of investors. But what is far more important than the origin of these companies is their way of working and their influence. We want to know what benefits Serbia and all its citizens will have from potential and planned projects, and whether that benefit exceeds the costs of damages. Many rightly doubt that the intensification of mining will bring much progress.

The names of all companies involved in research activities are found on the long list of issued research permits provided by the Ministry of Mining and Energy. The list includes numerous subsidiaries of Chinese, Canadian, and Australian mining giants, so behind the numerous company names lies a much smaller group of investors. But what is far more important than the origin of these companies is their way of working and their influence. We want to know what benefits Serbia and all its citizens will have from potential and planned projects, and whether that benefit exceeds the costs of damages. Many rightly doubt that the intensification of mining will bring much progress.

The case of Zijin

Chinese mining giant Zijin Mining became the majority owner of the Bor mine in 2018, with plans for new copper and gold mines in the future. Three years later, Zijin received permission to open the Čukaru Peki mine in the immediate vicinity of Bor. According to the Ministry of Mining and Energy, this project foresees the annual production of 3.3 million tons of copper and gold ore, and the exploitation reserves amount to 36,990,000 tons of ore. That’s a lot of ore that needs to be refined and processed, and a lot of unfavorable and toxic by-products are created in the process. Based on the previous work of the Zijin company, it cannot be expected that environmental protection and waste management measures will be adequately followed. The series of lawsuits Zijin had faced and is currently facing speak for themselves, many of which indicate problems far deeper than non-compliance with environmental protection measures.

Due to the severe air pollution during November 2019 and January 2020 in Bor, a lawsuit was filed against Zijin. The inspection of the Ministry of Environmental Protection determined that the recorded levels of sulfur dioxide were dangerous to health and in some cases up to 8.3 times higher than the permitted levels. The verdict was shameful – Zijin had to pay a fine of mere 8,500 euros. The same verdict was defined for the heavy metal pollution of the Mali Pek river in March 2021.

For Zijin to obtain land for Čukaru Peki mine, expropriation needed to be carried out. During the process, many Bor citizens lost their lands and hundreds of thousands of euros unlawfully because of the underestimation of the value of their land. Zijin’s desire to get the land at the lowest possible price is clear, but it is not clear how their assessment is more legitimate than the assessment of the state of Serbia. According to data from the Tax Administration, land values ​​are often several times higher than the price offered, and Zijin gets what it wants more often than not. Several lawsuits have been filed over this problem, but few have reached a happy end. Even when citizens win in court, they wait several years to get the money, so those who lived off the expropriated land become “social cases” – impoverished individuals dependent on state welfare.

It is not only citizens of Serbia who are threatened by the work of Zijin. Chinese workers and miners drew attention to appalling housing and working conditions, 12-hour shifts, restricted movement, and confiscation of passports. During the COVID crisis, workers could not return home at any time, nor quit their jobs, condemned to live in cramped, dirty quarters, and grueling shifts until further notice. Unfortunately, it seems that the violation of human rights and laws within Zijin is not the subject of interest of the responsible institutions. The dust-up in the media was followed by silence.

The case of Rio Tinto

By finding a new mineral rich in lithium and boron in 2004 in the Jadar Valley, the Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto set in motion a series of events that would lead to environmental protests and great dissatisfaction among both the local population and the whole of Serbia 16 years later. The reason for the protest was a document that foresees the construction of a lithium mine signed in 2020 between the Government of Serbia and Rio Tinto. The plan envisaged the construction of a mine and processing plant for the new mineral – jadarite, and the production of three final products – lithium carbonate, boric acid, and sodium sulfate. The process of obtaining these compounds from the base raw materials is very dirty, producing significant amounts of tailings, which are planned to accumulate in the immediate vicinity of the mine, where they can be easily spread out by the wind, precipitation and water currents. Heavy metal pollution would not only affect the people living near the mine. The toxic material from the tailings carried by the Jadar River could easily reach Drina river, and potentially Sava river, thus causing an international ecological disaster that would also affect Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

The assessment of the mine’s impact on the environment has not been carried out, the methods of processing jadarite have not been fully examined because it is a mineral previously unknown to science, and despite this, the representatives of the Serbian Government confidently claimed that all environmental measures are going to be respected. Realizing the seriousness of the situation and the frivolity of the Government, the citizens decided to take matters into their own hands, and prevent the construction of the mine at all costs. Despite numerous violent and non-violent attempts to break the spirit of the protesters, they remained persistent and vigilant. In January 2022, the Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić, announced the Government’s decision to cancel the Decree on the Spatial Plan of Special Purpose Areas for the Processing of Jadarite Minerals, allegedly putting an end to the Rio Tinto saga. Not long after that, all the documents about Rio Tinto’s work since their arrival in Serbia were published. Although the government has met the demands of environmental activists, the activists expressed skepticism that it will stick to its decisions after the elections in May. The suspicion turned out to be well-founded, and shortly after the election, Rio Tinto again expressed the desire for negotiations that was acknowledged by the government.

The fight for Jadar continues and will not stop until Rio Tinto and all other mining companies interested in jadarite abandon the idea of lithium mine construction in Serbia. The residents of Jadar valley said they do not want tailings in front of their houses, but clean water and healthy soil. The citizens of Serbia have said that they will have nothing to do with a company that leaves behind social unrest and environmental disasters. Time will tell whether civic will and legitimacy are stronger than the insatiable thirst for profit of private companies and the corrupt state apparatus.