SERBIA: ‘We are not just fighting locally; we are sending a message to the world’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests against the exploration and licensing of lithium mining – for use in batteries, including electric vehicle batteries – in Serbia with Miroslav Mijatović, activist and president of the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT). Founded in 2014, PAKT is a civil society organisation (CSO) working on anti-corruption and the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms.

Miroslav Mijatovic

What is the ongoing civil society campaign against lithium mining in Serbia?

There are currently 172 mining exploration permits in Serbia, and lithium is being explored at 10 locations. The project that has progressed the most so far is the one in the Jadar river valley. The company in charge, Rio Tinto, certified the balance reserves of lithium and boron in late 2020, accounting for 158,647,256 tonnes – 1.7 per cent lithium and almost 14 per cent boron.

Initial investigations are also taking place in other places across Serbia, so people all over have joined our fight in fear of what awaits them.

The Law on Mining and Geological Explorations (2011-2015) declared lithium and boron to be strategic minerals, and therefore in the public interest, allowing land expropriation to be carried out for those mining projects. As a result, people are afraid that the state will confiscate their property at a very low price.

Rio Tinto has spread the rumour that it pays a much better price and this has played very well on the field, but it is simply not true. The company has so far managed to buy about 150 of the 350 hectares required to obtain a building permit and approval for exploitation, but I think it won’t be able to get much more. Now everyone expects a move by the state. It is not easy for the government to move on with expropriations before an election, but after these take place in April, the situation will get worse.

For now, the fight against Rio Tinto is taking place in the justice system. We have not yet entered the field of environmental protection because it is not yet clear which technological process will be used to separate lithium and boron. We have been told Jadar Valley is going to be experimental project, but we don’t want to be treated as lab rats. According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium and boron without a severe environmental impact. Available data shows that over the estimated 60 years of the mine’s lifetime about 90 million tonnes of tailings – mining waste – will be deposited in the Jadar Valley.

Our efforts are currently focused on the multiple proven violations of Serbian legislation and regulations involved in the state’s dealings with Rio Tinto. As well as violations of national legislation, including of the Environmental Protection Law, the Law on Planning and Construction, the Law on Agricultural Land, the Forest Law and the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, among several others, there have been repeated violations of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right of people to access timely and accurate environmental information held by the authorities.

All Rio Tinto contracts are labelled as ‘trade secrets’. The local community knew almost nothing about the project until a special-purpose area spatial plan for Jadar came to light. There are no real controls on what the company is doing because, believe it or not, Serbia only has three mining inspectors.

What has PAKT done to try to stop the project?

We helped the local community register their association, ‘We won’t give up Jadar’, and soon decided to start an online petition. We were aware of the fact that a petition does not have any legal power but seized the opportunity to create wider awareness of the issue.

We requested the help of experts and academics and activated as many public figures, including athletes and actors, as possible.

We also cooperated with an opposition member of parliament who was able to secure a meeting with the prime minister. We showed her the 300,000 electronic signatures we had collected and explained to her why we were against the mine, but her response was that we were against progress and that was the end of the dialogue.

However, the media began had started to pay attention, and when foreign television channels began to arrive in the Jadar Valley, we knew that we were no longer alone.

As for legal action, there are already three complaints filed against the company. The main one is related to large-scale environmental pollution.

For months we toured the Rio Tinto wells in the Jadar Valley and found out that nothing grew around them, not even weeds. Inspection bodies did not react to our evidence, and then someone approached us with a compensation agreement drawn on behalf of Rio Tinto, in which the company recognised pollution from exploratory wells and offered to pay damages to the plot’s owner. We investigated and found five more such contracts, all classified as secret. There may be many more, because there are over 580 exploration wells in the Jadar Valley.

We filed a complaint against the company with the Prosecutor’s Office in Loznica, attached the contracts, and requested an independent expert investigation to find out how many wells are leaking and what kind of pollution they produce.

What did the campaign achieve?

The campaign connected with the public, and in the second week of protests against the scandalous Expropriation Bill, which the government tried to push through the National Assembly by urgent procedure, there were over 120,000 people on the streets.

In the face of many displeased people mobilised in an election year, the government reacted. It first withdrew the Expropriation Bill. Then it revoked the decree greenlighting Rio Tinto’s project and backtracked on the spatial plan for the special-purpose area designed for the project’s implementation, which had been illegally introduced.

Since the beginning of the protests, PAKT has emphasised that these were citizen protests that did not involve the political opposition. This civil revolt achieved something that the weak opposition never achieved under nine years of rule – first as prime minister and now as president – by Aleksandar Vučić: the protests attracted a part of his electorate and gave him a signal to give in.

It really was the fact that people mobilised in an election year that did the trick. In our last meeting, we asked the prime minister if she had withdrawn the decree on the spatial plan because of growing awareness of the environmental danger, and she replied that she did not yet have all the information on lithium exploitation. It became clear to us that they are afraid of people taking massively to the streets in an election year.

This raises concerns that the government made what they view as a small temporary compromise to make demonstrators protesters happy but everything will return to normal after the April election.

How has Rio Tinto reacted?

We have not been in contact with Rio Tinto for over two years. We believe dialogue only benefits them because afterwards they claim they have engaged with civil society and have listened to our concerns. When we managed to convince other CSOs that this was the right approach, the company went on to found its own fake CSOs to go through the motions of civil society consultation.

So far, we haven’t received any threats from the company. Threats typically come from domestic extremists who mostly support the Vučić government. We are annoying for many right-wing movements and associations, so they threaten and attack us. While so far we haven’t received serious threats, we have noticed an increased interest of security agencies in our work. But as we have been dealing with corruption for more than 10 years, we are used to this.

What do you think will happen after the elections?

It seems that President Vučić has emerged quite strongly from the protests. He seems to have galvanised his electorate, because the public appears to have been sold on his concessions, and now they wonder, what more do environmentalists want?

In addition, some members of the opposition joined the protests in an attempt to score some political points, which only served to drive many people off the streets. As the opposition is divided, the majority will likely stick with Vučić for another term, and I am genuinely afraid that after the election we will see the real repressive face of this regime.

Our main goal will be to achieve the adoption of a law banning lithium and boron research, the only thing that could reduce tensions to some extent. We have submitted a bill to that effect and even proposed to set up a working group with experts from government and civil society. We urged for this to happen before the election campaign is underway, because we do not believe the government’s intentions are sincere. It is highly unlikely it will agree to pass this law by urgent procedure before the elections, so protests will likely continue.

What support could international civil society and the international community provide?

Any help and support from international civil society will be welcome, particularly in terms of amplifying and internationalising environmental issues. We are not just fighting here locally to protect our environment; we are sending a message to the world about the dangers of extracting lithium from solid sediments, which are simply not acceptable anywhere in the world. We all need to be vigilant.

As an organisation whose mission is to trace the flow of public resources and money, we have also made the connection between environmental and anti-corruption issues. This government is turning Serbia into a European landfill, and there are obvious reasons why it gives tacit approval for corporations to violate environmental standards to reduce production costs.

European Union (EU) companies and civil society should deal with this issue, because the situation in Serbia will eventually affect the business of EU companies and distort competition, ultimately affecting the quality of life in the EU.

Civic space in Serbia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with PAKT through its website or its Facebook page.