Serbia: Wave of protests achieves victories against lithium mining

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Summary of the article written by Francisco Norega in

To foster economic growth, the Serbian government has recently made mineral resources available to foreign investors such as Rio Tinto and the Chinese mining group Zijin. Rio Tinto intends to open a 400-hectare lithium mine in an agricultural area along the Jadar River, 14 km from Loznica, a city of 20,000 inhabitants in western Serbia.

The company assures that it would be a “green mine”, that it would comply with all Serbian and European environmental regulations, and that the project would create 2,000 jobs during construction and 1,000 permanent ones. However, these promises did not convince the population, who are concerned about the destruction caused by mining activity and the contamination of land and water.

At the center of the protests there were also two legislative projects that, according to the protesters, were intended to facilitate the exploitation of lithium by multinational mining companies. The new Expropriation Law would allow the forced expropriation of land by the State when the projects are considered to be of public interest, within a period of only eight days.

Critics of this law indicated that it is unacceptable that the government has the right to make the declaration of public interest in a way that is not transparent, arbitrary and without defined criteria. On the other hand, the reform of the Referendum Law would effectively prevent groups and movements from launching referendum initiatives by creating a high administrative fee for this type of popular initiatives. It would also allow inquiries to be considered valid even when participation is less than 50%.

Environmental groups and civil society asserted that these laws would allow the government and businesses to sidestep popular discontent and environmental concerns and move more quickly with projects like the Rio Tinto one.

For all these reasons, for the second Saturday in a row, on December 4, new protests took to the streets of Serbia. In total, the protesters gathered at more than 60 points in cities, towns and highways across the country. It was the largest wave of coordinated protests in Serbia in more than 20 years. Tens of thousands of people sent a clear message to the government to stop the Rio Tinto project in Jadar and all other lithium extraction projects.

The Kreni-promeni movement, one of the groups organizing the protests, called on the population to block roads, bridges and streets for one more hour every Saturday until the demands are accepted.

Given the magnitude of the protests, the government ended up announcing a few days later, on December 8, that it was withdrawing the expropriation law from parliament, as it was reexamined and modified by the President, and the subsequent opening of a broad public debate with the participation of women workers, professional associations, representatives of companies and civil society.

Strong popular pressure and the threat of a new round of protests and blockades provoked another concession from the authorities: two days later, on Friday, Parliament approved the amendments to the referendum law at the proposal of the government. Not only was the administrative fee for popular referendum initiatives eliminated and the participation of the proposing groups in the body conducting the consultation was allowed, but it was also established that a referendum on the same issue cannot be repeated for a period of 4 years, nor can the parliament make a decision other than the referendum for the same period.

However, despite the fact that the Kreni-Promeni group said that the main demands had been met and that, therefore, it would not make sense to continue on the street, other groups and movements maintained the calls for protests for the following day, Saturday. Despite the concessions, the rain and the cold, and although in fewer numbers than on previous Saturdays, thousands of people took to the streets again on December 11 and again blocked traffic in the capital and other cities.

On December 16, the movement made another breakthrough: the Loznica municipal council approved the suspension of the development plan that allowed Rio Tinto to extract lithium in the Jadar region.

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