The story of Serbian lithium is once again in the revival phase, even though, allegedly, the topic was put to rest at the beginning of the year. We all remember well when Prime Minister Ana Brnabić declared on January 20 that the government canceled the decree on the Spatial Plan of the special purpose area for the implementation of the jadarite ore exploitation and processing project, as well as that all administrative acts related to the company “Rio Tinto” and its daughter company “Rio Sava”. “All the decisions, all the permits, and we never had the contracts were annulled… This is the end of the ‘Jadar’ and ‘Rio Tinto’ project,” said the Prime Minister at the time, after the session of the Government of Serbia.
This was preceded by mass environmental protests because the mining of the famous “kryptonite”, due to the way of exploitation, can bring more harm than good. Those claims were the main slogans of the protests that took place on Saturdays for three weeks in a row, where tens of thousands of citizens expressed their displeasure and blocked the most important roads.
Due to protests and expressed fear of an ecological disaster, even the denounced multinational concern “Rio Tinto”, whose intention is to invest 2.4 billion dollars in the project to build the largest lithium mine in Europe and one of the largest in the world, decided to stop the project. Jadar”. At least that’s what Vesna Prodanović, general director of “Rio Sava”, the daughter company of this British-Australian mining giant, said.
This stoppage and the promises from “Rio Tinto” were preceded by several decisions of state and local authorities. After visiting Jadar and talking with the locals, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić did not sign the Law on Expropriation and that act will not be in the procedure until further notice, while the Law on Referendum was sent back to the Assembly for correction, so the controversial parts of that act were urgently changed at the request of the alarmed public.
The Assembly of Loznica, a city of 20,000 inhabitants, in December canceled the spatial plan that envisages a mine in that area, and all after the announcement of the President of Serbia and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) that this will be done and that in the future they will deal with “Rio Tinto” talk differently.
Moratorium and protests
At the beginning of the new year 2022, after Christmas, the President of Serbia stated that he expects the Government of Serbia to terminate all contracts with “Rio Tinto”, but also that his position is that they should not “disrespect the people”. Moreover, he expressed the opinion that a moratorium should be adopted until the end of the year so that the state does not lose its chance and money.
Discordant and, at times, contradictory statements from the top only increased the suspicion of environmental movements and protesters, which is why they insisted on a 20-year moratorium on lithium and boron mining, rather than a one-year moratorium. In that period, the collection of signatures for a people’s initiative proposing the adoption of a law for a permanent ban on the exploitation of lithium and boron began. 38,000 signatures were collected and the initiative was submitted to the Serbian Parliament, but it has not been put on the agenda to this day.
If we look back at the legal and financial sphere, even then everything was not clear and simple, despite political statements or precisely because of them. For the government, which claimed that environmental protection protocols would be respected, it was important that the lithium and boron ore reserves near Loznica are 158 million tons, the calculated value of which is 56 billion dollars, with initial investments of 1.5 billion dollars. The Minister of Mining and Energy at the time, Zorana Mihajlović, stated that Serbia could cover 12 percent of the world’s lithium needs with that project, noting that the value of proven mineral values in Serbia is more than two hundred billion euros.
Was that one of the reasons why President Vučić declared on the eve of the New Year that the “Jadar” project would not be withdrawn even though “some opposition politicians” requested it? Or perhaps it is what the director of the company “Rio Sava” Vesna Prodanović said, that the investment in “Jadar” is the subject of the Bilateral Agreement between Serbia and the United Kingdom from 2002, ratified in 2004, and that that document foresees internationally recognized investment protection mechanisms. Prodanović announced that “Rio Tinto” had allocated 450 million dollars for the development of the “Jadar” project until then, and that in July 2021 it had made a decision to allocate 2.4 billion dollars, provided that it receives the necessary permits and approvals.
Speaking about the protests due to the intention of the company “Rio Tinto” to exploit lithium in the Jadra valley, Vučić said that the company was brought to Serbia and those calling for the protests committed themselves to it through Great Britain. “Will you provide the billion euros we should pay for what they signed?” Or is it better to find a better way to solve the problem. It is important that there is a moratorium, no further activities of ‘Rio Tinta’. We will see what will happen next”, said the President of Serbia in the New Year edition of Večernje Novosti.
That “we’ll see” is just happening. “Rio Tinto” not only did not “bury” its plans, but the CEO of “Rio Tinto” Jakob Stausholm stated that the mining company did not give up on the lithium project “Jadar”, pointing to the reality that it is an incredible resource. That the world needs him. That Serbia needs him… “We have to figure out how to do it. The only thing I would say today is that we haven’t given up,” Stausholm said at a conference for investors in Sydney.
His statement comes at a time when the Government of Serbia is still in the mode of suspending this project, which it has stated on several occasions in recent months that it has been shut down, but also at the end of the “moratorium until the end of the year” that President Vučić spoke of, who today says that he still regrets that he made the decision for Serbia to abandon lithium mining and that because of that he “turned out to be the stupidest president in the world”. Commenting on the protest of environmental activists in front of the Serbian Government building, Vučić told TV Pink that the government did not make any decision, but that he decided everything himself.
“I don’t understand why they protested in front of the government.” When they protest, they should protest in front of the presidency and I will address them and tell them nicely – people, you are destroying the country. The price today is 82,500 dollars per ton of lithium, with these reserves it is 100 billion, because you understand what you are doing to Jadr, Osečina, Valjevo and the whole of Podrinje”, said Vučić and pointed out that Loznica would receive five billion euros from lithium mining and that was the best for the country, but that citizens believed in conspiracy theories, and that the protest leaders were “paid by foreign foundations”.
And Prime Minister Brnabić, who once said that the story of “Rio Tinto” has been put to an end, a few days ago she assessed that lithium is a huge opportunity for Serbia. “Before the discovery of oil, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe, and after that it was one of the richest. This is equivalent to that. I made the decision to suspend the ‘Jadar’ project because of political attacks on President Vučić and SNS before the elections, but I still think that it is the biggest development opportunity”, Brnabićeva pointed out, adding that she does not see the possibility of reviving the project.
Therefore, it was just a pre-election story, her opponents from the opposition will say, claiming that the new Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Đedović, wants to bring back the “Jadar” project, which the citizens opposed with mass protests, with her statements. They conclude that from her announcements, immediately after the formation of the Government of Serbia, that Serbia will be an important source of rare minerals in the world in the coming period. In addition to gold, silver, copper, zinc, it is also rich in lithium and therefore, as announced, the state will continue to develop mining while respecting environmental protection standards.
Regarding lithium specifically, Minister Đedović said that Serbia is lucky to have reserves of a very important mineral necessary for renewable sources, which are the focus of the whole world. “I think that Serbia should consider how it can use that potential.” It is mine to look at, to consider, to see what has been done, what has not been done and why it has not been done. But all countries that have a natural resource and do not use it are at a loss,” said the minister and stated that there is no use of a natural resource that is not harmful to the environment, but that the only question is what measures will be taken to reduce the risks. minus. The Minister of Mining says that geological research is currently being carried out in Serbia on 178 exploration fields – among which copper, gold, lead, zinc and silver are the most represented.
For the profession, such investigative rights are questionable and debatable because, as Ratko Ristić, a professor at the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Belgrade, often said, one should know that no company will invest hundreds of thousands and millions of euros because it loves Serbia, rather than to obtain exploitation rights. And these are mostly private mining companies that are interested in profit, not public interest. That is why, according to Professor Ristic, it is very important for Serbia that the Ministry of Mining and Energy starts to share exploration rights that are in the public interest, those that will strengthen the geological capacities of the country, primarily the Geological Survey of Serbia, whose experts used to do all the research, and now they are demoted.
Looking for an alternative
There are also new elements in the whole story, such as the search for alternative companies to “Rio Tinto”. German and Chinese companies have already been mentioned because both of them have the possibility to invest in a lithium battery factory and a plant for the production of electric cars that use such batteries in addition to the mine. Allegedly, the opening of the technological center of the American manufacturer of electric cars “Rivian” should confirm that the state will not agree to the mining of lithium and its export if factories for the production of batteries and electric cars are not opened here.
In such an atmosphere, a session of the Parliamentary Committee for Environmental Protection was scheduled for the end of November, but with bizarre twists and turns because the session took place simultaneously in two places. In the Parliament of Serbia, a meeting of the Committee was held, which was scheduled by the Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Environmental Protection, SNS MP Milimir Vujadinović, with the only agenda item on the use of lithium in Serbia, with reference to the impact on the environment and the overall economic development of the Republic of Serbia, as stated on the portal of the Parliament of Serbia.
At the same time, a meeting was held in Loznica, which was scheduled by the chairman of the Committee for Environmental Protection, Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta, who will state that on November 15, he properly scheduled a meeting of the Committee in Loznica for November 25, and that subsequently his deputy Vujadinović convened the meeting in an hour later in the building of the Serbian Parliament. The session in Belgrade was attended by ten members of the board, thus providing a quorum for work. The Minister of Environmental Protection Irena Vujović and the Minister of Mining and Energy Dubravka Đedović were also there, as well as the professors of the Faculty of Mining and Geology Dinko Knežević and Nikola Lilić.
It was at that meeting that Minister Đedović said that “the decree of the Government of Serbia for the ‘Jadar’ project was canceled before the Environmental Impact Assessment Studies, which were supposed to be available to the public and be the subject of public discussion, were completed.”
One should not be too perceptive and, based only on what has been said in relation to lithium in recent days, conclude that the “Rio Tinto” project is not dead but that it is slowly coming back because due to the lack of funds, our country is not able to conduct research on its own and that the work is generally left to foreigners. Concessions for the exploration of raw material deposits that Serbia approves last for a maximum of 30 years, after which the state, if something remains in the deposit, can exploit it itself.
And as for the prime minister’s reference to the example of Norway, we should repeat what Pechat already wrote on that topic. Unlike the oil-rich Arab countries, the Norwegians kept everything in their hands, sales above all. That is why many domestic skeptics believe that all this makes sense only if our country is the exclusive owner of that wealth. Since the prospects and quantities of jadarite deposits have a strategic importance for Serbia, the exploitation of the ore and its eventual finalization should not be left to foreigners, who, in that case, would take all the profit and leave us with crumbs and tailings wastelands, such as those near Bor. The Norwegian example speaks volumes about this – both in terms of profit and in terms of ecology.