The river flows through a fertile green valley, surrounded by pastures, groves, and fields. Rio Tinto planned to open a lithium mine here – in the Jadar river valley in Serbia.
A nearby field grows corn over two meters tall. Although it was an arid summer this year, the corn was big and healthy. One of the locals active in the lithium mining opposition explains that this region, the valley of the Jadar and Korenita rivers in the Drina river basin in Western Serbia, is very rich in groundwater. That’s why his field is so fertile. Water is wealth, and the future is agriculture, Zlatko says.
Jadarite mineral, which contains a certain percentage of lithium, was found in this area about 20 years ago. The opinions about extraction are divided. The multinational corporation Rio Tinto is interested in exploiting these resources. Procedures were initiated, including research, land acquisition, and permitting. However, the government halted the project at the beginning of 2022.
Locals were firmly against it and managed to stop the project – after their resistance had grown into a nation-wide movement including a series of blockades and protests across the country.
This valley is a factory under the open sky, a food factory. We don’t need some green agenda here. We are all green already, say the locals in the valley of the two rivers.
The locals became ecological activists gathered in the SEOS, the Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia. As the Jadar project is only one of many possible mining projects, there is a danger of Serbia becoming a mining colony, they say.
Mining research and extraction permissions have been a matter of public concern for months. Everybody knows that this is a turning point. When the mine opens in Jadar valley, the mining companies could then open another 30 mining sites. According to the draft of the country’s spatial plan until 2035, numerous locations across the country are planned for new mining projects. But the document still needs to be adopted.
“Sacrifice zones” could be a new term to consider. It emerged in the controversy around the energy transition. The term is an utterly political calculation. It didn’t come from the energy or ecology scope. That is to say, the connection between extraction and politics has spilled over into the reality of green capitalism.
We are now surrounded and threatened by escapists of extractivisim. Needless to say, extractivism is not a solution. One has to grow a resolution.
The Jadar project has been halted, but activists suspect the company will try to implement it again. Politicians are lamenting over a missed chance called lithium. They’re calling for a possible revision. The mineral has been discovered in Serbia, and Europe needs it. And the world needs it, as they say. It isn’t difficult to draw a conclusion.
In the valley people say that they will not leave their houses, although some have already lost their roof. They want to prevent the fertile valley from becoming a sacrificial zone for the raw material needed by the new green industry. They don’t want to become ecological refugees.
Locals and activists are now on the protest in front of the headquarters of the government. They are demanding the resignation of the president and the government and the dissolution of parliament.
No less. The state doesn’t run on batteries.
You may have already heard about this fight against lithium extraction in Serbia. People forced the government to withdraw permits earlier this year and announced that the Jadar project would be suspended.
Under public pressure, and after several blockades of major roads in the country and thousands of people on the streets, the project has been stopped.
Yet the activists suspect this is just temporary. The new round has begun, and the protest is in front of the government with decisively political demands. The environmentalists focus on the request to ban lithium and boron extraction permanently. The government has yet to respond.
Everything is further complicated, but it also raises concerns. People are on the barricades day and night, stopping the mining research. It has all turned into a tense chess game. It is a battle between David and Goliath, so the locals say.
What are the premises? Lithium is an opportunity, the state says again. Extraction is an opportunity, Serbia or some other country will say. And: The case is an opportunity, Serbia has something that the whole of Europe needs.
Lithium is the future of energy; extraction is the future. The narrative imposes itself.
Let’s question the logic of these syllogisms: rare metal and opportunity. An poortunity for whom? If we miss it, what will the future be for us?
Rare earth materials in the village
In his introduction to “Open Veins of Latin America,” Eduardo Galeano notes that people’s poverty results from the country’s wealth. The reflection on the five centuries of colonial history confirms it.
And in Serbia, there is a smell of rare metals in the atmosphere. The kind of rarity which creates the tension necessary for energy balance. It is clean and green power, directly from the exploitation field.
Meanwhile science is heralding another breakthrough. Graphene and Natrium-Ion batteries are emerging as new technological solutions. Perhaps, all could be done without lithium.
After all, electric cars won’t save the world. Nor ebikes or scooters. Noiseless and smokeless vehicles will circle the cities. But probably less so in Serbia, especially not in Jadar valley. At least not in the near future. There will be no electric tractor in the village any time soon.
Lithium is a rarity, straight from the sacrificial zone. The planned lithium mining is calculated to be cost effective, minus local resistance.
Isn’t a bill of this nature pure escapism?
Technology, workforce, or natural resources
As I write this, united farmers and environmental activists are in front of the headquarters of the government – and they will stay there until the demands are met, they say. While you’re reading this, maybe the protest will be over.
However the situation resolves, this tension between the expansion of capital and environmental efforts, will remain. There are seemingly unequal relations of power, but there is undoubtedly a stalemate.
As theory has it, capitalism has only a few running fuels. Each is based on exploitation, either technology, workforce, or natural resources. The last is often the exploitation of resources abroad, on the periphery, in sacraficial zones.
Everything they sell is ours, they say at the protest. Locals and farmers will point out that this fight is beyond the ideology of parliamentary politics; it is neither left nor right.
Tunes from far away, so close
In juxtaposition, not far from this green valley, an ecologically-enlightened consumer will find that everything is complicated. The song from the rock band Midnight Oil plays on the radio, but the lyrics were cut off:
How can we dance when our earth is turning,
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
The Western desert is where the indigenous community has been since the beginning. And the river runs red; it will feed the world with new gold, oil, lithium, and the company shares.
The song is interrupted by an advertisement. Like they don’t want to hear each other: as long as the battery lasts, while our earth turns.
Beds are burning
One of the great paradoxes of current efforts to ensure a global energy transition is that sacrifice zones are opened up. Capitalism requires transformation, green capital seeks new markets, but above all, it also seeks new raw materials.
And the river runs red; it will feed the world with new gold, oil, lithium, and the company shares.
If we exclude what this entails in a miraculous twist, we will be left with extremes and a mine wound. If we were to exclude elaboration, we would have escapist extraction as an overall result.
At the ballad’s end, a future eco-conscious citizen on the other side of capitalism, already green, finds extractivism in its purest form: far from the sacrificial zone, where bees bloom, where honey and milk flow.
But the future can wait. Agriculture is the future, as they say in the valley: We don’t need some green agenda; we’re green enough.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Mihajlo Vujasin is a freelance journalist and researcher. He was a journalist in the daily newspaper Dnevnik, an author of the documentary “The Town” (Gradić, TVNS, 2005) and a researcher and scriptwriter for the documentary “Excessive Freedom” (Suvišna sloboda, ZFZ, 2015).