Dragan Simović, a hero of the resistance against lithium exploration and mining in Serbia, is easily recognized by the Serbian traditional hat šajkača he proudly wears to all protest rallies. His speech is slow-paced and measured and yet his messages seem to resonate throughout the country. An activist and fighter, Dragan is first and foremost a hard-working and committed farmer, who runs his family’s agricultural household in his native village of Srednja Dobrinja in western Serbia. He is often compared to Miloš the Great, a legendary 19th-century Serbian ruler, who was born in the neighboring village of Gornja Dobrinja.
We took a trip to Srednja Dobrinja to meet Dragan Simović – an activist fighting against lithium mining projects of Rio Tinto and other companies, a young man whose wish is to spend his life in the village where he was born and where he is happy.
As soon as the protests began, nearly a year ago, Dragan emerged as a leader of the revolt in his village. His unaffected demeanor, a blend of the traditional and the modern, his archaic idiom, almost forgotten in the media, and his sincerity, without a trace of self-interest, have gained him popularity and the affection of people from all over Serbia, judging by social networks.
His activism has inspired many. His wit and courage have earned him comparison to Miloš the Great, who led the Second Serbian Uprising and later managed to secure autonomy for Serbia within the Ottoman Empire.
Dragan Simović says his working day is “around the clock”
Standing in front of his house, Dragan welcomed us with a beaming smile. He looks much younger in person than in photos or on screen, his thick dark beard hardly concealing his almost babyface.
Ljiljana Bralović and Dragan Simović protesting against lithium exploration and mining in Serbia (photo: Facebook/Dragan Simović)
He took us to a large room, which serves as both a living room and kitchen. Dragan lives with his mother, his sister, who is currently doing her master’s in chemistry, and his grandmother. His father, Dušan, died in an accident some 15 years ago, and he lost his grandfather the same year. The youngest of in the family, Dragan finished elementary school in Dobrinja and vocational high school in the nearby town of Požega. As a heating and cooling technician, he worked at a firm in Požega for a month and a half, but he quickly realized that such a life was not for him.
He returned to Dobrinja, where he now cultivates 15 hectares of land, seven of which he rents. The fields provide most of the food Dragan needs for some twenty beef cows, nine dairy cows, four heifers, and five bulls. He says his working day is “around the clock.”
How villagers in Dobrinja woke up
When they first found out about the plan to build a mine with a large pit and an even bigger tailings pond, and when they learned about plans for land expropriation and sale, and resettlement, most villagers did not pay much attention to it. With so much on their plate on a daily basis, from toiling in the fields to worrying about crop yield and prices, hardly anyone had time to think about “lithium, or something.”
Dobrinja village, landscape (photo: Branko Nikolić)
“When I was invited to a gathering at the community hall, I was incredulous. I thought someone was joking. To us peasants land is a treasure. I know its value and what it provides… However, when people came from Loznica, people who had long been in the same predicament, I realized how serious it was. I had heard, in passing, the talk about Jadar and the mine, but it had seemed so far away and unreal. Unfortunately, we live in a country where this cannot be seen or heard on national television. I admit that I was not too interested in the topic at the time. After the meeting, we all left the community hall shaken, scared, and worried. We had become aware that, as early as the next day, someone could just show up and start drilling, destroying the water sources, ruining the meadows, fields or forests, taking away our land and resettling us. Resettle me where? We’re all attached, emotionally, mentally, and in every other way, to this land. What would I do with the graveyard? My father is buried there, my great-great-great-grandfather, my great-grandfather, my grandfather…. Could a normal person just give up, leave all that behind? Can I take it all with me to some supposedly nicer and better place to live?”, says Simović.
“Someone could just show up and start drilling, destroying the water source, ruining these meadows, fields, and forests”
After the initial protests, residents of Srednja Dobrinja, as well as the neighboring villages of Gornja Dobrinja and Donja Dobrinja, came under pressure, while their activities were ignored by the local media in Požega. When they do talk about the mine, they brand its opponents as a “politically manipulated minority.”
Simović is angered by this. He says that a vast majority of residents of the three villages are familiar with the consequences of a lithium mining operation and that they will never allow it on their ancestral land.
All residents of Dobrinja who have their own agricultural households, he says, are against the mine. Those who say they are in favor of it are people whose children are employed by the state and have been threatened with losing their jobs if they revolt, but there is very few of them, according to him.
The villages have two rather large cold-storage facilities for fruit processing, three mini dairies, woodworking shops, two elementary schools for the first four years and one for grades through eight, and a pre-school class, while a kindergarten is soon to be opened, according to Simović.
“We’re currently collecting signatures for an initiative to ban the mine. Unfortunately, the local media do not dare mention the initiative. There have been no reports on the local TV station, not a single one,” he says.
Dragan Simović works 15 hectares of land (photo: Branko Nikolić)
“People have recognized themselves in my words”
Thanks to his authenticity, honesty, and common-sense reasoning, Dragan has become an icon of a movement that not only opposes the opening of lithium mines, but also seeks to put a stop to the devastation of nature in Serbia. This is how he explains it:
“People have recognized something in themselves, something they may have forgotten while life pushed them around. Maybe it’s that authenticity of mine. When you recognize that something in the way someone speaks, then you wake up and ask yourself why things are the way they are. And thank God, people all over Serbia are waking up,” he says.
Although very young, Dragan is deeply rooted in Serbian tradition. He believes that problems in our society arose when we abandoned our centuries-old customs, culture, and traditional upbringing. In his opinion, the countryside is an oasis, the only place where his people’s heritage is preserved.
“We survived because our faith in God, in our land, in our fathers and grandfathers was strong… All this has been constantly poisoned for thirty years, or even much longer. Today, everyone has rights and no one has obligations. They’ve ruined our education system, they’ve ruined family values. Healthy relationships survive only in the countryside. Those people who are for the mine have forgotten God, as they have forgotten that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers died for this land. They have forgotten the value of the land – all they care about is money. Luckily, there are very few such people in our village,” says Simović.
The widespread misconception that peasants are ignorant no longer holds water. A vast majority of Dobrinja residents know very well what “benefits” they would reap if lithium mining were to begin. Although limited to personal contacts, gatherings, and social networks, activists are conveying their message successfully.
“The race for survival and material gain has obliterated the humanity in people”
Unfortunately, agriculture is also in poor shape. Villages are neglected, as if someone wants them deserted. Prices of farm products are at a minimum, below the threshold of commercial viability. Road, water supply and sewerage infrastructure is also bad condition.
Dragan Simović raises 20 cows on his estate in Srednja Dobrinja
His views on contemporary society are even gloomier. People, according to him, are alienated and disconnected from one another, and there is no sense of community. The race for survival and material gain has obliterated the humanity in people, says Simović. Today, one must work all day long in order to survive. People don’t visit each other. No one ever bothers to sing a song anymore, as people used to do in villages while harvesting or doing some other work in the fields. “When you deprive a man of his faith and culture, you somehow imprison him,” he says.
“It’s easy to be brave and fight when you have people like them around you”
Simović, however, is more optimistic when he talks about the resistance against the mine and people in his village. He takes pride in the fact that at least ten villagers came to ask his family if they needed any help with works in the field while he was away camping and protesting outside the Serbian presidency in Belgrade, demanding, among other things, a permanent ban on lithium mining in Serbia as well as in Dobrinja.
“It’s easy to be brave and fight when you have people like them around you. That’s why there will never be a lithium mine in my village. Speaking for myself, I know I will fight to the end,” he says.
He continues, with great pride: “I can’t disgrace my great-great-grandfather, who went through the Albanian Golgotha in the First World War and earned a medal, or my great-grandfather, who fought for six years during the Second World War, or my grandfather, or my father, who fought in this last war and was awarded a medal for bravery. They fought in wars, and they struggled and starved to buy this land, one small plot at a time. I vowed to my late grandfather never to sell the land except, God forbid, in case of illness or to pay for my children’s education. I will never break that vow.”