Lithium mining projects, air pollution, and environmental protection issues have ignited large massive, and almost daily protests across Serbia during the week behind us. Citizens are mobilizing for their right to clean air, soil, and water, which has become increasingly relevant in the absence of the state’s efforts to provide a framework for a clean environment. The environmental concerns are also being mainstreamed in political discourse as the general election in the spring is approaching.
The latest in a string of environmental protests in Serbia was held in Loznica in the west, where Rio Tinto is preparing to build a lithium mine and processing unit. Citizens and activists held a rally after the city parliament canceled a session where it was supposed to review the local spatial plan, as a petition was submitted against the project.
Marijana Petković from a local group called Ne damo Jadar ( We won’t let anyone take Jadar), evidently upset, said for Nova TV station that Rio Tinto’s private security squads are at all times patrolling the villages where the company wants to build the mine, although it bought only less than one-quarter of the land needed for the mine and its facilities. According to earlier reports, the company’s representatives have been pressuring the inhabitants to sell their property.
In Petković’s words, nothing grows in the fields around the exploratory drilling points in the area, which is known as an agricultural area and where people produce high-quality food for Serbia’s capital. The people of Jadar, Loznica, and other affected places nearby have been complaining for two years that Rio Tinto, the government, and local authorities are all ignoring their requests for information about the proposed mine and processing plant.
Protest protiv spornih Zakona o referendumu i narodnoj inicijativi i Zakona o eksproprijaciji, ispred Predsedništva Srbije pic.twitter.com/457PAV8ciL
— Čuvari/ke vatre (@CuvariVatre) November 24, 2021
Violence erupted at Serbia-wide protests against controversial laws
While people are protesting throughout the European Union against pandemic restrictions, citizens of Serbia are protesting against pollution, controversial laws on expropriation and referendum. Thousands of citizens gathered at the protest by the Kreni-promeni organization and the newly founded Alliance of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS) last Wednesday to request the PMs not to vote for the said laws, promising to block roads if the expected scenario takes place.
Following the positive decision of the National Assembly’s members, the demonstrations were organized on Saturday across the country, where citizens blocked major roads.
Opponents of the expropriation law claim it is making it easier for Rio Tinto and other firms exploring lithium deposits to obtain the land
The police were seen using excessive force in a few incidents, and several activists were apprehended. Furthermore, the protestors accused the Government that it ordered the police to leave the demonstration place and sent hooligans armed with sticks to disperse the crowd at a road in Šabac, just north of Loznica. The violence sparked more protests and demands to release the arrested activists, which did happen two days later.
Da je ovde neko potegao oruzje,cela SRB bi se zapalila pic.twitter.com/kTcud4Dbg1
— Powers Austine (@powersaustine) November 27, 2021
Roads were blocked in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Užice, Čačak, Požega, Bačka Palanka, Valjevo, Lazarevac, Gornji Milanovac, Kruševac and Loznica.
The Alliance of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS) coordinated activists that live in the growing number of areas where other mining companies are conducting lithium exploration: Rekovac, Jagodina, Jadar, Loznica, Pranjani, Dobrinja, Gornji Milanovac, and Požega. Six civic groups founded SEOS.
The two laws were adopted according to an emergency procedure, which critics say is becoming a regular way to pass legislation and that there is no proper public debate.
Experts warned the new framework would enable Rio Tinto and other firms exploring lithium deposits to easily obtain the land they need to mine the strategic commodity. They also say the laws would make it much harder to submit petitions.
Tensions rise as referendum, elections loom
President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić announced a referendum on Rio Tinto and lithium earlier this year. Those opposing the activity are accusing him and the government of favoring the investors. Citizens of several areas, mostly in western Serbia, are afraid for their future and potential damage to the environment.
The Kreni-promeni organization has earlier produced a video financed by contributions from individuals to counter Rio Tinto’s video commercial promoting the lithium project in the media. However, Serbia’s public broadcaster RTS is refusing to air it, which resulted in protests in front of its building in Belgrade.
Kreni-promeni, SEOS, and recently founded political movement Ekološki ustanak (Ecological Uprising) run by Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta, known for his success to gather people to defend the rivers from investors in small hydropower plants at Stara Planina mountain and many other locations, announced activists would cause a complete standstill on Serbian roads next weekend if the laws aren’t revoked.
Kulturni ljudi ovako propuštaju Hitnu pomoć!
Traje blokada autoputa kod Sava centra, nekoliko stotina prisutnih, priključite se✊ pic.twitter.com/kCL8J43nhh
— Igor Mitrovic (@IgorMitrovic100) November 27, 2021
Environmental issues are political issues
Lithium is one of the most important points of dispute, but the Balkan country faces numerous other environmental challenges, like industrial contamination and the lack of sewage and wastewater treatment capacities.
Serbia is set to hold a constitutional referendum, followed by a general election and the election for the Assembly of the City of Belgrade in the spring. Environmental protection became one of the central topics for political parties as citizens are becoming louder on the importance of clean air, water, and soil, requesting implementation of environmental laws, and introduction of order in the sector, especially when it comes to emissions from the thermal power plants, district heating plants, Chinese facilities in Bor and Smederevo, but other companies in various sectors, also known for the huge contribution to pollution.
Protests were also held for the right to breathe clean air and against building a metro station and line at Belgrade’s main drinking water source.
Environmentalists, political activists, and experts have gathered in Makiš, where works have begun on the Belgrade metro system. The site is the most important source of drinking water for the capital city, and experts are criticizing the decisions, and at the same time, warning of potentially irreversible damage which may leave the capital’s citizens without the drinking water.
Dobro jutro sugrađani! Nadam se da uživate u vašoj prvoj jutarnjoj kafici… nekima je njihova presela. ON je otrčao juče trčećim korakom na svoju televiziju da "ispriča narodu šta se dešava i koliko ljudi je bilo".
Protest za bezopasan vazduh je napravljen bez budžeta, pic.twitter.com/XvMQuuZlE5
— Eko Straža (@EkoStraza) November 29, 2021
The Eko straža (Eco Guard) initiative held its third rally since the beginning of the year on Sunday in Belgrade, demanding measures to reduce air pollution. The organization highlighted that the parliament recently allowed delay of the implementation of the Law on the Integrated Prevention and Pollution Control, thus allowing polluting industrial facilities to work without integrated environmental licenses through 2024.
According to various studies, Serbia is recording several thousand deaths from air pollution every year, and every sixth child is ill with asthma. There were up to 20,000 people at the event, which is the highest turnout so far. Eko straža said and announced such protests would be held in two weeks in all major cities.