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Europe’s Last Heritage Farming System Conceals a Buried Lithium “Gold Mine”

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In the hills of Barroso high in northeastern Portugal, the water gushes down small channels built many centuries ago, winding through a mosaic of pastures, oak and pine forests, and arable and fallow land.

Sitting on her porch overlooking a carefully kept garden full of flowers and vegetables, Aida Fernandes remembers the day she first started taking part in her village’s community-managed irrigation system. “I was 12 years old. My father got me a small hoe and told me to be careful not to fall into the water. I grew up connected to the land and was told I should take care of it,” says Fernandes, now a 45-year-old farmer.

The ancient water channels, known as levadas, divert the water flow from the mountains to the plains. The collective efforts to maintain the levadas help retain the scant water resources and distribute them throughout the rugged landscape, keeping the slopes green even in the driest months.

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But the year Fernandes inherited the age-old tradition and took her share of responsibility for Covas do Barroso’s ancestral water system was also when she first encountered a researcher studying the region’s minerals.

“I was tending my family’s cows and a geologist asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Fernandes recalls. While many of her friends and neighbors migrated to look for opportunities in cities or abroad, she decided to stay. “I chose to give continuity to what I inherited from my ancestors and to stay connected to the land.”

The harmonious interconnection of agriculture, forestry and livestock pastoral production has made Barroso the only region in Portugal — and one of only eight in Europe — to be recognized by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).

“What makes this system so special is people’s strong connection to the land,” says António Machado from ADRAT, the local development association that submitted Barroso’s application for world agricultural heritage. “Everything is done with a lot of care to sustainably manage the pastures, water and landscape,” he says.

But the ancient knowledge and strong ties to the land that smallholder farmers in Covas do Barroso have maintained for so many generations risk being severed. In recent years, geologists have returned to the region for more prospecting. This time, they’ve come with big plans for the small village.

Lithium for the energy transition

Savannah Resources, a London-based company, wants to build what could become Western Europe’s largest open-pit lithium mine, right here in Covas do Barroso.

The lands of Barroso, a region formed by the municipalities of Boticas and Montalegre, are part of the historic province of Trás-os-Montes, meaning “behind the hills.” This mountainous area is believed to contain some of Europe’s most significant lithium resources, an essential component of the batteries that power electric cars and store renewable energy. As the world seeks alternatives to fossil fuels and its climate change impacts, demand for lithium demand is soaring.

The European Commission estimates 60 times more lithium will be needed by 2050 to reach carbon neutrality. The Commission’s vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, says climate goals can’t be achieved without critical materials like lithium. With the promise of powering Europe’s energy transition, Savannah expects to extract enough lithium to produce about half a million electric car batteries each year.

In May, the company received a green light from Portugal’s environmental agency, the APA, to move forward with plans to dig four mine sites in a concession area of about 593 hectares (1,465 acres), three-quarters of which is community-owned land, according Covas do Barroso’s residents..

The APA says there are measures Savannah will have to comply with, such as limiting the removal of vegetation, not taking water from the closest river and carrying out landscaping once the extraction ends. The company says the mine will follow the “highest standards” to limit its impact, and added that the area permanently impacted by the project will be only a small fraction, 0.5%, of the total agricultural heritage area. Savannah expects to receive its final environmental license next year.

The approval from Portugal’s environmental agency coincided with a European Union’s (EU) proposal for legislation to speed up mining licenses. The recently proposed Critical Raw Materials Act, which will likely enter force in 2024, would see the EU mine at least 10% of the strategic raw materials it uses to secure more of the battery supply chain and reduce the bloc’s dependency on imports, as the EU tries to limit its reliance on powers like China, which controls the supply of critical minerals.

Savannah aims to start production in 2026. But Aida Fernandes and others in her village have vowed to stop it. Citing fears the mine will scar the landscape, contaminate the water, erode the soil, disrupt local livelihoods and deprive them of communal lands, farming communities have strongly opposed the mining plans in Barroso.

“When we realized that our livelihoods and our homes were at stake we started organizing,” says Fernandes, who become a leading voice against the mine in Covas do Barroso. “At first we were shocked by the dimension of the project. Then we were outraged by the way the company treated us and the lack of transparency.”

In November, an investigation into alleged corruption in connection with lithium, hydrogen and data center projects led to the resignation of Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa after prosecutors detained his chief of staff. The investigation named as suspects the former Secretary of State for Energy and the president of APA, the Portuguese Environmental Agency. The agency had previously been ordered to pay a fine for denying Covas do Barroso’s lawyers access to documentation related to environmental licensing.

Local communities campaigning against lithium mining have urged authorities to suspend and review all lithium projects while authorities carry out the investigation and have filed lawsuits to stop mining. But even as the ministry of environment, APA and lithium mining companies’ offices are searched, Savannah continues drilling.

The association responsible for managing the region’s common lands, known as baldios, took a firm stance against mining. It has prevented the company from entering the baldios, and has accused it of invading common lands during prospection. Savannah says it is “entirely false” it is seizing land to carry out the project and that all activities undertaken by the company comply with the law. So far, it has only managed to secure about 90 hectares (220 acres), a fraction of the land it needs to develop the project.

“We will never sell,” says Maria Loureiro, a farmer who owns olive groves in the proposed mining area. “We live off the land. No amount of money can buy what I inherited from my parents and my grandparents.”

If no agreement is reached between the company, the baldios association and land owners who refuse to sell, the state can declare the project to be of strategic public interest to expropriate private land and force Covas do Barroso to lease the common lands needed for the mining project.

Portugal’s environment ministry says local lithium resources are of strategic interest and will have a key role to play in meeting the EU’s decarbonization targets. The secretary of state for energy and climate, Ana Fontoura Gouveia, says lithium projects are an “extraordinary opportunity” for the country that will bring jobs and up to 9 billion euros ($9.6 billion) in investment.

But promises of economic development and pledges of the “highest social and environmental standards” have failed to convince local populations. Mining jobs will last little more than a decade, while communities in Barroso have farmed these lands for many centuries.

Agricultural heritage at risk

“Mining might create a few short-term jobs, but it will destroy many more in the long term,” says Vítor Afonso, the head of the environmental organization People and Nature of Barroso (Povo e Natureza do Barroso), who also has a local ecotourism business.

“What is at stake is an ancestral system, a truly sustainable agricultural system that has been passed on from generation to generation for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” he says.

Barroso’s agro-silvo-pastoral system was among the first in Europe to be recognized as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage. The region is renowned for its high-quality honey, pasture-fed meat and smoked products, which are certified with a protected designation of origin.

The region is particularly well-known for the native Barrosã cattle breed, widely studied because of its ancient genetic heritage. With distinctive long and curved horns that can grow more than a meter (40 inches), Barrosã cows graze freely on pastures and marshes. According to the FAO, Barroso’s agroforestry production and extensive pastures have contributed to the preservation of the landscape and biodiversity while also ensuring economic sustainability.

Alfredo Cadime, a producer of Barrosã meat who inherited his family’s centuries-old business, says local farmers are very careful to only allow a small number of animals per hectare, so they can depend entirely on pastures and locally produced grain and vegetables. Barroso’s low-input system, he says, relies on the sustainable management of local resources. “We have done a lot to preserve the environment and suddenly we risk losing everything,” Cadime says.

With the increasing dominance of unsustainable industrialized agriculture, and at a time when the world is facing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, farmers in Barroso say their work is more important than ever to preserve one of Europe’s last agricultural heritage systems and maintain crucial ecosystem services.

The ancestral knowledge Cadime inherited from his parents and grandparents taught him to adapt to the mountainous region’s harsh conditions. It could also prove helpful as a model of resilience and adaptability to climate change that ensures local food security. But mining projects in Barroso, he says, “will destroy what we’ve worked so hard to preserve and will put future generations at stake.

Barroso’s agroecological system has also been recognized for its unique social systems based on communitarianism and mutual support. In addition to the collective management of common lands, sowing and harvesting are carried out jointly by entire households and neighbors.

“Everyone helps each other,” says Fátima Dias as she picks potatoes with her extended family on a sweltering August morning in Covas do Barroso. “We distribute the potatoes among everyone. It should last us until next year,” she adds while peeking at the day’s harvest.

Environmental impact

For the past five decades, Aderito Gonçalves has taken his sheep to the same hills bordering the Peneda-Gerês National Park, a lush mountainous landscape full of streams, waterfalls and deep valleys. He knows every path, every tree. The bells of his flock of sheep jingle in the distance as he starts listing the reasons why he loves living in Barroso.

“Here we have pure air, clean water, quiet,” says the soft-spoken 62-year-old shepherd from Rebordelo, a small village in the Montalegre municipality. “It’s heaven on earth. But the mine will turn it into hell,” he adds somberly.

Just about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Covas do Barroso, another company, Lusorecursos, is planning to blast the hills Aderito has come to know so well to extract battery-grade lithium. The project to build a lithium mine on a concession of 825 hectares (2,039 acres) inside the Gerês Biosphere Reserve received the green-light from Portugal’s environmental agency last September, and is expected to also include an ore refinery in the vicinity which will require a separate environmental impact assessment. Lusorecursos is also being investigated for alleged corruption, after suspicions were raised in 2019, as the concession contract was signed when the company was only three days old.

A significant portion of Barroso is classified as an important area for nature and biodiversity conservation under the Peneda-Gerês National Park — Portugal’s only national park — the Gerês Crossborder Biosphere Reserve, and the Natura 2000 Network.

“This is one of the best-preserved areas because it still has native forests and people’s lifestyle has helped preserve it,” says Paulo Belo, a birdwatcher who has been coming here for decades to look for protected bird species such as the hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), the red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio), the white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus), the red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) and the common rock thrush (Monticola saxatilis).

“This is the only region in the country where species like the Garden Warbler [Sylvia borin] and the Yellowhammer [Emberiza citrinella] reproduce. But their habitats are disappearing,” Belo says.

Opponents warn that mining projects in the region could cause irreversible environmental damage. “It could affect the rivers and groundwater, and it will cause a lot of noise and dust. It will have a major impact on local biodiversity,” says Miguel Sequeira, from the environmental group GEOTA.

In 2009, the discovery of populations of critically endangered freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) in the Beça River stopped plans to build a dam near Covas do Barroso. But according to Ana Filipa Freitas, a biologist who manages a freshwater pearl mussel reproduction center in Boticas municipality, the fate of this protected and endangered species haven’t being taken into consideration in the mining plans. “Mussels are very sensitive and any change in water quality and sediments can lead to very high mortality rates,” she says.

Lusorecursos’s proposed mining will also affect Iberian wolves (Canis lupus signatus), a priority species classified as endangered. “The mine will be located in the breeding area of a stable pack that we’ve been monitoring since the ’90s,” says Francisco Álvares, a biologist who specializes in the conservation of the Iberian wolf. “It will annihilate a pack and make reproduction impossible in that area.”

Portugal’s most prominent environmental NGOs say they oppose the planned lithium mining projects in Barroso, because they’re not sustainable, and the impacts can’t be mitigated or compensated for. “The energy transition is needed, but we also need to protect biodiversity,” says Sequeira says. “The cost of mining sensitive places like Barroso is simply too high.”

While Portugal’s environmental agency has acknowledged some of these impacts and listed measures companies would have to follow to minimize or compensate for them, environmentalists are critical of the agency’s decision to give lithium projects in Barroso the green-light.

By analyzing the mining projects separately, they say, the agency might also be overlooking the cumulative impact these large-scale mines could have in one of the country’s most important biodiversity hotspots. “The impact on ecosystems and local biodiversity will be cumulative, as the places that give shelter to protected and threatened species are destroyed or damaged,” says Sequeira.

Local resistance to lithium mining

In Montalegre, many say they worry about the impact Lusorecursos’s mine could have on agricultural heritage and biodiversity. One of the main concerns has been water. “The company will consume more water in a day than the entire municipality in a month,” says Armando Pinto, the head of the antimining group Montalegre com Vida (Montalegre with Life). “During prospections in 2017 some water springs dried up,” he adds. The proposed mining site is located just a few miles from the country’s second-biggest dam, Alto Rabagão, which supplies populations in northern Portugal.

The people of Barroso have vowed to fight against the mining plans by all possible means, including appeals to national and European courts. Antimining activists in Montalegre are working on legal challenges to stop operations, have boycotted elections and have been organizing demonstrations for the past six years.

Since 2021, an antimining camp has been held in Covas do Barroso every summer, bringing together local farmers, national and international environmentalists and activists. Last August, about 200 people traveled to Barroso to participate in the solidarity camp. Activists from as far as Latin America, Serbia and France joined discussions on how they are also affected by extractive projects, and demonstrated alongside people from Covas do Barroso with colorful signs and banners saying “No to mines, yes to life.”

Carlos “Libo” Gonçalves, a beekeeper and horse breeder from Covas do Barroso, brings his guitar to every protest. Since he found out about Savannah’s plans to mine the area where he keeps his beehives, he joined the local movement resisting the company and started composing songs to demand the protection of Barroso.

“My land is sacred land,” he sings, his voice full of both love and anger. “It’s time to fight and to defend what is ours,” protesters sing along. For Libo, it’s not just about preserving his livelihood and the place where he was born. “Here, we live simple lives but can live with dignity,” he says. “We won’t let them take it away from us.”


Source: Mongabay

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