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Balancing Serbia’s lithium wealth with environmental responsibilities

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Serbia’s aggressive foreign policy stance towards its neighbors is matched by its valuable lithium reserves, estimated to account for about 1.3 percent of global reserves. Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining corporation, has plans to develop one of Europe’s largest lithium mines in the Jadar Valley of western Serbia. However, concerns are mounting regarding the environmental and social impact of such an endeavor.

Environmentalists, scientists, and opposition figures in Serbia have long warned of the potential for irreversible damage to agricultural lands and the contamination of the Drina and Save rivers, which provide water to approximately 2.5 million people. Despite significant public opposition, including large-scale protests in 2021/2022 that led to a temporary halt to the project, President Vucic now views the decision to pause the project as a mistake, signaling potential resumption in the future.

Critics see the lithium project as a new form of colonization, with concerns over the lack of transparency in the deal between Rio Tinto and Serbian leadership. Despite these reservations, the European Commission has expressed support for the project, signing a “letter of intent” with Belgrade to initiate a strategic partnership for the exploitation of critical raw materials, including lithium. Germany has also shown keen interest, with both former Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock emphasizing the importance of lithium.

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Environmental activists, such as Serbian activist Bojana Novakovic, continue to oppose the project, calling for global solidarity against the destruction of nature and indigenous populations in the name of a “green transition.” They criticize the EU’s perceived hypocrisy in the Balkans, accusing it of facilitating environmental degradation by relocating highly toxic production to poorer countries and engaging in partnerships with non-democratic forces.

Tihomir Dakic, head of the Center for the Environment in Bosnia, condemns the lack of transparency in resource exploitation concessions and the cooperation between international enterprises and non-democratic actors. He warns that Western investors are eyeing the Balkans for its untapped resources, drawn by the region’s illiberal power structures.

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