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Challenging lithium mining: Serbia’s fight for environmental justice and sustainable futures

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In recent years, lithium has emerged as a pivotal material in the dual transitions towards digitalization and environmental sustainability. It’s a cornerstone of conventional batteries powering everything from smartphones and laptops to the surging demand in electric vehicles, symbolizing a growth-oriented approach to addressing climate change through technological advancements rather than structural reforms.

Within the EU, concerns over material sovereignty have intensified, exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict and China’s dominance in the battery supply chain. Securing access to critical raw materials like lithium has become a strategic imperative for Western powers. The EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) of 2023 reflects this shift, emphasizing local mining for tighter control over supply chains.

The EU has supported lithium mining projects across member states and nearby regions, sparking notable controversies in places like Portugal, Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic due to local opposition. In Serbia, a candidate country, plans for Europe’s largest lithium mine, the Jadar Project by Rio Tinto, were met with significant resistance. The local community, primarily farmers and agricultural workers, vehemently opposed the project, defending their land, environment, and way of life.

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Despite government support and international backing, including from some Western embassies, mass protests in late 2021 compelled the Serbian government to cancel the Jadar Project before construction began. This victory underscored broader challenges to the prevailing narrative of sustainability linked to unchecked mining and extractivism.

The Balkans, historically framed through narratives of peripherality and “otherness,” remain a liminal space between East and West. Serbia, part of the “Western Balkans,” navigates EU accession while contesting its extractive frontiers. The push for lithium mining epitomizes this tension, portraying Serbia both as integral to Europe’s green ambitions and as an economic periphery awaiting full integration.

Critically, the resistance against lithium mining in Serbia reflects global movements against colonial extractivism, drawing solidarity from diverse international groups. The Jadar Declaration, signed in 2022 by activists from Chile, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Serbia, exemplifies this unity in opposing lithium extraction and advocating for sustainable alternatives rooted in justice and land stewardship.

In conclusion, Serbia’s struggle against lithium mining reveals shifting global extractivist dynamics and the interconnectedness of peripheries within Europe. Amidst these challenges, local resistance underscores the potential for envisioning and pursuing alternative, sustainable futures beyond extractive industries.

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