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Deciphering Rio Tinto’s influence: The mining conundrum in Serbia

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In the sphere of Serbian mining, Rio Tinto‘s possible compensation claims have become a focal point of discussion among politicians, with some treating the matter as if they were legal representatives of the mining giant. Interestingly, even delays in reaching a final decision appear to benefit Rio Tinto financially, as its Serbian subsidiary has spent more money in the last three years than it had in the previous two decades. April witnessed notable events concerning Rio Tinto. Initially, reports surfaced in November—albeit unofficially—that hinted at significant layoffs in Rio Tinto’s local branch, Rio Sava Exploration, potentially leading to its closure. However, these reports, akin to a pre-election ploy, mirrored the suspicions surrounding environmental activists. Despite recent statements by the Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Đedović Handanović, hinting at employee reductions, official data contradicted these claims. Records show that Rio Sava boasted a record 150 employees by the end of 2023, double the number it had in 2020. This surge occurred despite initial concerns voiced against the lithium mine’s opening, with neither mass protests nor strong opposition from the SANU suggesting the impending closure of the Jadar project. Simultaneously, during Rio Tinto’s annual shareholder assembly in London, discussions surrounding the proposed lithium mine near Loznica were notably absent until a question was raised by Sofia Stefanović, a PhD student at Cambridge. Stefanović highlighted the incongruity of reviving a project vehemently opposed by hundreds of thousands of citizens. She emphasized the undemocratic nature of pushing forward a venture that risks exacerbating social tensions, contrary to claims of listening and caring by the company. The executive director of Rio Tinto for minerals, Sinead Coffman, countered these criticisms by assuring the feasibility of the Jadar project without environmental harm. She attributed the non-disclosure of environmental impact assessments to the Serbian government’s permit revocation and stressed Rio Tinto’s efforts to engage with stakeholders and disseminate project information. However, questions arise regarding the actual activities undertaken by Rio Tinto post the Jadar project’s legal suspension. On the same day as the shareholder meeting, an analysis of Rio Sava’s operations was presented in Belgrade. Prepared by the Đorđević law office for the environmental organization “March from the Drina”, this analysis revealed substantial spending by Rio Sava, particularly since the project’s halt, raising eyebrows over inflated consultancy costs. Further scrutiny revealed discrepancies in data presented by external consultants, notably the Economic Impact Assessment of Jadar. Suspicions were raised regarding falsified data, casting doubt on the credibility of the largest Serbian exporters listed in the report. These developments underscore growing concerns about the potential misuse of funds and the true intentions behind Rio Tinto’s actions in Serbia, leaving lingering questions about the company’s accountability and the government’s role in safeguarding national interests.
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