Rio Tinto’s lithium mine plan electrifies Serbia

Through knee-deep snow, Marijana Petkovic climbed to a hilltop monastery overlooking Serbia’s Jadar valley — where one of the world’s largest resources groups wants to mine one of Europe’s biggest lithium deposits.

Extraction of a metal vital to the electric vehicle revolution would be a potential economic boon for Serbia and help Europe’s access to a key strategic resource. But Petkovic, one of a group of campaigners against the planned mine, is focused on the threat to the farmland below.

“Twenty-two villages down there would be lost completely,” Petkovic, a school teacher in nearby Gornje Nedeljice, said. “Lithium may make the rest of the world cleaner, and it may help Western Europeans to feel good about themselves. Here, it would create a dump and destroy our lives.”

In an interim victory for opponents of the project, owned by Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto, a local council in Loznica this month withdrew a zoning decision to allow industrial development in the valley, after several large protests.

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, who supports the mine, said it would not proceed unless the country supported it and environmental standards were applied. “People can choose . . . I’m ready to listen to both sides,” he told the Financial Times in an interview last week. “If it’s not [possible] we will not go for it,” he said.

Rio, which has pledged to invest $2.4bn to build the mine, has insisted it would not abandon the development and pledged more dialogue with locals. Responding to media reports that the mine would be paused, it said the project “continues at pace”.

Marijana Petkovic, in the village of Gornje Nedeljice, says 22 villages would be lost if the mine went ahead © Marko Djurica/FT

First saleable production is forecast for 2026 and by 2029 the mine could be delivering 58,000 tonnes a year of lithium carbonate — enough to power more than 1m electric cars.

To win over locals it has renovated schools and sports facilities. It has also bought up property at attractive premiums.

Rio said the environmental effect of the 500m-deep shafts, a processing plant and waste storage facility would be minimal. The site should have little visible impact, according to Sinead Kaufman, the geologist who heads Rio’s minerals business.

“It will be one of the most modern mines in the world built to the highest environmental standards,” she said.

But protesters and environmentalists believe the project would destroy picturesque and valuable farmland. “There is no chance that this mine can extract lithium in an ecologically sustainable way,” said Savo Manojlovic, leader of Kreni Promeni (Go, Change), the main group behind the protests. “This is not like the West’s green passion. For us it’s a matter of survival.”

The protests in Serbia reflect a wider challenge facing the mining industry and policymakers as they shift to cleaner energy. Electrifying the global economy requires more minerals such as copper, lithium and cobalt, yet it is becoming more difficult to overcome opposition to new mines.

Map of Serbia

Serbia’s per capita economic output is roughly one-third of Western Europe’s and Belgrade hopes lithium will become an economic mainstay. Rio says the mine would contribute 1 per cent directly and 4 per cent indirectly to the country’s gross domestic product.

The government sees further benefits from making Jadar part of a battery metal supply chain from mining to EV production. The total economic impact, including other investments, could be more than €10bn annually, as much as 22 per cent of GDP, the government says.

According to documents seen by the FT, Belgrade envisages China’s CATL, the world’s largest battery maker by market share, investing as much as €2.5bn. Other battery makers such as Germany’s Varta or Slovakia’s InoBat, a Rio-backed company, may add a further €1.5bn, the government analysis shows. A carmaker like Volkswagen could invest €3bn in EV manufacturing.

The plans remain uncertain, according to some of the companies Serbia hopes to attract. CATL could not be reached for comment. A person familiar with VW’s plans said the company had not committed to any investment in Serbia, one of many options in the region. Varta has no planned investments in Serbia.

Manojlovic said any proceeds from lithium would be a far cry from the government’s upbeat numbers and would not benefit locals. “The mine will benefit Serbians like diamonds benefit the Congolese,” he said.

Beyond its economic consequences, the mine would also have geopolitical impact. Serbia is part of a tussle for influence in the Balkans between the EU, Russia and China. Lithium would allow Belgrade more leverage with the EU, which has fallen behind China in the race for battery materials, and especially Germany, whose carmakers want to source batteries locally rather than depend on Beijing.

Houses sold to Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto has bought up houses in the area at attractive premiums as part of its campaign to win local support © Marko Djurica/FT

Vucic signalled he would work with the EU on the project.

“We have good co-operation with China — but speaking about these raw materials and everything else (about the lithium project) we are ready to sign an agreement with the EU,” he said, adding that in exchange Belgrade wanted EU participation to develop the entire value chain from mining to new cars.

Belgrade has tried to facilitate the Jadar project but the scale of protests has made Vucic pause. Serbia is due to stage presidential and parliamentary elections in April and the environment has climbed the political agenda. Vucic visited Jadar this month and said it gave him more sense of the degree of local resistance — to the satisfaction of those campaigning against the mine.

“Until recently, ours was a lonely fight,” Petkovic said. “The protests gave us a huge boost, put us on a national scale. Vucic used to call us a bunch of rural drunks — now he comes creeping back on his knees.”

Additional reporting by Joe Miller in Frankfurt

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