Thousands of Serbs have taken to the streets in Belgrade to protest against the planned development of a large lithium mine in the Balkan country and to call for tougher environmental controls.
Demonstrators gathered in front of the parliament building on September 11 to demand an end to the development of the lithium project as some waived signs saying that Serbia’s nature is “not for sale.”
Nenad Kostic, a chemistry professor, told the crowd there was no such thing as “green” mining, a reference to lithium’s classification as a green energy source because of its use to power electric cars.
The protesters then proceeded to block Branko’s Bridge — one of the city’s main thoroughfares — for an hour.
The rally was organized by about 30 environmental groups, whose influence has grown amid widespread concerns that pollution is worsening.
It was the largest environmental protest in Belgrade since April. Organizers threatened to hold more should the authorities not heed their message.
London-based Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest metals and mining company, is studying possible development of Serbia’s lithium mine, believed to be one of the largest in Europe.
The mine has the potential to generate significant export revenue and jobs for Serbia, especially if the country pursues plans to refine it locally and develop battery plants.
Demand for electric cars is expected to surge in the coming years as the United States, Europe, and China seek to cut carbon emissions.
Rio Tinto has said it would invest as much as $2.4 billion to develop the project.
However, protesters say Serbia’s rivers, natural surroundings, and air quality have already been endangered enough by profit-seeking government policies and fear fertile agricultural lands in the western regions will be harmed by the project.
“Our demand is that the government of Serbia annul all obligations to Rio Tinto,” said Aleksandar Jovanovic, one of the organizers. “We have gathered to say no to those who offer concentrated sulphuric acid instead of raspberries and honey.”
Organizers warned more protests lay ahead if the government doesn’t heed their demands.
More than 100,000 people have already signed a petition against the development of the lithium mine.
In a statement following the protests, Rio Tinto said it understands citizens’ concerns about the environmental impact of the project and would adhere to the nation’s ecology laws.
Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy Zorana Mihajlovic accused some organizers of the protest of using the lithium project as an opportunity to build their political careers.
However, she said the government would hold a referendum on the construction of mines and factories.
Serbia’s environmental movement has been spurred in part by what citizens say is worsening air pollution and a growing waste-management problem.
Much ire for the air pollution has been directed at coal-fired power plants run by Chinese companies.