Since Serbia entered a post-socialist ‘transition’ in 2001, both large multinationals and juniors started exploring for mineral deposits and taking over previously state-owned mines and industries. One of the ‘pioneers’ has been London- and Melbourne-based Rio Tinto – one of the world’s largest miners - which has since 2001 been exploring in the country through their subsidiary Rio Sava Exploration d.o.o. Beograd. In 2004, the company announced the discovery of the mineral jadarite in the valley of river Jadar, and a potentially large deposit of borates and lithium was later confirmed . Both lithium and borate are on the current EU Commission’s list of ‘critical raw materials.’
The valley of Jadar and its hilly and mountainous landscape stretch in West Serbia. The landscape is filled with arable flatlands, hills, dotted with 22 villages ranging from more than 2500 and 100 inhabitants. The local farmers cultivate various crops (esp. raspberries, plums), engage in beekeeping, livestock farming, sheep and goat herding. According to official data, around 10% of the residents in the area of the Spatial Plan work in the food production [2:9]. There are two rivers in the planned mining and impact zone: Jadar and Korenita. Twenty kilometres downstream Jadar flows into Drina, major river running between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which further joins Sava and Danube.
This project is part of the ongoing lithium rush across Europe and the world, mainly to satisfy planned exponential increase in EV battery production. The Jadar project is dubbed as ‘smart mining’ by the company, and lauded by the government and supporters media as the future for the country which will make Serbia into a leader in the ‘green transition.’ This narrative also involves a series of other less progressed borates and lithium projects across the country . It must be noted that, while supporting private investments in lithium, and speaking of li-ion battery and electric car factories, the government keeps heavily investing in and subsidising coal operations, and faces criticism both from the Energy Community  and a legal challenge for severe transgression of pollution levels . On the other hand, Rio Tinto has made a great part of its fortunes on coal and uranium (with innumerable social and environmental issues related to some of these projects). The company sold its last coal interests in 2018, and shut down its last uranium mine in early 2021 (notwithstanding decades of local opposition). However, Rio Tinto is far from becoming a ‘green miner’ as it presents itself with the Jadar project. It holds massive interests in diamonds, including the development of new projects. Diamonds cannot be considered part of the ‘green transition,’ especially not on these scales of extraction. Furthermore, the company is accused both by the general public and its shareholders on delaying climate change action by refusing to set Scope 3 emission reduction targets, while its main competitors in the mining industry had already done this .
Rio Tinto has enjoyed unreserved support from the government, which claims the project to be of ‘strategic’ , ‘extreme’ and ‘exceptional importance’  for Serbia. In 2017 the government and Rio Tinto signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding “to progress the Jadar Project through the study and permitting phases, as per the law” . The Government also formed an inter-ministerial “working group” to implement the project. Another working group, supposed to be “more active” than the previous one has been launched in Dec. 2020, and it also includes the representatives of the company and of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) . The project is currently in the Feasibility and EIA stage, and, if approved, the company may start construction in 2022.
The company has been present in the area of Jadar for almost two decades, however, crucial information about the project got out into the public only when the government published a draft of the new Spatial Plan setting the area for the purpose of mineral exploration in November 2019. After 30 days of ‘public insight,’ and without any significant modifications, the Plan was approved in March 2020 during the national ‘state of exception’ due to the coronavirus crisis. The local organisations emphasise that an overwhelming majority of the local population has not been involved in the consultation process. Since then, the voices of discontent have grown louder, several local movements and initiatives have been formed, and we witness open mobilising locally and on the national level.
The Spatial Plan, according to the critics, presents multiple serious flaws which make it ‘illegitimate.’ The company commissioned the drafting of the Spatial Plan to The Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure; the draft of the Plan was produced, presented and approved by the Government before a number of other crucial applications the company needs to make to execute the project: EIAs, Declaration of Resources, etc. All the while, the company carried on exploration works through 2020.
The quantity and volume of ore to be mined and processed were not definitely explicin the Plan, which has multiple ramifications for planning purposes. The Plan mentions a company estimate from 2017 of 136 Mt. Afterwards, in Dec 2020, the company declared resources to be at 155.9 Mt. The Spatial Plan is developed for a 30 years operation span of the mine, while the director of Rio Sava in a recent interview spoke of “more than 50 years” lifetime of the mine .
The details about the technical process have been deemed ‘incomplete’ by the NGOs. The Spatial Plan has also been criticised for not addressing climate change impacts. Notably, the watersheds of rivers Jadar and Korenita and tributaries face increasing flash floods in frequency and severity, including devastating floods in May 2014, and, more recently, in June 2020 (see photo). West Serbia is experiencing bigger-than-global-average impact of climate change with increasing intensity of rainfall and floods, as well as drought and low water periods.
The opponents of the project further criticise the government on the grounds that the public investments in infrastructure – road building and rerouting, reconstruction and construction of a new railroad track, gas and electricity supply, telecommunications - have not been disclosed. This comes on the heels of a series of previous experiences in which the current and the previous governments subsidised and supported foreign investors in non-transparent ways, particularly in energy and mining sector. A local NGO alleges that several public Universities ‒ Rudarsko-geološki fakultet (Faculty of Mining and Geology), Mašinski fakultet (Faculty of Mechanical Engineering), Građevinski fakultet (Faculty of Civil Engineering) ‒ received large payments and donations from the company for undisclosed services, thus questioning the public role of these institutions . According to the local NGOs, in autumn of 2020, the locals have started receiving the decisions from Republički geodetski zavod (Republic Geodetic Authority of Serbia) that their parcels had been repurposed from agricultural to building lots, which would make it impossible to apply for agricultural loans and higher taxation 
Rio Tinto claims to have developed “strong relationship” with the local communities and that “that there has been general community support” . However, the local organisations and inhabitants complain about poor communication with the company and the lack of information regarding socio-environmental impacts and technical aspects of the project . As a response, the company states that jadarite is a ‘unique’ mineral and that it has developed a “new, innovative processing technology” which is pending patent protection . Activists have reported that the patented nature of the process has been used as an argument by the company representatives for not disclosing more details. The ‘uniqueness of jadarite and the technology are invoked by the company to make any comparison with other lithium projects as ‘irrelevant’ . There have also been claims of impacts on groundwater in the area during the exploration phase. Since June 2020, the company’s started land acquisition process. Its legal representatives have been visiting the locals and presenting schemes to buying their land and also offering ‘legal and sociological help’ to ‘relocate’ them . Locals reported being pressured to sell. On their webpage, the company says that it offers “Additional payment for landowners moving early” .
Local NGOs and several NGOs from other parts of the country organise public debates, protests, and work on gathering the media attention, as well as submitting appeals and petitions to the authorities. Despite this, the government keeps publicising and pushing the project, and has yet to engage with the community and NGOs, beyond publicly discrediting or deriding them. International NGOs have submitted a series of questions about Jadar and a number of other disputed Rio Tinto’s projects to the Chairman at Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meeting on April 8, 2020. The answers at the Meeting were found wanting, and they were resubmitted in an Open Letter on May 13, 2020, however the company never replied to this . Concerns with the water pollution of Drina led the project to be challenged for transboundary impact by an EJ organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina . The highly problematic track record of the company on human and labour rights, its business practices, a number of environmental failures, and destruction of cultural heritage and patrimony, are a cause of grave concern for the citizens .
Within the Spatial Plan there are 52 listed cultural heritage sites, including many prehistoric localities, Ancient Roman sites, Middle Ages settlements, and an important WW2 memorial (see map above). Within the planned mining and processing area is situated an archaeological necropolis of great value Paulje dated 1500-1000BC . Rio Sava has been funding excavations on the site since 2017 with Museum of Jadar . On the edge of the planned processing plant area is the locally important church in Gornje Nedeljice (photo).
The planned mine area is situated between two important Nature Areas. Mountain Cer and Iverak’s slopes rise several kms to the north from the planned mine area. The mountain range features Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, including three IUCN red-listed species: Eurasian Scops-owl, Eurasian Green Woodpecker and Middle Spotted Woodpecker . Cer is in the process of being recognised as the Landscape of Outstanding Features . Slightly over 5km east and south-east from the project area lies the Landscape of Outstanding Features “Cultural Landscape Tršić-Tronoša,” inhabited by 145 protected plant and animal species, including 62 strictly protected .
The development of the mine would involve buying off plots from more than 300 private owners, and the displacement of more than 50 farming households, with undefined impacts on many more farms in the surrounding area . Further impacts on local residents are expected from the road and railroad developments, and substantial increase in transportation traffic.
In the broader region around Jadar and nearby town Loznica, historical tin and antimony mines have left behind deep toxicity and pollution problems. Particularly dramatic has been the recent struggle around the pollution from lead smelter and the landfill in Zajača, with elevated lead levels detected in local childrens’ blood . The basin of Korenita, which runs through the planned mining and processing zone, have suffered a major disaster due to mining legacy. As a result of the severe floods of May 2014, 100,000 tonnes of toxic waste spilled from the disused tailing pond of the antimony mine at Stolice, polluting up to 27km of the coast and contaminating 360 ha of arable land . Since the company responsible for the tailings shortly thereafter failed for bankruptcy (and its director charged for tax fraud), the remediation was left in the hands of the government. After multiple partial fixes and more leaks, the government finally initiated full repairs more than two years after the disaster.
The problematic state of democracy and media in the country, numerous problems in the rule of law, especially in the area of environmental impact assessments and building permits, compounded by the perceived lack of open communication from the authorities and the company, lead the citizens to believe that the process is not being carried out in their best interest and in favour of the investor. This struggle is part of an intense wave of civil protests across the country against air and industrial pollution, as well as against the construction of small hydropower dams. In particular, there are ongoing deep pollution, social and labour problems with the multinationals’ takeovers and management of the iron smelter in Smederevo and the copper-gold mine district of Bor in East Serbia, as well as the state company’s expansion of coal mines. The mentioned recent large-scale mining-induced catastrophes add up to the local movements’ determination to claim their “Right to Say No” to this mine. The villagers and their supporters offer alternatives in the form of diversified and organic agriculture, preservation, care and ecotourist development for rich cultural, historical heritage, and important biodiverse areas and natural landscapes. Last but not least, they demand the right to clean air, land and water for themselves and future generations.