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Rio Tinto promises 'radical transparency' in Serbia mine

Jack Parrock
June 25, 2024

Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is campaigning to win back public support in Serbia to restart a project to mine lithium. The Serbian government appears poised to reinstate blocked mining permits.

Shopwindow with Rio Tinto company name
The new mine would mean a lot of jobs and tax revenue for SerbiaImage: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

Mining giant Rio Tinto insists draft environmental impact assessments it has now released early prove its site in Serbia is environmentally safe to extract lithium.

In an interview with DW, Chad Blewitt, the managing director of Rio Tinto's Jadar mine in northern Serbia, said they want to "get out of the disinformation, all the false claims, and have a fact based dialogue."

The project has faced years of intense controversy and protests by Serbians who fear the extraction of a lithium compound will pollute rivers, destroy surrounding farmland, and force people off their land.

Rio Tinto's Chad Blewitt - Managing Director of the Jadar Mine
Rio Tinto's Chad Blewitt insists that agriculture will not be affectedImage: Rio Tinto

"There will be no dangerous goods, no chemicals leaked into the air, water or soil," insisted Rio Tinto's Chad Blewit. "We will never breach Serbian or EU limits. We are 100% confident in the technology in the studies and Rio Tinto's history of developing a large scale underground mine."

"Agriculture can coexist on the surface", said Blewitt. "If you don't just trust that the agriculture is safe, we will buy all the agricultural products you want to sell at market prices. All our workers can eat it. I'll eat it."

Government Permits

Focus has returned to the Jadar mine after Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic used an interview with the Financial Times to suggest "new guarantees" from Rio Tinto and the European Union would be enough for his government to reinstate the Anglo-Australian company's mining permits.

Belgrade revoked Rio Tinto's permissions after nationwide demonstrations by environmental groups in the run up to a heated election campaign in 2022 which have continued since.

Vucic has said publicly that he believes the mine would provide enough lithium to make 1.1 million new electric vehicle batteries per year. He is also campaigning for EU manufacturers to set up factories to build batteries and cars in his country.

Serbia scraps plans for lithium mine

The EU fears the Serbian government could decide to hand control of the mine to China, especially following a visit to Belgrade in May this year by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Serbian President Vucic has stated he expects the Jadar mine would be operational by 2028.

But asked about the timeline by DW, Rio Tinto's Chad Blewitt, insisted there are many steps to take before a date can be confirmed — starting with the official reinstatement of the mining permissions.

Protests to continue

The announcement that the mine may be given the go-ahead to operate has prompted a furious reaction by the protest movement which opposes it.

They say the government is selling out the interests of the Serbian people to foreign companies.

"We are ready to react," said Savo Manojlovic, the leader of the protest movement against the mine.

Rio Tinto insists that Serbians will benefit from its mining activities.

"It gives geopolitical power to Serbia in terms of attracting other investments. And as long as we receive market price for the products, it's more jobs, more skills, more taxes, higher GDP and economic transformation [for Serbia]", Rio Tinto’s Chad Blewitt told DW.

Environmental protesters also allege that because Rio Tinto’s new impact assessments have been produced by the firm itself, they are manipulated or unreliable.

"Governments don't do the environmental impact assessments," said Blewitt. "This is not unique to Serbia. This is a global standard, a global process everywhere where Rio Tinto operates in the world."

DW also reached out to EU officials who confirmed that impact assessments of this nature are conducted by companies and submitted to national authorities for scrutiny.

EU lithium demand increasing

The mine in Serbia is the only place in the world where a new compound now known as Jadarite has been found.

It contains a mix of elements, including lithium and boron, both used in the manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles.

The EU  is desperately seeking ways to diversify away from its reliance on China for batteries and is hunting for new sources of lithium.

As part of the EU’s plan to green its economy, its demand for lithium is predicted to grow 18 times by 2030, and 60 times by 2050.

According to Atlantic Council research, over the course of 2023, China’s exports to the EU totalled $23.3 [€21.76] billion for lithium-ion batteries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Serbian President Vucic during a visit to Belgrade
The EU is concerned that Serbia might otherwise allow Chinese firms to mine the lithiumImage: Serbian Presidential Press Service/AP/picture alliance

The EU's plan is to increase its imports of refined lithium - like that which Serbia's Jadar mine would produce — in order to make more batteries within the bloc, rather than importing the premade Chinese battery cells which contain it.

But, officials in Brussels say the Jadar mine would only amount to around 20% of the EU's future lithium needs.

"Don't overestimate either dependence on China for lithium, nor the importance of Serbia," EU Commission Spokerson Johanna Bernsel told DW. "We are also exploring in the EU and we are exploring with many partner countries."

Diversifying away from China

Economic experts warn that the EU has two main challenges in its mission to increase its independence in battery production — reliance on China and lack of investment in its own capacity.

"The good news is that one solution solves the other," said Niclas Poitiers, a research fellow at the Bruegel economic think tank in Brussels.

"We have to invest in bringing a new capacity and if we do this in a place that is not China, then the monopoly that China has right now resolves by itself", he told DW. "The Serbia example would be exactly what I would advocate for: Basically bringing new capacity in places that are not China that actually diversify refinement. And then if we do this in enough places, eventually market shares will go down and we only have to worry about price fluctuations."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer