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Portuguese at loggerheads over lithium

Jochen Faget
September 8, 2021

The northern Portuguese province of Tras-os-Montes is planning to extract lithium in an open-cast mine. But the locals in this sparsely populated and economically deprived region are putting up a fight.

The letters HELP mown into the ground in Covas de Barroso
Will anyone help the locals win their fight against the lithium mine?Image: Jochen Faget/DW

Birds are chirping, and the corn stands tall ready to be harvested. A cow is grazing at the roadside while a shepherd is accompanying his sheep on their way to the pasture. There's no cloud in sight, only endless forests and huge letters reading "HELP," mown into flat broom shrubs and visible from a distance.

This idyllic landscape near the village of Covas do Barroso is in danger of having to make way for open-cast lithium mining, ironically in the name of environment protection. The mine would extract a crucial raw material for the batteries of electric cars and thus contribute to reducing global CO2 emissions and Europe's dependence on lithium imports.

Portugal's government has decided to turn the country into a big player regarding lithium mining. The nation sits on an estimated 10% of overall lithium deposits in Europe. But unfortunately, most of the metal is located in beautiful places such as Covas do Barroso, which makes it a breeding ground for conflict.

Severe ecological damage expected

The chairman of a local action group, Nelson Gomes, says the plan is to mine lithium here in four locations initially. "There will be huge mine dumps, and rivers will be redirected," he told DW. "The whole landscape and its ecological balance will be destroyed."

Anti-mine banners in Covas do Barroso
Locals in Covas do Barroso don't want a lithium mine where they live and workImage: Jochen Faget/DW

The group's motto "Yes to life, no to the mine" is seen hanging on more and more facades and traffic signs. "We've been involved in sustainable farming for centuries," Gomes said. "We're small family-run businesses, keeping afloat without much help from the state — and we're not going to give this up just like that; we'll fight against the mine right until the end."

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has even declared the region a heritage site because of the sustainable farming methods employed there. But that status is at risk now with lithium mining looming in the area.

Portugal's government, however, is pointing to the big picture. Three years ago, it adopted a multibillion-euro national lithium strategy. The idea is to set up a Gigafactory and a refinery for processing lithium ore.

There's talk of profitable and future-oriented technologies and jobs for highly skilled workers. Lisbon is certainly interested in making a fortune with lithium in the framework of the EU's Green Deal designed to accelerate the bloc's path toward climate neutrality. Environment Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes said: "We want to use our lithium reserves to profit from the added value chain resulting from decarbonization."

Will profits really stay in the country?

Whether this will be the case is uncertain, though. According to Nuno Forner from the environmental pressure group Zero, foreign companies are interested in mining lithium in Portugal, but less so in refining the mined metal locally.

"There are no concrete commitments by companies to help build a lithium refinery or a battery plan — the odds are the profitable processing of the raw material will happen abroad," he said.

Nonetheless, the government has already granted two mining licenses and defined nine regions for prospecting in search of what it calls "white gold." Almost all of these regions are located in northern Portugal and many of them are in the middle of nature protection zones. Some of them are even part of the European Natura-2000 network.

Most of the prospecting areas are in the northern region of Tras-os-Montes (literally: behind the mountains). In that economically depressed region, resistance to the project has been strongest.

Lithium mining faces resistance

More damaging than useful

"If the Barroso mine gets the green light, our region would be destroyed," said Fernando Queiroga, a district administrator. Despite all the difficulties and basically without any help from Lisbon the locals, he says, have been able to establish new markets for their protected regional produce.

"How are we supposed to keep selling our beef, if it gets associated with lithium mining," Queirogo asked. "Or how are we supposed to sell our superb honey, if the dust caused by mining activities kills our bees?"

According to Albano Alvares, who heads the local agricultural cooperative, compensation payments offered so far have been ludicrous. "The damage done to the forest alone would amount to some €70 million ($83 million)," he said. And maybe, mining would create jobs, but then farming does, too, Alvares insists. "Our cooperative alone has created 10 jobs for people graduating from high school."

He fears that mining will only require people with low skills, and the jobs would only be available for a limited period. He reckons that the mine would close after 10 years or so when lithium reserves in Covas do Barroso are depleted. The ecological damage would stay, though, Alvares warns.

Nelson Gomes, Covas do Barroso
Nelson Gomes fears a lithium mine would destroy the ecological balance of the whole regionImage: Jochen Faget/DW

And so the lithium war behind the mountains enters another round. The Portuguese Environmental Agency will scrutinize the environmental impact study presented by the mine operator. This study is rather sloppy, says Zero's Forner, as it neglects the impact on endangered species such as freshwater bivalves or the Iberian wolf.

"We have to think twice before letting our environment go down the drain, even if the use of lithium serves a good purpose."

The Portuguese government expects work on the mine to start as early as next year.

This article has been adapted from German.