Published by MAC on 2021-06-16
Source: Euronews, Portugal Resident (2021-06-15)
An impact study has gone ahead without consulting the local people.
Aida Fernandes, from the campaign “Não à Mina, Sim à Vida” (No to the mine, yes to life) in Northern Portugal, says that Covas do Barroso should serve as a reminder of the social and environmental damages caused by industries that claim to act in the name of climate protection.
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Lithium wars: villagers around Covas do Barroso tell mining company: “we won’t let you pass”
23rd May 2021
Villagers around Covas do Barroso fighting a government-backed plan to mine lithium over their verdant hillsides have vowed to block all possible thoroughfares to mining company Savannah Resources.
“We won’t let you pass” is the latest message trailed in an exclusive by Público, as Nelson Esteves, president of the association united in the defence of Covas do Barroso (UDCB) told his local paper: “we will not give up on any form of struggle we consider legitimate”.
“If Savannah thinks it will be possible to take this project forwards, it is very much mistaken”.
Headlines in Portugal these days tend to centre on the combat of Covid-19, but focus in northern areas is wholeheartedly on the combat of the government’s masterplan to position Portugal as a key producer of lithium – the metal used for decades in electronics, pharmaceuticals and ceramics, but which is now considered ‘indispensable for decarbonisation’ (in that it is used in electric car batteries) and the ‘digitalisation’ of society (due to its use in mobile phone technology).
Only last Friday environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes used the opportunity of inaugurating a factory in Moura for the production of flexible photovoltaic solar panels and high-temperature lithium batteries to stress the importance of Portugal jumping onto the lithium extraction (and production) bandwagon.
“I have great pleasure in being able to ensure that, in a country like ours, we would be able to extract and process lithium with far more environmental care than in countries where these requirements are much lower…” he told journalists.
‘Best practices’ is indeed a concept persistently brought to the fore.
Savannah’s CEO David Archer, for instance, has repeatedly said “the best green and smart mining practices” and “holistic concepts” will be applied to mitigate “social, ecological and technical problems” in the Covas do Barroso project.
He told Euronews last month: “We’ll provide Portugal with a whole raft of opportunities for downstream developments in the lithium value-chain.”
But for villagers who live from the land these words are devoid of any real meaning.
Savannah has said it reckons on extracting around 200,000 tons of spodumene concentrate (which contains 6% of lithium oxide) per year for roughly 15 years (the lifetime of the mine).
“This would generate €1.3 billion euros of revenue over the lifetime of the mine and boost Portugal’s economy”, writes Euronews in a detailed article about villagers’ opposition to the project (click here).
But as Nelson Esteves and all those who support the ‘anti’ struggle explain Covas do Barroso should have an infinite ‘lifetime’, offering multiple farmers and producers the same sources for revenue and subsistence that have supported generations.
If the landscape is plundered by mining interests however forests, grazing land and arable land will be lost – and perhaps most importantly, residents fear the area’s underground water supplies will be disrupted if not irreparably polluted.
Nelson Esteves explains UDCB wants authorities to understand that “the lands of Barroso are alive”.
“People living here will be affected (by mining) in their pockets and in their quality of life”.
“Just in the parish of Covas do Barroso there are 45 farmers who risk losing 30% of their support for production. There are 166 who use common land for grazing which falls into the ‘concession area’ of the project. This reduction of land available will mean producers have to cut down on herd numbers. The implementation of the mine puts our Seal of Agricultural Heritage at risk – and this will represent a loss of earning not simply for producers of Covas do Barroso, but farmers and businesses in the boroughs of Boticas and Montalegre”.
In financial terms, Mr Esteves calculates that €96 million will be lost in revenue from pine forests that fall into the concession area (and thus would be cut down).
Of that €12 million would be going to the State which co-manages the common lands (known as ‘baldios’).
“The State has much more to gain from the use of forests than from any royalties from the exploration of lithium”, he insists.
The 98 people currently employed in ‘different projects associated with forestry management’ also have to be factored in. “A good part of these jobs would be extinguished with the realisation of the mine”, he said.
“None of these impacts have been mentioned in the environmental impact study” that has gone ahead WITHOUT consultation with local people. “Nor have the long-term economic advantages that will be lost” if the mining project gets the go-ahead it needs to start drilling.
Already, ‘test sites’ show the devastation mining will bring to the area. Euronews describes “a bare landscape dotted with tubes that are the visible parts of the deep holes dug during the initial phase of the project.
Dropping a rock inside one of these pipes results in a splash sound from the groundwater” – which is translated by campaigners as “proof that a mine here will undoubtedly disturb the water supply of the village”.
In other words, authorities’ zeal to forge ahead with ‘the green transition’ is full of grey areas – not to mention the absolute determination by local inhabitants to oppose it.
As Euronews admits: “Despite the economic interests at stake, the government of Antonio Costa seems to tread carefully and hasn’t yet fully opened mining concessions across the country. Some in Portugal argue that the government fears the negative spotlight and the electoral backlash that would unfold from the scene of open-air mines in or near protected areas, like at Serra d’Arga, or near sustainable rural villages, like in Covas do Barroso.”
This is what civic groups will be holding onto.
Aida Fernandes, one of the main players in the campaign says Covas do Barroso should serve as a reminder of the social and environmental damage caused by industries that claim to act in the name of climate protection:
“The people who created these illusions should be honest”, she told Euronews. “When they say they create electric cars to avoid pollution, they should also mention everything that will be destroyed in the process.”
Green mining? GEOTA says Portugal simply embarked on exercise of ‘greenwashing’
13th May 2021
Authorities in Portugal have latched onto the words ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ to essentially dress-up mining interventions planned across the country that are neither green, nor sustainable.
This is the opinion of GEOTA – the Grupo de Estudos de Ordenamento do Território e Ambiente – an environmental NGO that has collaborated in many ‘Herculean struggles’, including the government’s hugely-contested and ultimately failed attempt to sink oil wells off practically every inch of Portuguese coastline.
GEOTA watched keenly as the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of Europe held another of its ‘events’ last week, this one on the concept of Green Mining, designed to “promote a sustainable and responsible way” to mine in various quarters of the mainland.
The companies taking part, with the government’s approval, defended the concept guaranteeing “maximum efficiency in the use of water, energy and minerals extracted” as well as the “minimisation of social, environmental and patrimonial impacts provoked by the effects of mining”.
But as far as GEOTA can deduce, “these projects are not as sustainable as they are presented to be”. Indeed the “appropriation of terms like ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ is wrong, says the NGO. This is, in short, another exercise in “Greenwashing” (for those unfamiliar with the term, greenwashing is an amalgam of ‘green’ and ‘brainwashing’. It was ‘created’ in the early 90s by NGO’s exposing environmentally harmful practices of big industrial groups).
Environmental engineer Joanaz de Melo, a member of GEOTA and lecturer in the Faculty of Science and Technology as the Universidade Nova de Lisboa explains: “The government has supported companies that want to mine mineral resources, highlighting the economic benefits of the activity and tending to devalue the environmental and social damage. In most of the affected areas there are local civic movements that oppose the installation of this industry, due to its negative effects on the environment, society and the economy”.
GEOTA’s belief is that if any entity should discover the resources available in Portugal it should be the State, “preferably through the national laboratory of energy and geology (LNEG)”.
The group also wants studies into alternatives (to mining) undertaken on a strategic European national and local level, so that potential conflicts of interest can be gauged.
For example, the ‘zeal’ to mine and refine lithium: GEOTA suggests “lithium mining in Portugal will not be competitive in a globalised market due to the high costs of extracting it in comparison with other countries”.
This is not the first time ‘experts’ have warned against the folly of viewing lithium as the next el Dorado.
Says Joanaz de Melo: “A strategic environmental impact study must be carried out on the range of exploration possibilities. Lithium should be seen as a potential strategic resource for the country, not a mere financial asset that can be exploited in the short-term at any cost.
“The environmental impacts of a mining operation can be substantially mitigated with good installation, operation, monitoring and inspection practices, however extractive activity will always carry significant negative impacts. Careful analysis is essential. (This analysis) should consider both the interests of local communities as well as the strategic value of other natural resources, namely biodiversity, water, soil and the landscape”.
GEOTA’s stand comes as in parliament this week environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes has been accused by minority party MPs of “closing his eyes” to the environmental problem of the proliferation of greenhouses in Odemira which (at last) local power is addressing.
A new law regulating mines was recently published by the current Socialist executive, and has been “roundly contested by environmentalists as well as some municipalities that object to having no ability to counter central decision-making”, wrote Expresso on Tuesday, adding that “for the minister projects of national interest do not have a binding opinion from local authorities, as they never have in their lives”.
Indeed Mr Matos Fernandes considers the law regulating mining represents “an enormous leap in environmental rigour and quality”. Says Expresso, as far as he is concerned, “there is no decarbonisation without lithium”.
A Portuguese village pays the high price of low-carbon energy
23rd May 2021
Nestled in a remote valley of Northern Portugal, the peaceful village of Covas do Barroso is at the centre of a conflict, pitting a mining company against the local community, which could have wider social and environmental ramifications for the European Union’s energy transition towards carbon neutrality.
At first sight, nothing really distinguishes this hamlet from the thousands of other villages found across Southern Europe, where a massive rural exodus has resulted in quiet empty streets that are only awakened by the occasional sound of tractors or the voices of elderly residents chatting on benches.
But in the mountains surrounding Covas do Barroso lie the largest estimated deposits of lithium in Western Europe. This rare metal, used for decades in electronics, pharmaceuticals and ceramics, is now intensely sought after because of its unique properties that make it indispensable for the rechargeable batteries found in the booming industry of electric vehicles. It is also an important component of many digital devices and systems that help store the energy produced by renewables, like wind and solar.
According to the European commission, Europe will need 60 times more lithium by 2050 (target year for carbon neutrality) for electric cars and energy storage alone, which is fueling an international race to extract lithium from the different sources where such deposits can be found, such as hard rocks, salt brines and geothermal water.
But for the people of Covas do Barroso, this scramble for raw materials and the prospect of an open-air mine translate into fears of deforestation, air pollution, water contamination, noise and an end to their way of life.
Interviews conducted by Euronews with a dozen residents, revealed that the vast majority of them were against mining lithium from the mountain rocks near their village, while a few were indifferent. No one was in favour.
“I think it won’t bring anything good,” said Paulo Pires, a local shepherd. “It will consume a lot of water, which we need for the sheep and for their fields. Instead of hearing birds, I will hear explosions, machines…there will be a lot of pollution.”
“I’m not against lithium. But I’m not in favour of polluting my village and other villages like mine in order to depollute cities” Pires added.
Savannah Resources, a London-based mining company, acquired the rights to the Portuguese lithium deposit in 2017 and calculates that close to 200,000 tons per annum of spodumene concentrate (a mineral containing 6% of lithium oxide) can be extracted from the ‘Mina do Barroso’ for about 15 years. This would generate 1.3 billion euros of revenue over the lifetime of the mine and boost Portugal’s economy, argues the company.
“We’ll provide Portugal with a whole raft of opportunities for downstream developments in the lithium value-chain,” David Archer, CEO of Savannah Resources, told Euronews.
Lithium development, because it is done in the name of green transition, is actively supported by the European Union, which has added this rare metal to its list of critical raw materials in 2020.
Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for Internal Market said “a number of raw materials are essential for Europe to lead the green and digital transition and remain the world’s first industrial continent. We cannot afford to rely entirely on third countries – for some rare earths even on just one country (China).”
A study by the Portuguese University of Minho, conducted for Savannah Resources, found that Portugal’s 60,000 tons of known lithium reserves (0,4% of world’s reserves) are “insufficient to meet the demand for lithium derivatives for the production of batteries in Europe”. However, the report also adds that these reserves “are very relevant in reducing Europe’s dependence on other regions of the globe and increasing the security of Europe’s supply chain.”
Several analysts, including Alexandre Lima, from Porto University, believe that Portugal’s lithium supplies are far more important than currently estimated. With his team, this geologist has been mapping the deposits around Northern Portugal for an EU-funded project, and argues that the country’s lithium potential offers a unique opportunity for clean, modern mining that could reduce Europe’s dependence on lithium extracted from places like Chile and China (the world’s two main producers after Australia), where this industry has led to widespread environmental degradation, water depletion, contamination from chemicals and conflicts with local communities.
Savannah Resources promises to use the “best green and smart mining practices”, which will mitigate “social, ecological and technical problems by applying holistic concepts.”
David Archer added that his company will recycle water on site and invest 6 million euros to build a bypass road.
These arguments infuriate cattle farmer Nelson Gomes. “How can someone call this a green project when just in the prospection phase we’ve seen all the destruction it caused?”
“This won’t bring any progress because people don’t live from this, don’t live from mines, it’s a lie, a fake propaganda, it’s trying to fool people!” Nelson insisted.
He and his wife, Aida Fernandes, have been spearheading a campaign to stop the mine, under the slogan “Não à Mina, Sim à Vida” (No to the mine, yes to life), which has resulted in petitions, protests and thousands of members on their Facebook page.
They also have the support of major environmental organisations like Quercus, the Portuguese National Association for Nature Conservation, and Friends of the Earth, which recently declared that “Europe is consuming as if we had three planets available, simply switching types of raw materials to meet our business-as-usual economic growth demand will not cut it.”
To further prove their point, Aida and Nelson took Euronews to the site of ‘Grandao’ (the ‘Big One’), the part of the mine with the largest reserves, where prospection works have left a bare landscape dotted with tubes that are the visible parts of the deep holes that were dug during the initial phase of the project. Dropping a rock inside one of these pipes results in a splash sound from the groundwater. For this couple, this is the proof that a mine here will undoubtedly disturb the water supply of the village.
“What will happen with all this water?” worried Aida, who is also the local president of the ‘Baldios’, a unique system in Portugal whereby the mountain lands are collectively owned by the villagers, who are allowed to use them for agriculture, forestry or grazing.
This region, Barroso, is also one of only seven places in Europe recognised as a “globally important agricultural heritage” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for its “rural subsistence economy, typical of mountainous regions, with poor utilisation of inputs, very few surpluses and where the level of consumption of the population is relatively low compared to other regions in the country.”
“It was here that me and my brothers grew up, keeping the cows,” Aida explained to Euronews. “That’s why for me it’s even more meaningful because I know this area since I was a kid. It’s heart-breaking to know that everything around us will disappear.”
Carlos Gomes Gonçalves also has reasons to worry. His 500 beehives, scattered across the area near the mine site, produce a special type of honey typical of the Barroso region, which provide the 56-year-old native of Covas with enough income for half of the year. “There will be dust and pollution” he said. “And it will destroy a bigger area of flowers and plants.”
The opposition to the mine could intensify in the coming months, after the Portuguese environmental authority declared last week that Savannah Resources’ environmental impact assessment was in conformity with the government’s requirements.
The project has now to go through an internal review and a public consultation, which are the last stages before the permit can be granted.
According to the mayor of Boticas municipality, which includes Covas do Barroso, 95% of the local population rejects the mine, despite the company’s promises of 200 direct jobs and 600 indirect jobs.
“It’s a fallacy” Fernando Queiroga said. “Because we don’t have so many people unemployed. It will be people that come from outside, they will come in the morning in vans and will return at the end of the day from other municipalities. This doesn’t create wealth, but it will destroy other jobs that we have in rural tourism, gastronomy and farming.”
Even if his municipality and smaller councils continue to reject the lithium mine, the Portuguese government could technically overrule these objections by invoking national interest and proceed to land expropriation, which will lead to lengthy legal battles.
For Lisbon however, lithium is not only seen as a raw material to be unearthed, but also as an important asset that could make Portugal a key player in the industrial transformation of mobility.
João Pedro Matos Fernandes, the Portuguese Minister for Environment and Climate Action, declared that “the energetic transition is a great economic and industrial opportunity for the country. We want to use our lithium potential to position ourselves in the value chain of a crucial element for decarbonisation.”
The Portuguese authorities are also keen to answer the call of the European Battery Alliance, led by EU commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, to build an entire value chain around electric vehicle batteries, from the extraction of raw materials to the production of these batteries. A market that could be worth 250 billion euros per year by 2025.
Despite the economic interests at stake, the government of Antonio Costa seems to tread carefully and hasn’t yet fully opened mining concessions across the country. Some in Portugal argue that the government fears the negative spotlight and the electoral backlash that would unfold from the scene of open-air mines in or near protected areas, like at Serra d’Arga, or near sustainable rural villages, like in Covas do Barroso.
Regardless of the final outcome, Aida believes her village should serve as a reminder of the social and environmental damage caused by industries that claim to act in the name of climate protection.
“The people who created these illusions should be honest: when they say they create electric cars to avoid pollution, they should also mention everything that will be destroyed in the process,” she explained.
“This is an attempt by the automobile industry to reinvent itself. It’s a business, and we are paying for it.”