Why you should care
The lithium mining industry is proving controversial in rural Europe.
High in the hills of northern Portugal, close to the border with Spain, the remote village of Covas do Barroso is in the grip of what local media call “lithium fever” — and a clash between two conflicting visions of how to protect the environment.
The fervor in the village, a short walk from Western Europe’s largest lithium deposit, was triggered by government plans to establish the country as Europe’s production hub for the metal, a critical component in electric vehicle batteries.
David Archer, CEO of Savannah Resources, the United Kingdom–based company developing the nearby lithium mine, is confident the project will help reduce Europe’s carbon dioxide emissions and bring “overwhelming social, economic and demographic benefits” to a poor and thinly populated area. But Archer has foes, even in a region whose lithium deposits have sparked a “white gold rush.”
More than a dozen anti-mining groups have sprung up across northern Portugal.
Many locals are determined to halt the development, fearing the mine will scar the landscape, pollute water and disrupt the sustainable farming on which the local economy depends.
“Mining is too often a parasitic investment,” says Catarina Scarrott, a spokeswoman for a local movement opposed to the mine. “They take away more than they give back.”
Scores of prospecting licenses are being applied for and an international licensing tender for lithium exploration is due to be launched early this year. The government expects the five most promising areas to attract about $3.6 billion in investment.
Lisbon plans to lock into a European Union drive to advance European production of electric vehicle battery cells by building a lithium refinery at the northern port of Leixões, creating “an end-to-end lithium value chain” in Portugal. All Europe’s battery-grade lithium is at present imported from outside the EU.
“Our aim is to go beyond simply mining lithium and create a whole industrial cluster that will put Portugal in the lead in this area,” says João Galamba, secretary of state for energy.
The rush for mining rights, however, has sparked anti-lithium demonstrations, petitions, social media campaigns and heated parliamentary debates. At issue is not only the future of local communities but also a belief among many campaigners that electric vehicles are not the best way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
“We will need to generate more electricity to power them, which will almost certainly lead to the building of more coal-fired generating plants,” says Renata Almeida, who represents an anti-mining movement near the Serra da Estrela mountain range. Fifteen requests for lithium prospection in the area were submitted last year.
During the past decade, investments in organic farming and small-scale sustainable tourism have helped revive local communities in the rural interior of northern Portugal, a region only just beginning to recover from devastating forest fires in 2017.
Many residents fear lithium exploration will disrupt this progress. “Open-pit mining on a scale Portugal has never experienced before will have a big impact on the natural resources and ecosystems on which our jobs, businesses and local products rely,” says Catarina Vieira, who runs a small sustainable tourism business near the Serra da Estrela.
“I started as an individual concerned for my community, now I’m a citizen concerned for my country,” says Scarrott, who grew up in Covas do Barroso and now teaches abroad. “Lithium mining and refining is a huge risk for Portugal and I’m convinced it will damage the country in the long run.”
Archer believes otherwise. “What is a very small development in mining industry terms could play a significant role in helping Europe meet its carbon reduction goals,” he argues.
Archer estimates that over the 15-year life of the mine, it will eliminate close to 110 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the need to ship lithium from China, Australia and Latin America and by supplying a vital material for electric vehicles.
He also believes the mine could revitalize a small community in one of the poorest regions of Western Europe. Savannah expects to create 200 jobs in the mine and about 400 indirectly, and Archer estimates the project will generate $278 million in taxes and royalties for the national government and local municipality.
Savannah is one of two companies to have so far been granted lithium exploration concessions in Portugal. The company, which has a market value of close to $39 million, plans to invest about $111 million in the project. After publishing an environmental impact study early this year, it hopes to go into full-scale production in 2022.
Savannah, which has held regular meetings with the local community, has pledged to meet the highest environmental standards. Galamba also guarantees that “all the concerns of local populations will be taken fully into account.”
Campaigners remain unconvinced. “Keeping our countryside and unpolluted environment intact is vital to keeping the rural interior of Portugal alive,” says Almeida. “Our landscape is the raw material on which our livelihoods depend.”
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