Environmental Justice on civilian fronts in Serbia

Tamara Blagojevic

Similar to other reactions around the globe, environmental protests in Serbia started booming around 2019. but really intensified from 2020. Some earlier examples were the protests regarding the protection of the river South Morava. However, forms of civil action in the protection of the environment were initiated long ago, by widespread floods in 2014, but, even many years after, had no appropriate government response or proper and timely damage remediation, although they affected many cities, took numerous victims and deprived families of their homes and basic existential means. However, some of the newer examples have much less to do with environmental disasters, and much more to do with the improper governing, corruption and lack of sufficient or proper funding, and the subsequent poor law implementation, which lead to numerous environmental concerns, and served as a widespread wake up call.

In August 2022 the Ministry of Mining and Energy rejected the request for license renewal by Euro Lithium Balkan’s for the exploration of lithium, boron, sodium, strontium, and associated elements in an area near Valjevo in western Serbia, because Euro Lithium had failed to complete the required 75% of exploration works. In a written statement, the company stated that they did not appeal the Ministry’s decision, as it was in line with the law on mining and geological explorations. Euro Lithium also explained that it made a decision to abort the work for security reasons initiated by ”threats by a few informal organizations and individuals” and that 61% of the required activities had been completed before such protests. In late April 2022, residents from several villages around Valjevo and environmental activists blocked a road in protest against Euro Lithium’s exploration works. Residents had previously protested a number of times, accusing Euro Lithium of poisoning both water and land.

Similarly, one of the biggest of lithium undertakings – Rio Tinto’s Jadar project in western Serbia, was also met with a very strong and frequent public reaction. Apparently, this company found a new ore in western Serbia, called “jadarit”, a combination of lithium and boron, which can be used for battery manufacturing, for mobile phones, computers. and electric cars. But, only after numerous protests and road blockades were held all around Serbia, the Serbian Government finally made a decision to stop the cooperation with Rio Tinto under the public pressure of citizens and environmental activists. Although Prime Minister Ana Brnabic stated that all the permits, decisions and other acts were annulled, and all the requests and conditions fulfilled and granted, the public still had its doubts. Just some time after, Rio Tinto stated that they intend to reopen the lithium project Jadar negotiations, worth 2.4 million dollars, with the Serbian Government, and that the worries of the local community should be resolved by the environmental impact assessment studies. On the other hand, the Prime Minister Ana Brnabic stated that although she thinks that lithium is the biggest development opportunity in Serbia, she apparently doesn’t see any possibility to revive the project. Due to public doubt in the governing party’s promises, based on well established patterns in the past, in December 2022 environmentalists collected 30,000 signatures in a petition demanding that parliament enact legislation to halt lithium exploration in the country.

In April 2021, Zijin, China’s largest gold miner and one of the country’s top copper producers, who has been in Serbia since 2018, and has acquired a copper mine in the city of Bor, was ordered to temporarily halt work after it failed to comply with environmental standards and build a wastewater treatment plant nearby. This company has been repeatedly fined by the Serbian authorities for pollution violations over the years. In 2020, there were expert findings that some of the construction work of another Chinese company operating in Serbia, Linglong, surrounding its tire plant in the town of Zrenjanin, had been done without permits or environmental impact studies, leading to protests and backlash. Apparently, both of these two companies are well known for greenwashing by funding sports in Serbia.

Besides protests about mining and natural minerals, protests around the protection of water have featured in Serbia’s green movements. Improper protection of waters in Serbia, mirrored also in the lack of prescription of appropriate rights in the Serbian Constitution. However, some steps towards filling such gaps have been taken in the past, through initiatives for the introduction of the Constitutional protection of waters, issued by the Green Party of the Republic of Serbia, as well as environmental NGOs engaged in this sector, such as Polekol – Right to Water, and similar. At that time, the disaster activated the public and the civil sector, where many people all around Serbia participated voluntarily in building improvised coastal river dams, and donating food and clothes to the victims. 

Furthermore, the ongoing issue was the illegal construction of mini HPPs, built without the necessary permits, which can create permanent hazardous consequences for the water ecosystems, causing river flow to change and the rivers to drain. The only excuse used by the government in connection to all these issues is that there is a lack of funding in all sectors related to water resources and goods, which seems to be the biggest problem since in Chapter 27 of the Serbian Accession the negotiation agenda requires states to allocate sufficient funding. The MHPP projects initiated numerous protests throughout 2019. and 2020. Frequent efforts in the civil sector were undertaken by many NGOs, including especially the Renewable Energies Institute – RERI.

But, the situation is not so different in other neighboring, Balkan countries. Although the Western Balkan countries have signed the Sophia Declaration and initiated the Green Agenda to enhance the state of the environment in the region, there have been no visible effects to this date. As per the latest conclusions of the report on the progress of EU accession, all six countries of the Western Balkans have shown limited progress in harmonizing with the environmental policies of the EU. The Regional Environmental Protection Cooperation Network 27 calls the Western Balkan governments for cooperation in environmental protection, as they find many environmental issues having a regional character.

As we can see, the conduct and budget priorities of the Serbian Government, in conjunction with the lack of strong and united opposition, is reflected in insufficient and improper funding for environmental protection, the lack of public participation in discussions, the lack of transparency of the projects concerning the environment, the lack of proper and timely impact assessments and disaster preparedness, as well as the lack of uninfluenced, transparent and free media,  which all initiated the anger of the environmentalists, environmental activists and the appropriate supportive reaction in the civil and humanitarian sector. Yet, despite the willingness of the Serbian people to protect its air, water, land, as well as other natural heritage sites and resources, according to Statista, Serbia still ranks very high, among the most polluted countries in Europe. Although environmental justice exists in the hearts of the people, the constant efforts are frequently sabotaged or with little or no consequence of a longer duration. This is why a stronger regional cooperation is necessary, and a multidisciplinary approach and collaboration of different sectors, focused on preventive mechanisms, are of utmost importance.



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