The latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, emphasizes humanity’s detrimental impact on the climate. The report reveals that neglecting climate issues has resulted in severe consequences worldwide, including wildfires and floods. It underscores the glaring lack of political will to tackle environmental problems.

Climate and environmental activists in Serbia

Environmental activists everywhere, especially in Serbia confront an array of issues, encompassing the safeguarding of rivers, forests, and natural resources. Organizations such as “Pravo na vodu” (Right to water) and “Marš sa Drine” (Go away from the Drina river) actively oppose projects that pose environmental risks, including the construction of small hydroelectric plants and lithium mines.

These activists employ a range of strategies, from legal actions and civil disobedience campaigns to offering support to local groups grappling with environmental challenges and limited resources. However, they grapple with the negative portrayal of being labeled “fake environmentalists” while facing pressure from authorities and investors. These activists recognize the need for greater citizen involvement and improved cooperation with institutions to bring about positive changes in Serbia’s environmental protection. 

The environmental challenges in Serbia, marked by air and water pollution, are exacerbated by the construction of mini-hydroelectric plants and a lithium mine. These concerns gave rise to the “Ekološki ustanak” (Ecological Uprising) campaign, where citizens demanded action against environmentally harmful projects and stricter standards. All this sparked the interest among Serbian youth in environmental issues, emphasizing the need for formal and informal education to raise awareness.

In contrast to the 1990s, Serbia’s political landscape has shifted, with ecology taking center stage and citizens emerging as primary actors. While environmental protests across the nation may go unnoticed, they exemplify the populace’s resilience despite challenges from authorities and investors. The environmental movement in Serbia strives for legal compliance by investors and government support. However, issues remain, such as political monopolies, and media control. 

Big companies’ plans

According to Rio Tinto’s latest quarterly report, the company remains optimistic about its lithium-borate mining project in Serbia, despite the Serbian government’s decision to halt the project due to widespread protests. The report states, among other things, that the project has the potential to stimulate the growth of various industries in Serbia. In January 2022, the Serbian government announced the revocation of its decree that had initially approved the Rio Tinto project in western Serbia; however, environmental activists have raised concerns that the company has not abandoned the project and has been quietly acquiring land in the Jadar region. A representative from the Regulatory Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment (RERI) revealed in May of this year that the process of obtaining a mining permit for the project is still in progress within the Mining and Energy Ministry. This step is a prerequisite before Rio Tinto can start with the mining activities. The fate of houses in the project area remains uncertain, with residents concerned about the reasons for potential demolitions, whether for safety or mining purposes. There are also questions about where the debris will be disposed of, given the plans for a construction and hazardous waste landfill in the village. While local residents have valid concerns about the Jadar Valley, some believe the lithium issue in Serbia has become overly politicized.

Citizens are also skeptical about whether the construction works on small hydropower plants in eastern Serbia have been really halted permanently. For example, the construction permit for the “Besko” mini-hydropower plant (MHE) on the Rupska River in Serbia has been canceled due to various irregularities, according to statements from the Municipality of Vlasotince. However, an official statement from the Ministry of Construction, Transport, and Infrastructure has not yet been released. In the meantime, local residents and activists remain at barricades set up in protest against the construction. They are awaiting an official statement from the ministry and are urging municipal authorities to hold a session to remove all locations designated for the construction of derivative small hydropower plants from the Spatial Plan.

The situation began when the private investor, Water Green Energy, attempted to start construction on the Rupska River shore just a day after the initial protest. Local residents and activists, with police assistance, prevented the construction from commencing and have since maintained a presence at the barricades.

Water Green Energy obtained the construction permit for the “Besko” MHE in 2019. However, in the following year, the Vlasotince Municipality Assembly passed a decision prohibiting the construction of mini-hydropower plants within the municipality’s territory. The ongoing dispute has also led to criminal complaints filed against those responsible for approving the construction, which is currently under investigation in the Niš and Leskovac prosecutor’s offices.

The question remains: are these battles a Sisyphus battle?

A propos de Ljubica OBRADOVIC