Thousands of Serbians block roads to protest lithium mine project

Protesters fear mining by multinational companies will cause huge damage to local environment.

Environmental activists block the E-75 highway to protest against Rio Tinto's plans to open a lithium mine, in Belgrade [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

Environmental protesters have blocked roads in Serbia for a third consecutive weekend to oppose plans for lithium mining, despite a bid by the country’s populist government to defuse the demonstrations by agreeing to the key demands of organisers.

Several thousand people braved rain and cold weather on Saturday to halt traffic in the capital, Belgrade, and in other cities and towns in the Balkan nation.

The protesters want the government to fully remove any possibility of companies initiating mining projects. Environmentalists have argued that extracting lithium, a key component in electric car batteries, causes huge damage to mined areas.

Serbian authorities withdrew two key laws that activists said were designed to help multinational mining company Rio Tinto open a mine in the country’s lithium-rich west.

Fewer people showed up at Saturday’s demonstration compared with the two previous weekends, reflecting a rift among protest leaders about how to proceed.

“There will be no peace until exploitation of lithium is banned and Rio Tinto sent away from Serbia,” Aleksandar Jovanovic, one of the organisers, said.

Protesters block the highway in Belgrade, Serbia [Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo]

“I think this protest today is just one step towards change,” Ida Radovanovic, a protester, told The Associated Press.

“It is not going to do everything but it is really important that we show that this is not something we agree with.”

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, described continued protests as “political” after the government gave up on the two proposed laws, which involved property expropriation and referendum rules.

Vucic said people would have a chance to express their preferences during the next election in April.

Serbia must tackle its environmental problems to advance towards European Union membership. Vucic has said he wants the country to join the EU, but he has also fostered close ties with Russia and China, including Chinese investments in mines, factories and infrastructure.

Environmental issues have come into focus recently in Serbia and other Balkan nations because of accumulated problems from air and water pollution. Protesters have argued that authorities favour the interests of foreign investors and profit over environmental protection.

Source: AP