Strategic metals are key for the European Union as it looks to reduce its dependence on Chinese or Russian raw materials. However, a flagship mining project in Bosnia and Herzegovina is stirring anger among some residents.
In a few weeks, the Vareš polymetallic underground silver mine in Bosnia and Herzegovina is set to launch full-scale operations. Silver, gold, lead, zinc, copper, antimony, and other metals could then be extracted from the host rocks.
These strategic metals are crucial for the European Union as it endeavours to reduce dependency on Chinese or Russian raw materials.
But trouble is stirring. Ecological activists from a nearby town have filed a complaint with the Council of Europe's Bern Convention office, claiming that the project is threatening local biodiversity and that water will become polluted by the planned mining activities.
Euronews sent its reporter Hans von der Brelie to the Bosnian mountains to check out what was going on.
Going underground: TheVareš silver mine
I want to get into this Vareš silver mine, operated by UK-based mining company Adriatic Metals. But this is only possible with an emergency breathing device and special security training. Jimmy from New Zealand takes me underground. He has 26 years of work experience in Australia, Mongolia, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso. Now he's in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working for Adriatic Metals.
"The minerals here are good for the country, and there will be benefits flowing down to the local community," Jimmy says.
800,000 tonnes of minerals will be extracted from underground each year. It's currently the biggest mining project in Bosnia and Herzegovina, representing 25% of the country's foreign direct investment.
I have an appointment with geologist, Marko. His team are the company's treasure hunters. The 29-year-old has analysed hundreds of drill cores, most of them full of metals.
A year ago, he expected to find some 12 million tonnes of ore. But his initial calculations were way off the mark. In fact, the treasure down there weighs 22.5 million tonnes, almost double what he had originally believed.
Marko Matić shows me around the lab. "This is the host rock of mineralisation of the Rupice deposit in Vareš. It contains the sulfites which include silver, gold, copper, zinc, lead, and antimony - with very high grades of each element," he explains.
The answer to Europe's need for strategic raw materials?
Australian Chief Operating Officer Matthew Hine is proud of his shiny new processing plant where silver, lead and zinc concentrates will be preprocessed. Workers are still busy painting pipes with bright yellow and blue colours, fixing metal bars, and finishing a sophisticated closed-circuit water treatment system.
Sparks from welding fly through the air, amid the buzz of voices and heavy machinery all around.
The mine is a €200 million investment. Once the operation is up and running, the mine is set to contribute more than 2% to the Bosnian GDP. The start is scheduled for early 2024.
"We see the recent legislation passed by the EU around sourcing their critical raw materials internally recognises the need for Europe to be independent in resourcing its own future," Matthew Hine tells me with a broad smile.
"Bosnia and Herzegovina has a huge role to play within that. The concentrate we are producing, which is shipped throughout Europe, contains all metals which are really important in a green and clean (energy) transition."
A few kilometres further on, a huge railway bridge crosses a mountain forest valley. Workers are upgrading the railway tracks. The strategic metals from Vareš are needed for Europe's energy transition: for solar cells, electric vehicles, charging stations and wind turbines.
The metal concentrates will be transported from Vareš to an export harbour in Croatia. Then, they are shipped towards European metal smelters in Germany, Scandinavia and other European countries.
Geopolitically, the Bosnian mine responds perfectly to the EU's efforts to secure strategic raw materials. Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to become a member of the European Union. Both sides are trying to speed up cooperation and forge closer economic ties and upgraded transport connections.
Mounting environmental concerns
A mountain range further on from the mine, in the neighbouring city of Kakanj, protests are stirring. Hajrija Čobo is an English teacher and has studied environmental law. She accuses the mining company of playing dirty tricks with the environmental studies and having mandated a UK-based institute allegedly not licensed to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"This second study is practically illegal in this country. It is not approved by any authority in this country," she tells Euronews.
Hajrija Čobo filed a complaint at the Council of Europe, more precisely with the Secretariat of the Bern Convention which oversees the protection of biodiversity.
Secondary mining roads are being built. Trees are being cut down. Hajrija points at a yellow construction machine noisily creeping downhill.
"These are works in the riverbed which is protection zone number two, where such construction works are strictly forbidden," she explains. "And they are still doing it. Everything they do comes to my pipes. Am I supposed to drink it?"
In the back of her car, she has a few large plastic containers. She knows an unspoiled water source where she fills up the containers for her drinking water.
“My government is endangering the lives of 40,000 people at least in my town," Hajrija says. "For the sake of profit for a British company and a couple of hundred people to be employed. Do you know what that's called? It's neocolonialism."
Adriatic Metals denies wrongdoing
In light of the allegations, the office of the legally binding Bern Convention asks the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to halt mining activities for the time being until the matter is cleared up. The government is asked to file an official report to the Bern Convention in order to clarify if the mine is endangering biodiversity.
The sustainability manager of Adriatic Metals, Vildana Mahmutović, rejects all allegations.
"It’s a very far distance from our underground mining activities. All the studies are pretty sure that there is a water barrier in-between so that our underground waters will not affect this water supply on the opposite side of the hill," she told Euronews.
"Heavy metals are present (in the water), but below limit values and what’s important and key to say here is that we have been tracking it for three years, before we started our activities. The presence of heavy metals in this water is actually the nature of Vareš itself."
After fellow mining company Rio Tinto was forced to pull the plug on a lithium mine project in neighbouring Serbia amid huge protests, Adriatic Metals is opting for a different approach.
They are investing massively in communication, transparency, close cooperation with local stakeholders and strict pollution controls, including expensive, up-to-date environmental protection schemes.
Vildana Mahmutović shows me the water treatment plant under construction.
"This is the first processing plant flotation in the history of the country which is going to have a recirculation of the water, which we are very proud of. We understand, even if we are not in the European Union, we want a European mine following all the European legislation or the international conventions [...] It is possible to have a ‘green mine.’"
An upturn in fortune for Vareš
Vareš town has a centuries-old mining history. Indeed, the Romans searched for – and found – ore in the mountains surrounding the town.
When the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, industrialisation was scaled up. But today, the magnificent industrial buildings have fallen into disrepair.
22,000 people lived here once. Now, numbers are down to around 8,000. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, civil war, fighting, massacres, displacements and economic decline have left their mark: abandoned buildings, smashed rooftops and roads lined with empty houses.
But Vareš is experiencing an upward turn again. Thanks to the new ore mine, the municipality's budget has doubled. Finally, money is available for urgently needed infrastructure like bridges, waste management, thermal insulation and building restoration.
The recent arrival of new families and returnees is music to the ears of Vareš mayor, Zdravko Marošević.
"We had one kindergarten with 18 pupils last year and it was barely surviving economically. A few months ago, they already had four classes and 60 children, but the number of inscriptions could go up to even 100 children next year," he revealed.
"This was simply a dead town and now it is a vibrant town with jobs, work, and order."
For three years, Vareš high school has offered underground mining classes. Because the mining company recruits locally, school authorities and parents see it as a real opportunity for their children.