Nestled in a remote valley of Northern Portugal, the peaceful village of Covas do Barroso is at the centre of a conflict, pitting a mining company against the local community, which could have wider social and environmental ramifications for the European Union’s energy transition towards carbon neutrality.
At first sight, nothing really distinguishes this hamlet from the thousands of other villages found across Southern Europe, where a massive rural exodus has resulted in quiet empty streets that are only awakened by the occasional sound of tractors or the voices of elderly residents chatting on benches.
But in the mountains surrounding Covas do Barroso lie the largest estimated deposits of lithium in Western Europe. This rare metal, used for decades in electronics, pharmaceuticals and ceramics, is now intensely sought after because of its unique properties that make it indispensable for the rechargeable batteries found in the booming industry of electric vehicles. It is also an important component of many digital devices and systems that help store the energy produced by renewables, like wind and solar.
According to the European commission, Europe will need 60 times more lithium by 2050 (target year for carbon neutrality) for electric cars and energy storage alone, which is fueling an international race to extract lithium from the different sources where such deposits can be found, such as hard rocks, salt brines and geothermal water.
But for the people of Covas do Barroso, this scramble for raw materials and the prospect of an open-air mine translate into fears of deforestation, air pollution, water contamination, noise and an end to their way of life.
Interviews conducted by Euronews with a dozen residents, revealed that the vast majority of them were against mining lithium from the mountain rocks near their village, while a few were indifferent. No one was in favour.
“I think it won't bring anything good,” said Paulo Pires, a local shepherd. “It will consume a lot of water, which we need for the sheep and for their fields. Instead of hearing birds, I will hear explosions, machines…there will be a lot of pollution.”
“I’m not against lithium. But I'm not in favour of polluting my village and other villages like mine in order to depollute cities” Pires added.
Savannah Resources, a London-based mining company, acquired the rights to the Portuguese lithium deposit in 2017 and calculates that close to 200,000 tons per annum of spodumene concentrate (a mineral containing 6% of lithium oxide) can be extracted from the ‘Mina do Barroso’ for about 15 years. This would generate 1.3 billion euros of revenue over the lifetime of the mine and boost Portugal’s economy, argues the company.
“We’ll provide Portugal with a whole raft of opportunities for downstream developments in the lithium value-chain,” David Archer, CEO of Savannah Resources, told Euronews.
Lithium development, because it is done in the name of green transition, is actively supported by the European Union, which has added this rare metal to its list of critical raw materials in 2020.
Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for Internal Market said “a number of raw materials are essential for Europe to lead the green and digital transition and remain the world's first industrial continent. We cannot afford to rely entirely on third countries – for some rare earths even on just one country (China).”
A study by the Portuguese University of Minho, conducted for Savannah Resources, found that Portugal’s 60,000 tons of known lithium reserves (0,4% of world’s reserves) are “insufficient to meet the demand for lithium derivatives for the production of batteries in Europe”. However, the report also adds that these reserves “are very relevant in reducing Europe’s dependence on other regions of the globe and increasing the security of Europe’s supply chain.”
Several analysts, including Alexandre Lima, from Porto University, believe that Portugal’s lithium supplies are far more important than currently estimated. With his team, this geologist has been mapping the deposits around Northern Portugal for an EU-funded project, and argues that the country’s lithium potential offers a unique opportunity for clean, modern mining that could reduce Europe’s dependence on lithium extracted from places like Chile and China (the world’s two main producers after Australia), where this industry has led to widespread environmental degradation, water depletion, contamination from chemicals and conflicts with local communities.
Savannah Resources promises to use the “best green and smart mining practices”, which will mitigate “social, ecological and technical problems by applying holistic concepts.”
David Archer added that his company will recycle water on site and invest 6 million euros to build a bypass road.
These arguments infuriate cattle farmer Nelson Gomes. “How can someone call this a green project when just in the prospection phase we’ve seen all the destruction it caused?”
“This won’t bring any progress because people don’t live from this, don’t live from mines, it’s a lie, a fake propaganda, it’s trying to fool people!” Nelson insisted.
He and his wife, Aida Fernandes, have been spearheading a campaign to stop the mine, under the slogan “Não à Mina, Sim à Vida” (No to the mine, yes to life), which has resulted in petitions, protests and thousands of members on their Facebook page.
They also have the support of major environmental organisations like Quercus, the Portuguese National Association for Nature Conservation, and Friends of the Earth, which recently declared that “Europe is consuming as if we had three planets available, simply switching types of raw materials to meet our business-as-usual economic growth demand will not cut it.”
To further prove their point, Aida and Nelson took Euronews to the site of ‘Grandao’ (the ‘Big One’), the part of the mine with the largest reserves, where prospection works have left a bare landscape dotted with tubes that are the visible parts of the deep holes that were dug during the initial phase of the project. Dropping a rock inside one of these pipes results in a splash sound from the groundwater. For this couple, this is the proof that a mine here will undoubtedly disturb the water supply of the village.
“What will happen with all this water?” worried Aida, who is also the local president of the ‘Baldios’, a unique system in Portugal whereby the mountain lands are collectively owned by the villagers, who are allowed to use them for agriculture, forestry or grazing.
This region, Barroso, is also one of only seven places in Europe recognised as a “globally important agricultural heritage” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for its “rural subsistence economy, typical of mountainous regions, with poor utilisation of inputs, very few surpluses and where the level of consumption of the population is relatively low compared to other regions in the country.”
“It was here that me and my brothers grew up, keeping the cows,” Aida explained to Euronews. “That’s why for me it’s even more meaningful because I know this area since I was a kid. It’s heart-breaking to know that everything around us will disappear.”
Carlos Gomes Gonçalves also has reasons to worry. His 500 beehives, scattered across the area near the mine site, produce a special type of honey typical of the Barroso region, which provide the 56-year-old native of Covas with enough income for half of the year. “There will be dust and pollution” he said. “And it will destroy a bigger area of flowers and plants.”
The opposition to the mine could intensify in the coming months, after the Portuguese environmental authority declared last week that Savannah Resources’ environmental impact assessment was in conformity with the government’s requirements.
The project has now to go through an internal review and a public consultation, which are the last stages before the permit can be granted.
According to the mayor of Boticas municipality, which includes Covas do Barroso, 95% of the local population rejects the mine, despite the company’s promises of 200 direct jobs and 600 indirect jobs.
“It’s a fallacy” Fernando Queiroga said. “Because we don't have so many people unemployed. It will be people that come from outside, they will come in the morning in vans and will return at the end of the day from other municipalities. This doesn't create wealth, but it will destroy other jobs that we have in rural tourism, gastronomy and farming.”
Even if his municipality and smaller councils continue to reject the lithium mine, the Portuguese government could technically overrule these objections by invoking national interest and proceed to land expropriation, which will lead to lengthy legal battles.
For Lisbon however, lithium is not only seen as a raw material to be unearthed, but also as an important asset that could make Portugal a key player in the industrial transformation of mobility.
João Pedro Matos Fernandes, the Portuguese Minister for Environment and Climate Action, declared that “the energetic transition is a great economic and industrial opportunity for the country. We want to use our lithium potential to position ourselves in the value chain of a crucial element for decarbonisation.”
The Portuguese authorities are also keen to answer the call of the European Battery Alliance, led by EU commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, to build an entire value chain around electric vehicle batteries, from the extraction of raw materials to the production of these batteries. A market that could be worth 250 billion euros per year by 2025.
Despite the economic interests at stake, the government of Antonio Costa seems to tread carefully and hasn’t yet fully opened mining concessions across the country. Some in Portugal argue that the government fears the negative spotlight and the electoral backlash that would unfold from the scene of open-air mines in or near protected areas, like at Serra d’Arga, or near sustainable rural villages, like in Covas do Barroso.
Regardless of the final outcome, Aida believes her village should serve as a reminder of the social and environmental damage caused by industries that claim to act in the name of climate protection.
“The people who created these illusions should be honest: when they say they create electric cars to avoid pollution, they should also mention everything that will be destroyed in the process,” she explained.
“This is an attempt by the automobile industry to reinvent itself. It’s a business, and we are paying for it.”