8 November 2023

‘Nothing will be the same’: the locals on Europe’s new mining frontiers

Paulo Pena
Paulo Pena
Opposition to mining projects across Europe is growing. Activists say it is no “not in my backyard” debate, amid fears that impacted communities will benefit precious little from Brussels’ big bet on minerals.
Mining is controversial - and just the first and least valuable step needed to make the wind turbines or smartphones that rely on critical raw materials. Before excavated minerals can be used, they must be refined. But the highest value of the chain is in the production, such as factories for electric car batteries.  

Across Europe, opposition to planned new mines is fuelled by worries. One is that there will be no upside for the local community.

"We are very concerned that the EU sees northern Sweden, Finland and Norway as unexplored areas to be colonised, industrialised and with great potential for all kinds of exploitation in the name of this green transition", says Håkan Jonsson in Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town. Jonsson is president of Sweden’s Sámi Parliament.

The same idea is alive 4,500 kilometres to the south-west. Carla Gomes, a data analyst and local activist, also fears that the European Critical Raw Materials Act will lead to the exploitation of her village in Terras do Barroso, a protected area in northern Portugal.

Mines no longer solve the problem.

Carla Gomes

“I believe [mining] could be justified if this were a value chain that really benefited the country and the European Union and the world in general.” But that is not the case, she argues. “We're planning mines to save the car industry, of course, but also to keep things as they are. There will be no transition.”

The green transition, or “black transition”, as Jonsson prefers to call it, depends on massively increased amounts of rare earth elements and other minerals. Kiruna has possibly the biggest deposit in Europe of rare earths. The green mountains of Portugal that Gomes wants to keep intact, hold the biggest lithium reserves known in Europe.
Håkan Jonsson, president of Sweden’s Sámi Parliament. Credit: Lars-Ola Marakatt

Carla Gomes, a local activist in Terras do Barroso. Credit: Investigate Europe

These two communities are now at the centre of Europe’s rush for minerals - and its geopolitical debates. Europe wants to mine again, and reduce its deep dependency on China, which today supplies and processes most of the world’s critical raw materials. The CRMA could be approved by Brussels in a matter of weeks and could trigger dozens of similar local debates over new mines across the continent. After decades of globalisation that outsourced this industry, this is something new.

That’s why Jonsson and Gomes refuse the idea that any nimbyisn (not in my backyard) is at play. They simply refuse the need to extract finite resources from the land altogether, and instead demand a radically different economic strategy. 

This has been 130 years of encroachment on our nature.

Karin Kvarfordt Niia

Terras do Barroso, where two lithium mines were authorised this year, is one of only eight “globally important agricultural heritage systems” in Europe recognised by the United Nations. “Once that region, those mountains, are turned into mines, they will never be mountains again. Nothing will ever be the same," Gomes says.

In the Sámi lands where Kiruna was built - in the 19th century to mine iron ore - the plan to mine rare earths is just another chapter in the story. “They have dried up lakes where we used to fish… taken away areas where our reindeer have grazed forever. We have had to move from our villages,” says Karin Kvarfordt Niia, a local Sámi spokesperson. "This has been 130 years of encroachment on our nature."

Even pro-mining sources are clear: mining is a heavy industrial, and potentially polluting, economic activity.
Karin Kvarfordt Niia, a local Sámi spokesperson. Credit: Lars-Ola Marakatt

LKAB, a state-run firm, controls mining activities in Kiruna. Credit: Lars-Ola Marakatt

A significant deposit of rare earths has recently been discovered in the area. Credit: Lars-Ola Marakatt

Kiruna was built for mining, an iron ore mine has operated there since the 19th century. Credit: Lars-Ola Marakatt

That is why Carla Gomes refutes the nimby label. “Yes, we obviously have a very clear interest in a mine not being built 500 metres from our village. It's an interest that I think everyone can empathise with. But we're not only saying that we don't want a mine in Covas de Barroso. Mines no longer solve the problem. Until now it's been unbridled exploitation of fossil fuels, until they run out, and now it would be the exploitation of all the lithium that exists until it runs out. What are we going to mine next?”

Eighty five per cent of lithium wealth is made in battery production, according to Artur Patuleia, a senior energy and climate researcher at E3G, an international think tank.

If the Portuguese state invested in a whole value chain around the planned Terras do Barroso mine, the economic potential would be huge, an E3G study has claimed. A gigafactory for batteries could supply around three times the yearly amount of Volkswagen’s assembly plant near Lisbon, which accounts for 1.5 per cent of Portugal’s GDP. 

Conversely, Patuleia says, betting on solely the cheaper parts of the value chain, such as exporting mined and refined lithium, will generate nearly eight times less value and a fraction of the jobs.
Terras do Barroso is one of eight “globally important agricultural heritage systems” in Europe. Credit: Vítor Martinho/Tiago Carrasco

A banner in a village reads 'Not to mines, yes for life'. Two lithium mines have been approved this year. Credit: Vítor Martinho/Tiago Carrasco

The problem is that no national or European policies make the full value chain option possible. The EU is counting on each member state to have the fiscal capacity to invest. Portugal, still struggling from the 2008 financial crisis, does not have the money to spare. Patuleia believes the EU’s new push for mining “implicitly favours” wealthier nations. So he understands the “distrust” of communities towards mining. “They see the potential damage, but they don't see the benefits.”

There is an “EU interest in developing raw materials value chain locally”, asserts Margrethe Vestager, vice president of the EU Commission. But the CRMA does not include a single reference to this. And even in cases where permits are handed out with the condition of a full value chain, it can prove elusive.

Communities see the potential damage, but they don't see the benefits.

Artur Patuleia, E3G

The plans submitted in 2006 to the Greek government by Hellas Gold, a company now owned by Canadian miner Eldorado Gold, envisaged local production of gold and copper metals from the Kassandra mines in northern Greece.

In 2019, after more than a decade of broken promises, the company said the investment plan needed changing. It managed to impose a new agreement that made metallurgy optional. Meanwhile, as plans for metals extraction are perpetually being drawn and redrawn, the company exports lead, zinc and gold concentrates to the global markets, moving the most important steps in the value chain away from Europe.

Even in the best case scenario, in which production of finished gold under environmentally acceptable terms is established domestically, there are no plans for copper smelting, the company told Investigate Europe. When it comes to copper, an essential critical raw material, only exports are envisaged.
A waste facility at the Kassandra mine site, which export lead, zinc and gold internationally. Credit: Eurydice Bersi

Construction continues at Eldorado Gold's copper mine development. Credit: Eurydice Bersi

However, Brussels is now signing raw materials agreements with third countries by promising to deliver what it cannot achieve at home.

Chile, for example, is one of the world’s biggest lithium suppliers. The EU depends on it for about 80 per cent of its imports. So far, this business was simple and distant from Europe. Chile had the mines, China refined the lithium, and Europe’s car industry used it to manufacture electric vehicles.

In a document from a European Council meeting in March 2023, member states supported memoranda of understanding with Argentina and Chile on critical raw materials. Unlike before, the EU said that benefits should include “the creation of local added value” for producing countries.

In June, the Council published a new framework on critical raw materials, saying third country agreements “should be mutually beneficial for the Union and the third country involved and add value in that country.”
Batteries used in electric vehicles rely on various critical raw materials.Shutterstock

This twist in “eurocentrism” is justifiable: countries in the Global South have long experienced extraction and environmental destruction without any compensation. Celine Tshizena Pegasus is a Congolese lawyer and advocacy director at Afrewatch, a natural resources watchdog. She argues similarly to Carla Gomes in northern Portugal.  

"Congolese cobalt is processed in other countries, which can't be part of a fair transition as it creates poverty in the Global South. It is very important that Africa is not seen as a continent where you can extract raw minerals to create added value elsewhere."

Nestled among the high peaks of the Piedmontese Alps in northern Italy, there are closed and abandoned cobalt mines. “The peak of mining occurred in the 18th century when mined cobalt was used to colour fabrics and ceramics blue,” says Claudio Balagna from the mining museum in Usseglio.

Usseglio is one of two mountain villages involved in a new mining project, the Punta Corna. Attracted by the growing demand for cobalt, needed for electric car batteries, the Australian firm Altamin obtained its first exploration permits there in 2018.

The peak of mining occurred in the 18th century when cobalt was used to colour fabrics and ceramics blue

Claudio Balagna

Many in Usseglio hope extraction can start soon. They think the mine will bring jobs and attract young workers to an increasingly elderly and depopulated community.

“You come to my house, you take away something that is mine. So it is fair that you pay me for it”, says the environmental councillor of Usseglio, Giuseppe Bona, referring to the possibility for the municipality to obtain royalties for the exploitation of the mines. 

In the nearby village of Balme, the opposite sentiment prevails. The local council is against “any mining research and cultivation”. A 2020 resolution called for a public assembly to inform residents “about the effects and impact that the project could have on the life of the valleys and their socio-economic destiny”.

Balme’s mayor Giovanni Castagneri is clear in his stance: “It certainly requires skilled labour, which we do not have. Furthermore, the transport of these materials would take place on narrow and dangerous roads, which would also create problems in terms of tourist access, which is what characterises our area.” He fears a mine may also pollute the mineral water aquifers in the area, essential for bottling businesses which are big employers.
Giuseppe Bona, an environmental councillor in Usseglio. Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

Cobalt mining in Piedmont has long since been replaced by other industries. Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

Many in the town of Usseglio want mining to return to the region. Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

Giovanni Castagneri, mayor of the nearby village of Balme. Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

“Mining companies have much more power than local administrations,” says Alberto Valz Gris, a geographer at the Polytechnic University of Turin. He points to economic resources, personnel and technical knowledge that are needed in these processes, and which small municipalities lack.

In this matter, Europe may not be so different from the Global South.

It is a mistake to think that more mining in Europe will mean less mining in the Global South, thinks Adriana Espinosa from Friends of the Earth Spain, who is protesting new mining projects in the country. “What is being sought is to increase extraction in Europe and also to increase imports from countries in the Global South in a more diverse way, to reduce dependence on China.”

European regulation on environmental protection and labour rights is stricter than national laws elsewhere, Espinosa concedes. But that is on paper, she argues. “Companies systematically fail to comply with environmental legislation.”
The EU recently signed an agreement with Argentina, home to vast quantities of lithum.Shutterstock

For Espinosa, the nimby argument rings hollow. She and activists in Portugal, Sweden, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chile want a deeper discussion on mining strategies: the continued consumption that underpins them.

"Do we need to open new mines? What we really need to start with is the figures, which at the moment do not exist. The demand for minerals associated with energy transition policies in Spain has not been calculated," Espinosa claims.

EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager echoes this point: “We cannot just continue as we are. We cannot just take every diesel or gasoline car and exchange it for an electrical vehicle. Because right now we are living way beyond our planetary means. It's simply not possible to continue like this.”

Lorenzo Buzzoni, Maria Maggiore, Marta Portocarrero, Manuel Rico, Eurydice Bersi (Reporters United) and Maren Sæbø also contributed to this story.

Editors: Ingeborg Eliassen and Chris Matthews


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