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Rio Tinto’s gung-ho mining exploration on the border of the European Union should worry us all

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After the scandal of Juukan Gorge, and boardroom crises, it is time shareholders pushed back at Rio Tinto’s gung-ho approach to mining, writes Zlatko Kokanovic.

Life in an EU accession country is a double-edged sword; at least in Serbia. Many believe that membership of the European bloc will bring new hope. On good days we like to believe that EU membership will strengthen the rule of law and hold our elected officials to account. But such days are rare in a country when the promise of investment can buy anything. Our accession status has created a climate for nefarious investment activity. Corporate organizations, eager to benefit from single-market membership without the regulatory costs, have found fertile ground in Serbia. Yet, their investment offers little to ordinary Serbs and those Europeans that value the environment.

One sector where this is evident is in mining. Here, the official position is that it generates added value for the Serbian economy.  Our government has signed secret memorandums of understanding with investors, such as Rio Tinto, which permit not just access to our country’s national resources but a compliant administration that is willing to bend regulation to their needs, during this accession window. The environmental damage of this cannot be overstated. Rio Tinto’s proposed jadarite mine will not only threaten one of Serbia’s oldest and most important archaeological sites, it will also endanger several protected bird species, pond terrapins, and fire salamander, which would otherwise be protected by EU directives. 

I live in the Jadar valley in western Serbia, where I work as a vet.  Rio Tinto’s plan covers twenty-two villages and will require the purchase of many hundreds of hectares of land for the mine, its toxic waste dumps, roads, railways. Yet, against a backdrop of a fractured political opposition, they and the government may do as they please. Only recently, Rio Tinto benefited from a new law that imposed the costs for a new road and railway to the mine on Serbian taxpayers. 

It's also clear that, over time, Rio Tinto will want to expand the scale of their operations, given that the facility only covers 35% of the projected amount of ore. The mine is to be situated on the bank of the Korenita river, a tributary to the Jadar river, with underground mining set to be located underneath both river beds. Close by there will be a flotation facility which will use   concentrated sulphuric acid. The Jadar and the Korenita rivers are prone to flooding, meaning there is a high risk that the mining waste will end up in these two rivers, and escape into other major rivers – including the Drina, the Sava, and the Danube rivers. The proposal is low-cost and expandable, which, taken together, is the worst combination given that most accidents occur with badly planned mine extensions that keep adding to the tailings and waste deposits.

Rio Tinto doesn’t have the permission of the community to mine in Jadar and we intend to fight. This week we staged protests outside Rio Tinto offices in London, Washington DC and Belgrade, to coincide with the mining giant’s annual shareholder meeting. We also intend to obtain injunctions on Rio Tinto’s proposals, and block permit after permit. Our government has no control over the implementation of its own environmental laws; let alone its obligations towards the EU environmental law. We have therefore asked the EU to confirm that permits will need to meet applicable European standards and legislation. We have also encouraged our neighbours to assess a potential transboundary impact in view of triggering the Espoo convention on environmental permitting. And this is just the start.

This mine threatens not only our future, but our history. Many of us own land of archaeological importance, with remains dating back to the Bronze Age. It is also an area that contains classified natural monuments, which are now within the mine’s footprint. It poses a question to Rio Tinto shareholders, who are meeting in London this week: how can the new CEO, Jacob Strausholm, square his commitment to protecting the cultural heritage of sites, when, in Serbia, his employees are developing a mine on historically important estate, dating back to the 14th century BC, below international standards?

Our fight has grown into a movement, called ‘Mars Sa Drine!’ (Get off the Drina!). Established  two months ago, it unites twenty Serbian NGOs, environmental experts and over 60.000 citizens. Our hope is that, in time, this movement will grow stronger and stronger, and push-back at aggressive resource procurement by organisations that care little for the values of Europe. We should, perhaps, be grateful to Rio Tinto for connecting citizens and uniting our country against such activity. But we’ll only reflect on this once we win. 

Zlatko Kokanovic is a veterinarian and the vice president of ‘Ne Damo Jadar’.

Serbia

EU enlargement: Renew Europe encourages Serbia to put reforms back on track and welcomes Kosovo’s EU commitment

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament regrets the lack of progress in many areas of Serbia’s reform agenda and the fact that there has even been backsliding on issues that are fundamental for EU accession such as rule of law, fundamental rights, media freedom, and the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration. These findings are part of the progress report today adopted by the plenary, which encourages Serbian authorities to show in both words and deeds their commitment to European values and the EU accession process.

Nevertheless, MEPs welcome the fact that EU membership continues to be Serbia’s strategic goal and that it is among the priorities of the government. Renew Europe MEP, Klemen Grošelj (Lista Marjana Šarca, Slovenia), shadow rapporteur on Serbia, said: "Serbia's path to the EU is wide open, the path is known, the advantages and disadvantages are known, as well as obstacles along the way, and now it is up to Serbia to find the will and energy to follow this path quickly, efficiently and in the interest of its citizens. It takes hard work to find a broad political and social consensus, but any shortcut, as tempting as it may be, is already proving to be a significantly worse alternative to Serbia’s European integration."

Renew Europe MEP, Ilhan Kyuchyuk, (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Bulgaria), shadow rapporteur on Kosovo, welcomed the country’s efforts to implement reforms and to maintain constructive neighbourly relations throughout the region: “Kosovo demonstrated continued and strong commitment to advancing on its European path and to accelerating reforms, as well as strong support for European integration among the population. It is high time for all EU member states to recognise Kosovo and allow its citizens to benefit from visa liberalization because all benchmarks have been fulfilled since 2018. The last elections once again demonstrated that the country deserves credit for showing high levels of political maturity and I look forward for the new government to speed up the reforms and work actively on the Pristina - Belgrade dialogue.”

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EU envoy sees #Serbia and #Kosovo normalization deal in months

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EU-mediated negotiations on normalizing relations between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo could lead to a deal within months, the EU’s envoy dealing with one of Europe’s toughest territorial disputes said on Monday (31 August), write Marja Novak and Aleksandar Vasovic.

Ethnic Albanian majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 1999 after a NATO-led bombing campaign to curtail ethnic warfare. Serbia, backed by its large Slavic and Orthodox Christian ally Russia, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, a precondition for Belgrade’s future membership of the EU.

Normalization negotiations broke down in 2018 but resumed in July after Kosovo lifted stiff import tariffs on Serbian goods.

Asked a deal could be reached, EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak (pictured) told reporters on the sidelines of a regional conference in Slovenia that it would be a mistake to forecast a date as there were still “very complicated issues to address...

“Let’s see how much time we need but I am speaking about months, I am not speaking about years,” he added. “Both parties are committed, both parties are serious, respecting each other.”

Apart from the EU-brokered diplomatic track, top-level delegations from Serbia and Kosovo will meet in the United States next week to address economic cooperation.

After meeting Lajcak at the conference, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he had presented Serbia’s goals to the EU envoy, above all the implementation of an earlier deal allowing an association of communities grouping Kosovo’s minority Serbs.

“I greatly respect what Lajcak is saying about normalization..., which is legally and politically different from what Pristina and some others are saying,” the Serbian news agency Tanjug quoted Vucic as saying.

The US talks were previously set for June but delayed after Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was indicted for alleged war crimes during the 1998-99 guerrilla uprising against Serbian rule and its aftermath. He has denied the charges.

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coronavirus

EU signs new pre-accession support package with #Serbia worth more than €70 million

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi (pictured), together with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, have participated in the virtual signing ceremony of a €70.2 million assistance programme by Serbian Minister of European integration Jadranka Joksimović and EU Head of Delegation to Serbia Sem Fabrizi.

This programme is the first envelope of the EU's Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) 2020. It will support alignment to the EU acquis, socio-economic development and employment, and social policies for the most vulnerable people. In particular, €30m will be devoted to the economic recovery with grant support provided to micro enterprises, start-ups and business support organisations in the less developed regions of Serbia; therefore increasing employment, innovation and economic development at local level.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, special focus will also be put on strengthening the capacities for surveillance and response to communicable diseases. The signing ceremony was followed by a press point by the Commissioner and the President (available on EbS).

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