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27 Apr 2022


Portuguese villagers fear hunt for lithium will destroy their livelihoods

The EU needs lithium to ramp up renewable energy and battery-powered cars, but locals in a pretty part of Portugal aren’t keen.

FUNDÃO, Portugal — A sleepy town in central Portugal, surrounded by lush hills and cherry trees, Fundão is one of six areas the government earlier this year approved for lithium exploration. But locals are fighting back.

Lithium is a key ingredient in batteries to power electric vehicles and other green technologies the EU needs to deploy at scale to hit its Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050. The urgency of ramping up renewable energy and kicking fossil fuels has only grown since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But in Fundão and other towns across Portugal, plans to open new mines are driving a wedge between the government and local communities, which worry that extraction activities could harm the environment and nearby farms, undermining their livelihood.

“I’m afraid of the project,” said Aníbal Cabral, head of a local agricultural organization in Fundão. Mining risks depleting and contaminating water reserves and would create noise pollution and dust, he said. [...]

Many are not against lithium mining as such, said Cabral. If agricultural land is spared, the plans could actually benefit the region by investment and creating jobs, he said.

Artur Trindade, 33, who lives in Pêro Viseu, a village of 700 inhabitants that could soon be home to a new lithium mine, said he hoped the project would help revive the area.

"We need people here," said João Marçalo, a priest in Capinha, the next village over.

Environmental scrap

Similar disputes have been rumbling on in other towns for a long time — with results that aren't particularly encouraging for environmental campaigners.

In Barco, some 20 kilometers from Fundão, the government and local groups had been at loggerheads for years when, in October, the state signed a concession contract with company Neomina, Minérios da Argemela despite the opposition of many residents and the municipality.

Gabriela Margarido, a quietly energetic woman in her fifties, throws her hands in the air when asked about what she worries will happen next.

“It’s directly in our backyard,” she said of the mine, which lies just a kilometer from the village. Like in Fundão, the area could see water contamination and erosion, according to Margarido, who leads a local environmental group aimed at protecting the mountainous area.

Activists say the government hasn't proved that the mines won't cause harm, but the government says impact assessments, checked by a national agency, show the projects won't damage the environment.

Margarido calls that just another fig leaf, pointing out that Lisbon signed the Barco concession contract before the company carried out its assessment.

The National Laboratory of Energy and Geology (LNEG), the Portuguese government’s research branch, defends Lisbon’s plans. The chair of the executive board, Teresa Ponce de Leão, said modern lithium mining only carries minor environmental risks.

In a bid to ward off local resistance, mining companies are presenting environmental mitigation plans that include provisions like recycling most of the water used during extraction and preventing water contamination.

But activists aren't buying it, saying the measures don't go far enough and don't tackle longer-term issues like soil acidification. [...]

Galamba called the outcry over opening more mines in Portugal hypocritical. Lithium has to be mined somewhere to fuel the green transition, he said. At least in Portugal, the country will follow legal standards and work to mitigate any environmental impact.

But Margarido is skeptical. She supports the EU's climate goals, she said, but achieving them shouldn't be done at the expense of local communities.

“We’re all in favor of the green transition, but not by sacrificing all the people here,” she said. “What is the life of the people living here worth?”