Home News Portuguese communities quarrel with lithium miners as battle continues to save their land

Portuguese communities quarrel with lithium miners as battle continues to save their land

Published on 14/02/2020

The lush, green hills where Paulo Pires has for years taken his sheep to graze above the picturesque northern village he inhabits may soon be transformed by the uncaring drive forward to feed the need to power electric vehicles. The signs of change already seen in the hills around him already give  him sleepless nights, he claims.

This is as hundreds of drill holes across the countryside show the locations where miners want to excavate the land for lithium, a vital ingredient for the batteries used in electric cars, smartphones and energy storage.

“If my livelihood is taken away from me, I won’t have a future elsewhere,” said 45-year-old Mr. Pires, whose village lies in the municipal district of Boticas. Pires and his idyllic surrounds are on one of the frontlines of a battle pitting companies eager to take advantage of Portugal’s 60,000 tonnes of known lithium reserves against locals determined to preserve their rights over the land and stop the exploitation.

It puts Costa’s minority government in a tight spot. Growing opposition to lithium exploration by local groups, that communally own and manage rural areas, could mean miners reach an impasse and seek government support to expropriate land.

Lisbon’s actions will also have repercussions beyond its borders. Its reserves may be modest compared to Australia and Chile, the world’s top lithium producers, but Portugal is central to Europe’s bid to cut reliance on lithium imports. Tapping European deposits of the “white gold” is an important part of the European Union’s ambition to secure more of the battery value chain as the continent’s carmakers roll out electric vehicles, a European Commission spokesperson has revealed.

Portugal, which produced about 1,200 tonnes of lithium last year, currently sells almost exclusively to the ceramics industry rather than producing high-grade lithium needed for car batteries. It is already Europe’s largest lithium producer, but Portugal remains a small player compared to Australia and Chile, with output of 42,000 tonnes and 18,000 tonnes respectively.

Europe, with just 3% of global battery production capacity, has no lithium refineries and relies on imported raw materials. As the world seeks to phase out fossil fuels, dozens of miners, such as Australia’s Fortescue, have applied for almost 100 licenses to explore for lithium in Portugal.

Illustrative map of Lithium Mining in Portugal can be found HERE (Credit to Reuters)