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Protesters clash with developer over whether “lithium fever” will hurt or help the environment

In the hills of northern Portugal close to the border with Spain, the remote village of Covas do Barroso is in the middle of what the media have referred to as “lithium fever” — a conflict between two differing visions of how to protect the environment.

The tension in the small village, a short walk from Western Europe’s largest lithium deposit, was sparked by plans made by the Government to establish the country as Europe’s main production hub for the metal, which acts as a critical component in electric vehicle batteries.

David Archer, chief executive the UK-based company developing the lithium mine, Savannah Resources, is confident that the project will have a knock-on effect of helping to reduce Europe’s carbon dioxide emissions and bring “overwhelming social, economic and demographic benefits” to a poor and thinly populated area.

On the other hand, many locals are determined to halt the development, fearing the mine will scar the landscape, pollute water and disrupt the sustainable farming on which the local economy depends.

“Mining is too often a parasitic investment,” stated Catarina Scarrott, a spokeswoman for a local movement which publicly opposes the mine. “They take away more than they give back.” Amidst the “lithium fever” a plethora of anti-mining groups have risen across northern reaches of the country, a region whose lithium deposits have been said to spark a “white gold rush”.

Scores of prospecting licences are being applied for and an international licensing tender for lithium exploration is expected to be launched early this year. The government expects the five most promising areas to attract approximately €3.3bn in investment.

To go along with this plan, Lisbon plans to lock into the EU drive to advance European production of electric vehicle battery cells by building a lithium refinery at the northern port of Leixões, creating “an end-to-end lithium value chain” in Portugal. Currently all Europe’s battery-grade lithium is imported from outside the EU.

“Our aim is to go beyond simply mining lithium and create a whole industrial cluster that will put Portugal in the lead in this area,” said João Galamba, secretary of state for energy. The rush for mining rights, however, has resulted in anti-lithium demonstrations, petitions, social media campaigns and heated parliamentary debates.

At issue is not only the future of local communities in the coming decades, but also a belief among many campaigners that electric vehicles are not the best way to reduce CO2 emissions. “We will need to generate more electricity to power them, which will almost certainly lead to the building of more coal-fired generating plants,” said Renata Almeida, who represents an anti-mining movement near the Serra da Estrela mountain range.

During the past decade, investments in organic farming and small-scale sustainable tourism have helped revive local communities in the rural interior of northern Portugal, a region only just beginning to recover from devastating wildfires back in 2017.

Many residents fear lithium exploration will disrupt the hard work that they have put into yielding progress. “Open-pit mining on a scale Portugal has never experienced before will have a big impact on the natural resources and ecosystems on which our jobs, businesses and local products rely,” said Catarina Vieira, who runs a small sustainable tourism business near Serra da Estrela.

“I started as an individual concerned for my community, now I’m a citizen concerned for my country,” said Ms Scarrott, who spent her first 22 years in Covas do Barroso and now teaches abroad. “Lithium mining and refining is a huge risk for Portugal and I’m convinced it will damage the country in the long run.”

As one would expect, Mr. Archer believes otherwise. “What is a very small development in mining industry terms could play a significant role in helping Europe meet its carbon reduction goals,” he stated. He estimates that over the 15-year lifespan of the mine being set up, it will eliminate close to 100m tonnes of CO2 emissions by reducing the need to ship lithium from China, Australia and Latin America and by supplying a vital material for electric vehicles.