Covas do Barroso, Chaves. Over the past few years, a teacher living in England from Covas do Barroso, Trás-os-Montes, has swapped Portuguese and English books for the Mining Journal, lithium market reports and the minutes of international mining conferences. Catarina Scarrott, a mother of two children aged 2 and 7, fights passionately for the land on which her family has lived for more than ten generations. This is the land to which she would like to return, were it not for the lack of access and services. This is the land that British company Savannah Resources wants to gut in order to extract what are allegedly the largest lithium reserves in Europe.
How did you become involved in protesting against the lithium mine?
In the 90’s, I was studying at university and learnt that geologists had an interest in this area, and that there had been a request for a survey. I wanted to know more. I was told that this interest had to do with white granite for the ceramics industry. In 2003, I found minutes from international conferences stating that Covas do Barroso had one of the largest lithium reserves in Europe, with representatives from the National Laboratory of Energy and Geology mentioning its economic potential. Then, I learnt that there was a license for exploration, dated from 2006. There was talk of a feldspar and quartz quarry, with 42 hectares available for exploration. The site wasn’t that close to the village and so there wasn’t too much fuss made about the situation. The exploration was never carried out. In 2017, we learnt that this license had been sold to a British company. I thought: we are victims of speculation. It was clearly the lithium that interested them, not the feldspar. There were more requests put in for prospecting and, as the license had already been granted, there wasn’t any opposition. Each person was familiar with their own area, but the total area involved turned out to be vast! It would entail thirty thousand square meters of drilling, with more than 300 holes, huge platforms, and so close to homes. In this company’s reports, investors were informed of about 542 hectares! This meant 7 million, then 14 million, then 27 million and finally up to 50 million tons of affected rocks. Following these aggressive and rapid proposals – released from May 2017 until September last year – local people united to ask: “What’s going on here?”
What had happened?
The license for 2006 had been updated in 2011, for this area. The local people and the council knew nothing about it. The European Union was determined to look for raw materials for batteries, and they saw this as a shortcut to potential lithium extraction. The company’s claims, which we are now aware of, are frightening. We are talking about several open-pit mines, one of which is 600m in diameter by 150m in depth, and many millions of tonnes of rock that could be crushed and washed with our water – 390,000 cubic metres of water a year. There will be residue too, of course. One of the villages is just 200 metres away from the area – all to produce batteries for 250,000 cars a year in 2025. It’s scary!
What risks and impacts do you worry about?
We don’t know what’s going to happen with the water. We don’t know what other minerals exist, how toxic they are and how they will affect the health of the population. There is talk of diverting rivers. There’s a lot we don’t know – but we do know how to say no, this is too much! Apparently, in reality, European and Portuguese lithium reserves are tiny. If China decides to flood the market with cheap lithium, we are left at risk by these actions that the government wants take. What if the company goes bankrupt? And what about the environmental rehabilitation that it has to carry out, in accordance with the law… where are we going to stay?
When extracting lithium, they demolish the rock and rinse it with water and chemicals. This produces lithium concentrate. A complex treatment then produces lithium hydroxide. At the moment, this is only done in China and Australia. The government wants the supply chain to stay in Portugal, and for there to be one or two refineries. In the Mining Journal, the companies said “Yes, we’ll do the refinery, and we can even add value by importing lithium concentrate from Mali or Brazil”… It’s ridiculous. They need to say to the government “Yes, we’ll do it”, but they’re planning on taking the concentrate to China. What will be the environmental cost of all this? Is it going to be worth all these batteries that are supposed to contribute to decarbonisation? They are repentant sinners… now they exploit metals for decarbonisation!
How have the local population responded?
Our first reaction was “No! This is our land, and they won’t be allowed to do this.” But then we realized that there are laws, steps to follow, and that the government is not on our side and, after all – the laws mean nothing to the government. As individuals, we were not being listened to, and so we created the Covas de Barroso United Association. The government and the company attempted to hide what was going on. One of the representatives said to me: “Lithium? No! It will be something else.” I was outraged and spoke to several people. A member of the PCP finally asked questions to the Directorate-General for Energy and Geology on our behalf. We are trying in any way we can to lay claim to our rights. There are no compensatory measures to pay for the damage that will be caused. It will be bad when the mine is there, and perhaps even worse when the mine is gone.
How do you feel about this lack of transparency, this lack of access to information and truth?
I believe that we live in a democracy, under a rule of law. So I was shocked. The local people, the town hall, the parish council – nobody was consulted. There was simply an alteration made to the license. We learnt that the government had advertised Portuguese lithium. There’s a video in English in which they are trying to sell the country abroad: “Invest in Portugal, we have all of these resources and facilities”. Just like those adverts which say “Come and visit the Caribbean”. It’s shocking. Meanwhile, representatives came to visit the region and were surprised by the damage done by the survey. They asked the Minister for the Environment why local people were not involved, and they were told that it was the company’s responsibility to contact us and inform us…! We have the wolves taking care of the hens! The company has distributed some very interesting newsletters… They talk about who the geologists are, what they’re doing… anything apart from the information that we’re interested in. In July, they asked for an extension of 51 hectares to the area. And they informed their investors about a contract with another company, which has an exploration area nearby. None of this appeared in the bulletin. From the original license, which covered 4% of the local council area, we went from 18% in 2011 to 23% now! It seems that the project can expand as much as the company wants, and the government will let this happen. There is no control or supervision. They also wanted to see the mine classified as a Potential National Interest, to speed up the process. At the last minute, they withdrew their application, although apparently it will be made again.
What do the Savannah representatives have to say?
They’ve already spoken on television about creating a thousand jobs. Even the Panasqueira Mines have only 250 employees. What jobs are they talking about? We don’t have geologists, engineers, machine operators. Any jobs that come up would go to people outside the local area. And the community will not be revitalized, because it lacks access to services. It is the responsibility of the government, not of a mining company, to provide these services.
How do you feel about your land?
A sense of belonging. It’s part of my family, part of my blood, part of my community. We have a collective memory: we speak of a moment in time, or of a person, and everyone knows what we are talking about. If the community disappears, this will disappear too. We have always had a sustainable life, disconnected from the government, without support. There has been a school here since 1932, and there was a home for the poor – places that the community itself has established to support ourselves. Time has now passed, and there has been a lot of emigration. At the moment, there are few people here of working age. We have been classified by the United Nations as a world agricultural heritage site, because of the sustainable way in which people farm, living with animals and the environment. Everything is part of this cultural legacy. My family has been here for at least ten generations. The mine is a huge threat. It is terrible to think of how it will change the environment, the community, and our way of life. The legacy I will leave to my children is not that which was left to me – they’ll have to deal with whatever is left by the mine.
Do you have a message for people affected by mining projects in other parts of the country?
Try to find out as much as possible about the potential impacts and risks of these projects – and take a stand. Lithium is not the panacea for decarbonisation. The government’s justification for these projects is carbon neutrality. With the increase in electric vehicles, there will be an increase in demand for electricity. Until 100% of electricity comes from renewable sources, the idea that lithium is the solution to this is completely wrong. Lithium does not produce energy, but stores it. And it’s not the only component needed to produce batteries. Our reserves are very small – we are taking huge environmental, economic and social risks. The carbon footprint of an electric vehicle is enormous. Then there is the process of producing lithium hydroxide, and there is the cost of extraction. And what will happen to the batteries? They are not recyclable and contain lots of toxic metals. We continue to consume, using more and more. The solution is not electric cars – but fewer cars! To reduce consumption.
Is this something that you are aware of in your own life?
I was raised to live sustainably, so “I buy and throw away” doesn’t make sense to me. The younger generation doesn’t know this, because of our current system. Local markets have disappeared to make way for hypermarkets. Everything comes packaged in plastic. I have a habit of spending more money, but buying products that last. Many people call us hypocrites and accuse us of calling for changes “only in our neighbor’s garden”, but our issue is not with lithium – it is with excess.
What do you lack in your region?
We are second-class citizens up here. There are no doctors, no schools, no transport… They took the train off the Douro Line. Elderly people in need of medical care have to try and get by. There’s this sense of outrage: everyone else has access to minimum services, and we don’t. It’s a question of rights. They talk about hypocrisy but, when it comes to it, it is us who will suffer the damage caused by these projects. Montalegre organised talks from renowned academics to enlighten the population, and to tell us that the project would not be as bad as we might expect. I feel insulted. I don’t need an academic to tell me how 30 million tons of extracted rocks, holes 800m in diameter and 250m deep will affect me, or about what it would be like to have dust and mud at my door. The way in which they discredit our concerns is disgusting… We are aware that we do not know all of the impacts of this project. But we do know that they are serious. We have uncovered all of these publications in English, and no one is coming to talk to us. We feel like a colony, facing someone who is coming to colonise us.
Von Covas de Barroso nach Lissabon sind es jeweils 6 Stunden hin und zurück. Am 21. September brachen von Bergbauprojekten bedrohte Menschen aus dem Dorf Transmontana und verschiedenen anderen Landesteilen auf, um in Lissabon an der „Kundgebung gegen das Bergbaufieber in Portugal“ teilzunehmen. Bereits am 24. August versammelten sich Hunderte in Torre, Serra da Estrela, dem höchsten Punkt des Landes, um mit künstlerischen Darbietungen gegen die Minen zu protestieren. Zwischen 2016 und 2019 registrierte Quercus 50 Anträge auf Lithium-Prospektionsrechte, die 10% des portugiesischen Territoriums bedrohen: alertalitio.quercus.pt. Fortsetzung folgt in der nächsten Ausgabe.