The Serbian government has dropped its plans to build a massive lithium mine following weeks of public protest over the $2 billion project's environmental impact.
The Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto had been tapped to develop the mine in western Serbia in an effort to attract foreign investment and boost economic growth. The lithium mine, which was slated to be one of the world's largest, was seen as a way to capitalize on rising global demand for the element, which is widely used in the batteries that power electronics and electric vehicles.
"Serbia has fulfilled all demands from the environmental protests and has put an end to Rio Tinto in the Republic of Serbia," Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced during a televised address on January 20.
The controversial project led to a series of angry protests in recent weeks, including the blockage of a major highway in the capital, Belgrade, on January 15. Environmental groups had argued that the mine would be devastating to agricultural land and water supplies.
Following protests, a local municipality earlier this month scrapped plans to allocate land for the mine near Loznica in the western Jadar Valley. The Serbian government also withdrew two laws that activists had said were designed to speed up mining projects.
In her televised remarks, Brnabic said all "permits and decisions" related to the Rio Tinto project had been canceled. Protesters had called for not only Rio Tinto, but any mining company, to be barred from extracting lithium in the country.
Rio Tinto had conducted preliminary engineering work for the mine and set up a Serbian entity, Rio Sava Exploration, but this month pushed back the timeline for the project due to difficulties in obtaining licenses required to complete a key environmental assessment.
“We fully understand the concerns among some Serbian stakeholders about environmental impacts, and we will continue to engage to demonstrate the project has developed mitigation solutions in the project plan,” the company said on January 20.
The controversy had prompted Rio Tinto to move the initial target date for lithium production from 2026 to 2027.
Serbian authorities have announced that the company's total investments in the project amounted to more than $209 million since 2004.
The decision to cancel the project comes ahead of likely national elections, with President Aleksander Vucic coming under criticism for putting development ahead of environmental concerns.
Environmental issues have become a public concern for Serbs amid bad air pollution, poor waste management, and other environmental problems that have accumulated after decades of neglect.