‘Everything Here is Green’: Lithium Mining Complicates the Green Transition
In Covas do Barroso, a village in Portugal where a proposed lithium mine will irreparably alter the natural environment and the lives of its inhabitants, residents are pushing back on what the green transition really means.
Nestled between green mountains in northern Portugal, Covas do Barroso is a handful of stone houses gathered around the junction of two roads. A village of about 150 inhabitants, its economy is traditionally linked to livestock farming and agriculture. Here, since 2016, the British company Savannah Resources has been planning to create open-pit lithium mines. The company estimates that the mine can operate for twelve years, will employ 250 workers during that time, and will supply lithium for 500,000 electric car batteries. At the end of May 2023, the Portuguese Environment Agency gave its preliminary approval for the environmental impact assessment of the project, and construction is scheduled to start in 2024.
But in the opinion of many local residents, these mines should not be built. Once the plans reached the public, community members joined together to form Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso (UDCB), and the group opposes this project with demonstrations, assemblies, tent camps, and legal actions.
Lithium mining in Barroso is among the projects at the center of a corruption investigation that engulfed the Portuguese government beginning on November 7, 2023. The fight over these mines is therefore not as local as it might seem. Indeed, the banner welcoming visitors to Covas do Barroso, “Não às Minas, Sim à Vida” (“No to Mines, Yes to Life”), poses inescapable questions about the global model of green transition.
Classroom B.02 at the University of Vila Real is full, and all attention is directed toward the speaker standing behind a desk at the front of the room: “My name is Nelson Gomes and I live in Covas do Barroso.” Gomes is president of the UDCB and explains that the mines would completely disrupt the environment of the valley and the lives of its inhabitants.
“They accuse us of being unwilling to sacrifice ourselves for the planet,” says Gomes, “but we already sacrifice ourselves with our way of life and farming.” In the audience are students, professors, researchers, and interested people.
Mariana Riquito, a researcher at the University of Coimbra, said, “It is a falsification to talk about a right green transition. It cannot be just if it does not respect the autonomy of the local populations, it cannot be a transition if, to implement it, you intensify the consumption of fossil [fuel] energy. It cannot be green if it only considers the problem of emissions and not the consequences of the mining and extractive industry.”
A professor from the audience asks whether the mine project might represent a development opportunity for the area. Gomes calmly takes the floor to reply: “Covas do Barroso has been a [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] World Heritage Site for agriculture since 2018, the mine is incompatible with the development of the area. They talk to us about compensation, minimization, and landscape restoration. But the relationship with nature is the only reason to live in such an isolated place. What development is possible for an area where no one would want to live?”
According to Gomes, the problem that needs to be addressed is broader. “We need to question the energy transition, as it’s a model centered on extractivism. The alternatives are there, starting with the development of public transport.”
He concludes: “Keep in mind that such an imposition could one day happen to you too, where you live.”
A stream, swollen after the rains, washes the road under the chestnut trees leading to the village of Alijò. A farmer named Paulo Pires approaches, smiling. “I come all the way here because I can use some pastures for grazing.” He has 170 sheep, and his business, like that of the other shepherds and farmers of Covas do Barroso, is threatened by lithium mining. “Part of my land is in danger of being included in the mine area. Where will I graze the sheep?”
Pires is worried that the valley’s water resources will be compromised. “With the drilling, some farmers are already now complaining about the lack of water in the wells,” says Pires. “What will happen to the troughs and streams?”
He explains that there are also plans to build mines in other regions. That is why, according to Pires, it is important to be able to broaden our perspective: “Of course lithium is needed for batteries. It is essential for the energy transition. But we should ask ourselves what we use this energy for. Is lithium supposed to make consumerism sustainable? And what green transition are we talking about if we destroy the green? Look!” he exclaims, laughing. “Everything here is green!”
Sitting at his desk, Fernando Quieroga says, “From the beginning as the Municipal Chamber we have opposed the lithium mine.” He is the mayor of Boticas, the municipality to which the hamlet of Covas do Barroso, almost twenty kilometers away from this office, belongs. “It is a different kind of mining activity from those that were already present in the area,” explains the mayor. “It may affect the living conditions and health of the members of our community.”
Another issue concerns water. Quieroga and others are “very alarmed because there is a risk of compromising the phreatic level” and, consequently, the area’s water resources.
“They say that such a sparsely populated area has only to gain from such a project,” he says with a bitter smile. “But if we look at the lithium value chain, in addition to mining, there is battery production, electric car fabrication, and finally battery recycling. All these industrial activities will be elsewhere. Nothing will remain here.”
Regarding future prospects, the mayor uses clear words: “As far as it is in our power, we will not give authorizations, but if the government decides to go ahead, it risks facing a popular uprising.”
Riquito looks pleased at the entrance of the former primary school in Covas do Barroso. “Now it’s good!” she says.
She and her friend Paloma have just finished cleaning the entrance. Closed for many years, the building has now been reborn and is called A Sachola, thanks in part to young people like them who moved here to support the struggle against mining. The banner at the entrance reads “Encontro Solidario Anti-Extractivista” (Anti-Extractivist Solidarity Meeting).
“We have to finish setting up the space,” Riquito explains, showing me the large room inside. “In a week’s time we will have a [film] screening. We want this space to be a place of aggregation and sociality for the inhabitants of the village, but at the same time also a meeting point between the local community and those from outside.”
Aida Fernandes is president of the Baldios of Covas do Barroso, the organization that manages the common lands of civic use, which are among the most threatened by mining projects. “Savannah has bought some land, but a lot of drilling is taking place in the common lands, especially in the forests,” explains Fernandes. “So we come to stop the works, claiming the use of that land for the community.” From the top of the Olhar do Guerreiro viewpoint, the entire valley is visible, including the drilling areas—partly covered by vegetation—all around the village.
Fernandes points to a spot southeast of the village. “Over there is the area they are really focusing on. It seems to be the richest,” she says. It is an expanse of pine trees on a hillside. “Just think, that whole area should become an open pit, it will be dug up to a depth of 150 meters for a diameter of 500 meters. Eighty percent of the material will be waste, the remaining 20 percent will have to be washed, even chemically, to extract the lithium fitted there in less than 2 percent in any case.” In recent years, says Fernandes, the struggle against lithium extraction in Covas do Barroso has found broad support from the most diverse parts of society.
“This is not about slowing down the work and obtaining small results,” she says decisively. “It is not enough to win battles. You have to win the war.”
The sun goes down. A farmer leads the cows to the stable with a hoe slung across his shoulder as he crosses the central village square. On one side is the sports field, where the summer camp against lithium mining was held. Countless colorful banners hang on the fence, against mining, for village life, for water, and for nature. Directly opposite, on the other side of the square, behind a dark door, guarded by cameras, is the small office of Savannah Resources.
Photojournalist Giacomo Sini's work has been published in Vice, El Pais, Neon Stern, L'Express, Humanité Dimanche, Il Manifesto, Corriere del Ticino, NZZ, Die Zeit, Taz, National Geographic, The Week, and other outlets. He is based in Italy.
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February 16, 2024