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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Lithium Mine Could Threaten Wolf Survival in Portugal’s U.N. Heritage Area

Updated: Dec 25, 2023



In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, in the western United States after 70 years of being killed off. They transformed the ecosystem and, even more surprisingly, the physical geography.


Bringing back the wolves struck a nerve among ranchers who feared that the wolves would wander out of the park and kill their livestock. However, wildlife biologists believed that the wolves played a key role in the Yellowstone ecosystem, including controlling the elk population, which had ballooned and wreaked havoc on the range. The debate is still strong.

 

A proposed lithium mine in Portugal could jeopardize the survival of the protected endangered Iberian wolf in the country’s only U.N. Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System, warned Platforma Lobo Ibérico, which highlighted that the mine’s location coincides with the breeding site of a pack.

 

Amid sustained local, national and international pressure to reject two mining projects in the northern province of Tras-os-Montes, the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA) has approved conditionally the Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium plan for the Romano mine in September and the Savannah Lithium proposal for the Barroso mine in May. The Barroso mine would be located less than 15 kilometers from the Romano mine. 


The region’s traditional agroecosystem gained status as a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems in 2017. Around the world, there are only 60 of these resilient and biodiverse landscapes, sustainably managed through traditional knowledge of the community.


Portugal gave the Iberian wolf Endangered status in 1990. It is the only species of Portuguese fauna that has specific legislation protecting it.

 

Platforma Lobo Ibérico, which consists of three biologists and a conservationist, focused on the proposed Romano mine, which received a conditional approval, and its effect on the Iberian wolf population.

 

“The Environmental Impact Study (EIA) did not properly consider the magnitude of the cumulative effects resulting from other developments in the surrounding region, which would increase human disturbance and habitat fragmentation, possibly making unviable the future of the wolf in the region,” according to a December 21 statement of the recently founded Platforma Lobo Ibérico, reported Público (December 21).

 

“Any mitigation measures resulting from the construction of the mine will hardly be able to compensate for the disappearance of this pack, one of the most stable, and the negative impacts that this project would have on the wolf population.”

 

The 30-hectare Romano mine, would cover about 20 percent of the territory of the Leiranco Iberian wolf pack, destroying the breeding site, where, over the past 30 years, there has been the presence of cubs, according to Platforma Lobo Ibérico, which seeks to educate the public about the wolf and coexistence with it.

 

The Iberian wolf, a subspecies of grey wolf, inhabits the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, which includes northern Portugal and northwestern Spain. A predator and scavenger, it lives in packs of between two to 10, according to SPECO, the Portuguese Society of Ecology.

 

It differs from the wolf in the rest of Europe as it is smaller and has a more yellow-brown coat with obvious black markings on the front legs, according to Platforma Lobo Ibérico.

 

The male has a height of 60 centimeters (23.6 inches) to 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) and a length of 130 centimeters (51.2 inches) to 180 centimeters (70.9 inches) including the tail. It weighs 25 kilograms (55.1 pounds) to 40 kilograms (88.2 pounds), with females normally being smaller.

 

The animal, which can look similar to many dogs, has a large head, erect and triangular ears, as well as slanted eyes of amber or topaz.


The Iberian wolf feeds mainly on livestock species, such as goats, sheep, cattle and horses. The northwest is the only region, where the consumption of ungulates, such as wild boar and roe deer, is most significant and has increased significantly in recent years. In the region south of the Douro River, it also feeds on the corpses of domestic animals, such as cattle, horses, poultry, rabbits and pigs, which have been deposited in dumps. 

 

A wolf killed in a community raid (1950s-1960s) at Serra do Soajo, Municipality of Arcos de Valdevez, District of Viana de Castelo    (Photo from Francisco Álvares Archive/Grupo Lobo)

 

From Abundance to Only 300 Wolves

 

According to the most recent national census of 2002-2003, there are about 300 wolves in Portugal in about 63 packs, fragmented into two areas and separated by the Douro River Valley, reported Platforma Lobo Ibérico.

 

At the time of Portugal’s inception, in the 12th century, there had been several written references to the great abundance of wolves in the country. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was still possible to find the wolf throughout the mainland, according to Platforma Lobo Ibérico.

 

In the first decades of the 20th century, the wolf slowly began to leave areas, mainly due to the destruction and fragmentation of its habitat, human persecution and the decline of its prey.

 

“During the 20th century, the wolf was the target of intense persecution with, most likely, thousands of wolves being killed across the country. Various means were used, such as the use of poison, the collection of litter or shooting, facilitated by the widespread use of firearms in rural communities. . . Raids intended to hunt the wolf, and which were widely publicized, could bring together hundreds of people, including scouts and hunters.

 

“The killing of the wolf was a source of great popular satisfaction and conferred prestige, also serving to release fears and hatred directed at the predator. The slaughtered wolf often was displayed publicly, in the village or in the squares and fairs of the nearest city, to collect monetary or food offerings, attracting people’s curiosity.”

 

Even during the 1950s, the wolf existed practically throughout the country, namely in the Algarve, Alentejo and the Tagus Valley, a few kilometers from Lisbon.

 

From the 1960s onwards, the wolf suffered raids and a continuous process of extinction in the south, with only small isolated populations, of reduced viability, associated with higher altitudes and mostly, in the border region of Spain.

 

In the 1980s, the wolf became a protected species. It became extinct south of the Tagus River.


In 1990, it was given Endangered status in Portugal, reported Wilder. It is the only species of Portuguese fauna that has specific legislation protecting it.

 

From the 1990s onwards, the wolf’s settlement area seemed to stabilize, with the species in the most mountainous and remote regions of the north, characterized by a low human population density and traditional agricultural activity, according to Platforma Lobo Ibérico.

 

Today, the Iberian wolf occupies an area that is only 20 percent of the area occupied at the beginning of the last century.

 

Platforma Lobo Ibérico warned of the need to comply with existing national and international legislation that protect the Iberian wolf and its habitat, in particular the packs’ breeding sites, and the danger of setting precedents for future destruction of wolf breeding areas, reported Público.

 

Finally, reported Wilder on December 22, the organization called on the government to comply with the 2017 Action Plan for the Conservation of the Iberian Wolf in Portugal. The plan’s objective was to ensure necessary conditions of integrity and tranquility in the wolf’s breeding areas, describing several steps. However, Platforma Lobo Ibérico said that “to date, nothing has been implemented yet”.

 

Francisco Álvares, a biologist with a doctorate in Conservation Biology and researcher at CIBO/InBIO, Research Center for Biodiversity and Genetic Resources at the University of Porto, has been studying the species for more than 20 years. One of the four team founders of Platforma Lobo Ibérico, he has focused on topics such as predation on livestock, behavioral responses to human activities, and the beliefs and practices of local communities in relation to the wolf. Álvares told Wilding:

 

“This year, few packs reproduced, and mortality was enormous. Wolves are having less and less reproductive success. There has been a lot of disturbance due to the opening of the primary access network” as part of the work to combat forest fires, “carried out in the middle of the wolf breeding season”.

 

Location of proposed Romano mine (From Lusorecursos website)


 

What Lusorecursos Said About the Wolf


In February, the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA) said that Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium had up to six months to reformulate elements of its €650 million project with an expected 13-year mining operation and a 20-year minimum lifespan of industrial facilities. The environment agency gave a favorable opinion on the open pit and underground exploration.


However, it rejected the location of the refinery due to the presence of Iberian wolves and its violation of the Municipal Master Plan (PDM) of Montalegre (due to ecological and tourist safeguards).


According to Lusorecursos' Concession for Exploration of Mineral Deposits of Lithium and Associated Minerals -- "Roman" Environmental Impact Study Submission of Additional Minimizing Measures or Environmental Compensation (June 2023):


“With regard to Alternative B for locating the CAM (Mining Annex Coplex), the opinion concluded that the only negative impact consisted in the existence of the Leiranco Iberian wolf pack, whose conservation of the family group would be called into question without the possibility of effective measures of minimization. Given the environmental nature of these limitations, it is legally possible to propose "additional measures of minimization or environmental compensation".


The company’s proposed measures include “the recovery of degraded areas in the surroundings close to the pack’s distribution area”, “multidisciplinary monitoring, not only of the species, but also of its habitat and dependent biophysical components”, and monitoring of the effectiveness of the measures.


Lusorecursos’ proposal pointed out that “the analysis of ICNF (Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas) admits, however, in its sectorial opinion, that ‘given the expected activity for the CAM (24-hour work, associated with the movement of heavy vehicles during part of the night period), it is considered that any of the alternatives proposed for the location of the CAM would have significant impacts on the Iberian wolf’, although it considers that the impact of Alternative B would be of greater magnitude due to its greater proximity to its breeding center.”

 

(Source: Platforma Lobo Ibérico)

 

What Savannah Lithium Said About the Wolf

 

Savannah Lithium’s Environment Impact Assessment, Alteration of the Project Expansion of the Barroso Mine, was submitted on March 22. In Ecological Systems, the company studied the proposed concession area, the accesses (to which it added a 20-meter buffer, and the water lines (Couto stream, Covas River and specific areas of the Beça River in the municipalities of Boticas and Ribeira de Pena.

 

The species were categorized on a scale that consists of Extinct; Extinct in the wild; Critically endangered; Endangered; Vulnerable; Near threatened; Least concern; Data deficient, and Not evaluated.

 

Of the 35 fauna species of conservation concern (Critically endangered; Endangered, or Vulnerable), 9 are mammals; 15 birds; 2 fish; 2 bivalves; 2 amphibians; 3 reptiles, and 2 insects.

 

The study inventoried 50 species of mammals, 20 with possible occurrence and 30 with confirmed occurrence.

 

The research allowed identifying the presence of 9 mammal species with status in the area, of which 6 have confirmed presence. Of the 9 species, 7 are classified as vulnerable, 1 as endangered and 1 as critically endangered, according to the Livro Vermelho dos Vertebrados de Portugal (Red Book of Vertebrates in Portugal).

 

The endangered species is the gray wolf (Canis lupus).

 

The footprint of a large canid was observed in the study area, next to Alto da Misarela. It was not possible to unequivocally identify as being that of a wolf. It appears that data are scarce for the concession area and for the Covas River area, with no records developed specifically in this area. Even so, it is considered very likely that the species uses it regularly.

 

The study area does not intersect the known territory of any pack, but it is possible to notice that there are several packs in the surroundings, according to Pimenta et al. There are also several records of evidence of its presence near the proposed concession area of 20143 and 20154 (numbered UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) squares of 10 X10 km.), there are records of damage caused by the wolf along the northeast access in 20175, and near the other two accesses that follow north in 20176.

 

Studies carried out within the scope of monitoring the wolf at the Montalegre Wind Farm, whose monitoring area did not cover the proposed area for the extension of the Barroso Mine, also made it possible to identify an area of wolf breeding, about 5 kilometers to the west of the area.

 

Flora

 

Savannah’s Environmental Impact Assessment of 2021 had identified 22 species of flora of greatest interest for conservation, according to the Community Profile and Social Identification Issues document of the revised proposal.

 

The 2021 summary of the non-technical Environmental Impact Assessment also said that 373 species of flora were inventoried, distributed over 74 botanical families.

 

During the fieldwork, 211 of these species were recorded, of which 5 are of high value for conservation: Veronica micrantha, Endangered and native only to Portugal; cork oak (Quercus suber), Protected; Common holly, azevinho (Ilex aquifolium), Protected; heath-spotted orchid, (Dactylorhiza maculate), and tongue-orchid (Serapias lingua).

 

Lithium: “White Gold”

 

The increased demand for electric cars has propelled lithium into the category of “white gold” as mining companies compete for extraction contracts around the world. The light metal is used in batteries for phones, laptops as well as electric cars.

 

Nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are other minerals crucial to battery performance, longevity and energy density, reported the intergovernmental International Energy Agency in The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions.

 

Due to its purported large lithium deposits, Portugal is being touted as a key player in the European Union’s transition to green energy. Currently, the EU is wholly dependent on imported battery-grade lithium in an increasingly competitive global market.

 

I live in the foothills of the Serra da Estrella, which, until February 2022, had been considered for lithium exploration. I oppose lithium mining in Portugal.


What seems like a simple and elegant solution for a cleaner environment is not green. Lithium mining creates its own demands on limited natural resources, such as water, and it is fraught with hazards for traditional livelihoods and health of the people as well as the preservation of flora and fauna.

 

Portugal is not the only country in the world, or Europe for that matter, fighting to protect its land, way of life and cultural heritage. Serbia, for example, a tore up contracts in 2021 with one of the world’s largest mining companies, Rio Tinto. The New York Times has reported stories behind the global transition from oil and the scramble for clean-energy resources in the series, Race to the Future.



 


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