@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Serra da Estrela Saved From Lithium Mining
Updated: Mar 3, 2022
Nearly 150 in Celorico de Basto protested approval of lithium exploration in Seixoso-Vieirios:
“It’s a fight of all for all.”
The UNESCO Global Serra da Estrela Geopark has been spared from controversial lithium exploration. Its haunting landscape of granite boulders, piercing blue lakes and dazzling views will be left intact for the heritage of Portugal, the livelihoods of locals and the enjoyment of others.
“The arguments invoked during the public consultation period saved almost the entire extension of the nine municipalities of the Estrela geopark,” reported SIC Noticias (February 11).
A preliminary environment assessment report, Lithium Prospecting and Research Program for the Launch of the Tender Procedure for Assignment of Prospecting Rights and Lithium Research, was released on February 2. It reduced the zones eligible for lithium exploration from eight to six and, in the six areas, the landmass was nearly halved. However, it was unclear which land had been excluded in the inclusive areas and which had not. The total land area was reduced from 421 to 164 square kilometers.
Meanwhile, there has been continued opposition to lithium mining from citizen and environmental groups and municipal presidents, who argue that their livelihoods and heritage would be destroyed by this activity.
The national weekly newspaper, Expresso gave the issue prominence on February 25. On the second page, it published the opposing opinions of two authorities, Alexandre Lima, a geologist and professor at the University of Porto, arguing for lithium mining and Francisco Ferreira, president of the environmental group, ZERO, and professor at Nova School of Science and Technology, arguing against it.
I live in the foothills of the Serra da Estrela, and I oppose lithium mining in Portugal. Merely reducing the land area engaged in lithium mining is like being a little bit pregnant. I do not see how people can be protected from the activity’s damaging effects.
The anticipated 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 and laptops as well as for electric cars.
According to the Associaçao Geopark Estrela, within the scope of the Public Consultation on the Lithium Prospecting and Research Program (PPP), “it was found that three of the proposed areas overlapped the territory classified since July 2020 as a UNESCO World Estrela Geopark,” reported the news agency, Lusa (February 4).
After analyzing the available documents, the Associaçao Geopark Estrela, which is headquartered at the Polytechnic Institute of Guarda, presented “an opinion on the PPP that would meet the objectives outlined for this territory and its inhabitants.
“The document presented recommended the exclusion . . . of other national protection commitments and the entire area of the UNESCO Global Estrela Geopark with the view that the PPP would contribute negatively to the safeguarding and enhancement of its heritage; it was not aligned with the promotion and sustainable development strategy agreed with the representatives and populations of the region, and it would cause constraints related to the recent UNESCO classification, something that would be extremely harmful to the region and its people”, said a statement from the Associaçao Geopark Estrela to Lusa.
UNESCO Global Geoparks, established in 2004, are single, unified geographical areas, where landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There are 169 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 44 countries.
All of Serra da Estrela’s 2,216 kilometers are in the UNESCO geopark. SIC Noticias (February 11) reported:
“(The strategic environmental assessment) spared geoparks – such as the one in Serra da Estrela. Manteigas and Celorico da Beira, located in the heart of Serra da Estrela, are completely safe from the tender for lithium exploration.
“But in the remaining municipalities of the global geopark, there is a fringe of villages that are outside the protection criteria defined by the Directorate-General for Energy and Geology.”
Jornal Terras da Beiras (February 9) reported on a meeting of the International Community of Beiras and Serra da Estrela (CIM-BSE) on February 8:
“The inter-municipal council decided that “in pursuit of the uncompromising defense of the legitimate interests of the populations residing in the territory” that “it will do everything, both in legal and technical terms, to achieve a result that respects the rights and interests of its populations”.
After the meeting, chaired by Luis Tadeu who is the president of Gouveia municipality, the inter-municipal council issued a position statement. Besides protection of the rights of the people, the statement also expressed “its total displeasure” with “the lack of dialogue, strategic consultation and hearing of the local authority by the Ministry of the Environment” and “over the indefiniteness and ambiguity of the applicability of the legal opinions issued by the municipal councils . . . on the prospecting and exploitation of lithium,” according to Jornal Terras da Beiras.
In the strategic environmental assessment’s previous eight areas, in some municipalities, “the area covered represented close to 40 percent of the total area of the municipality”. Therefore, the location of prospecting must be considered “together with the local authorities in order to minimize the environmental, economic, tourist and social impact on the territory as well as to define the rules and models of action in the context of eventual operation”.
“Prospecting and exploring for lithium in the CIM-BSE territory could be considered an economic and financial opportunity for the territory. However, model of this activity should be created . . . in order to create value throughout the lithium exploration and transformation chain with the impact on the local and regional economy.”
CIM-BSE comprises 15 municipalities, 12 in the district of Guarda: Almeida; Celorico da Beira; Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo; Fornos de Algodres; Guarda; Gouveia; Manteigas; Meda; Pinhel; Seia; Sabugal; and Trancoso; and three in the district of Castello Branco: Belmonte, Covilha, and Fundao.
Regarding the potential Romano lithium mine, 12 civic groups declared “total support” to the people of Morgade, Cervos and Cha in the municipality of Montalegre, who say that they are “strongly threatened” by the March 2019 concession of lithium exploration, reported the news agency, Lusa, on February 25.
The environmental impact assessment of the Romano lithium mine provides for mixed open-cast and underground mining as well as the construction of a hydrometallurgical plant for processing the ore, according to ECO Portuguese Economy (February 14).
Previously, three environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of the potential mine of Lusorecursos Portugal, Lithium have been rejected outright. The fourth EIA is open for 30 days of public consultation until March 25. Opposition or support should be voiced here:
The Agencia Portuguesa do Ambiente (APA) is holding an informational meeting on the concession to Lusorecursos Portugal, Lithium on March 2 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Municipal Auditorium of Montalegre:
On February 24, the Municipality of Gouveia website reported approving an unfavorable stance toward the lithium prospecting proposal in Gouveia. There had been a 90 percent reduction of land area. However, the parishes that still are included are: Cativelos (707.49 hectares); Arcozelo da Serra (569.19); Uniao de Freguesias de Rio Torto and Lagarinhos (2,464 hectares), and Vila Nova de Tazem (31.26 hectares).
Gouveia municipality viewed lithium mining as a potential “invasion” because of its harmful consequences, including contamination of the atmosphere, soil, groundwater and the Mondego River.
Nearly 150 men, women and children joined a walk in Celorico de Basto municipality in protest of the recent approval for lithium exploration in Seixoso-Vieirios, according to O Minho (February 20). An organizer said:
“This is the cause of many people, and there are many who are informing themselves to face this threat that is knocking at our door. It’s not a personal fight; it’s not a fight of the parties, and it’s not a fight for municipalities.
“It’s a fight of all for all.”
The headline of the Expresso newspaper on February 25 read Should Portugal Become One of the Main Lithium Producers in the World. The national paper published dueling opinions of Alexandre Lima, geologist and professor at the University of Porto, arguing for lithium mining and Francisco Ferreira, president of the environmental group, ZERO, and professor at Nova School of Science and Technology, arguing against it. Alexandre Lima said:
“Portugal has the potential to be a major European producer of lithium, even to be its biggest producer, if it manages to take advantage of all the lithium minerals that exist in its subsoil (spodumene, lepidolite, amblygonite, petalite and zinnwaldite).
“For this, in addition to the reserves that are already in the mines identified so far and awaiting approval from the Portuguese Environment Agency, there will have to be more prospecting to prove the potential of the large lithium resources that are already known in the North and Center, a process that takes several years to complete and culminates in drilling campaigns, involving thousands of chemical and mineralogical analyses.
“After that, we cannot forget that we still have to carry out the Environmental Impact Studies, which must be approved, and obtain the Social License to operate in new mines (whether they are open pit, underground or mixed) that may eventually show economic viability.
“But only the construction of a lithium metallurgy in the national territory will be able to retain most of its value within borders, not needing to resort only to imports for refining, as was done for decades with oil.
“The fact that it has good seaports and that there is a large percentage of renewable energies in its energy network means that the future metallurgy can be fed by ores from the country but also attract the ores that circulate on the Atlantic route, guaranteeing end buyers of lithium compounds (carbonate, hydroxide or lithium chloride) of a socially and environmentally certified origin, something that is starting to be demanded by the main electric car brands.
“It may also be able to further extend the lithium value chain in Portugal, as the production of lithium compounds may attract battery cell producers and even their assembly in national battery factories.
“In this way, you can even guarantee the maintenance of car factories in Portugal, converting the current factories in the Center and South to the production of electric cars. At the end of the chain, we cannot forget about recycling lithium batteries, which also can feed metallurgy with raw materials.
“For all this to happen, there must be the involvement of many technicians from geology, mining engineering, biology, social sciences, environmental engineering, landscape architecture and others.”
Francisco Ferreira countered:
“It is true that in a climate emergency scenario, where it is urgent for society to stop being focused on the consumption of fossil fuels, it is required that everyone can contribute to changing the energy paradigm. Portugal cannot refuse to be part of the energy transition, contributing to the supply of resources, in this specific case lithium, essential for the technology that currently prevails in the electrification of the transport sector, in addition to guaranteeing other equipment with batteries.
“However, this should only advance if we effectively have a responsible operation with low environmental, social and economic impact and in which the entire value chain, from exploration, through the various stages of processing and production of final products, is located in national territory, something that is not clearly ensured.
“Furthermore, a European regulatory effort has to be made to force the recycling of battery materials to the detriment of an emphasis on extraction. There are many questions and some certainties that lead us to say that Portugal cannot become one of the main lithium producers in the world.
“Questions begin right away with the availability of the resource. World statistical data for 2020 place Portugal in eighth place in terms of large world reserves, with 60,000 tons, but very far from the first five classified. The “Preliminary Environmental Assessment Report” of the Prospecting and Research Program in the eight potential areas of lithium exploration points to a scarcity of data that allow conclusions of the value of this resource in various areas.
“There is also a set of strong territorial restrictions that would result in very significant environmental impacts on the existing natural values, safeguarded by international commitments as well as generators of impacts and conflicts with the populations due to an inevitable reduction of the area that will be subject to prospecting and research and possible future evaluation of exploration.
“We are witnessing a wave of intentions of exploitation that resembles a predatory phenomenon of depletion of resources in a short space of time. The mines in Covas do Barroso and Romano, if they advance, will leave a huge mark on the landscape and on the way of life of the local people.
“We must be available to contribute, but we must not go beyond availability in sharing responsibilities, far from being one of the main lithium producers in the world, mortgaging fundamental values for the future.”
An umbrella opposition group, Movimento ContraMineraçao Beira Serra, posts updates of activity on its Facebook page.
The Directorate-General of Energy and Geology (DGEG) wrote in a statement reported in Jornal de Noticias (February 2):
“In the next 60 days, the tender procedure for the attribution of lithium prospecting and research rights will be able to advance.
“After the tender procedure and prospecting (to take place within a maximum period of five years), lithium exploration can begin, with each of the projects being subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment.”
The six areas approved for exploration were as follows:
1. Seixoso-Vieiros – Districts Braga, Porto, Vila Real – Municipalities Fafe, Celorico de Basto, Guimaraes, Felgueiras, Amarante, Mondim de Basto (proposed 243.7 square kilometers reduced to 144.215 square kilometers);
2. Massueime – District Guarda – Almeida, Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Pinhel, Trancoso, Meda (proposed 499.7 square kilometers reduced to 438.651 square kilometers);
3. Guarda, Mangualde (C) – Districts Castelo Branco, Guarda – Municipalities Belmonte, Covilha, Fundao, Guarda (proposed 421.5 square kilometers reduced to 162.872 square kilometers);
4. Guarda, Mangualde (E) – District Guarda – Municipalities Almeida, Belmonte, Guarda, Sabugal (proposed 497 square kilometers reduced to 420.576 square kilometers);
5. Guarda, Mangualde (W) – Districts Guarda, Viseu – Municipalities Mangualde, Gouveia, Seia, Penalva do Castelo, Fornos de Algodres, Celorico de Beira ( proposed 376.6 square kilometers reduced to 173.899);
6. Guarda, Mangualde (NW) – Districts Viseu, Coimbra – Municipalities Viseu, Satao, Penalva de Castelo, Mangualde, Seia, Nelas (proposed 444.9 square kilometers reduced to155.244 square kilometers).