Civic activism roils Serbia's plans for big mining concessions

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  • Government backtracks on laws to ease way for miners
  • Protest blockades target big Rio Tinto lithium project
  • Government keen to boost economy, reduce joblessness
  • Environmentalists fear land, water pollution to worsen

PRANJANI, Serbia, Dec 10 (Reuters) - From her village home in southwestern Serbia, Ljiljana Bralovic keeps watch on snow-covered hills and a network of small roads, looking for unfamiliar cars she believes might be carrying geologists prospecting for lithium.

Environmentalist groups like the one in her village threw up roadblocks there and across Serbia for two straight weekends in protest at laws meant to ease multibillion dollar projects by foreign miners to extract lithium, borates and copper. More protests were scheduled for Dec. 11.

The blockades in late November and early this month prompted the conservative government to backtrack this week on two laws environmentalists see as beneficial to exploitation of local resources with scant regard for the risk of worsened pollution.

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In the village of Pranjani, Bralovic and activists of the Mount Suvobor Ridge environmental group chased away a team of geologists and seized their rock samples.

"We learned that the Pranjani area was designated for lithium and borates prospecting...Holes are not being drilled in the ground for us to plant our famous plum trees in them," Bralovic told Reuters.

Protests also erupted in the western Jadar area where Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto (RIO.L) has begun buying land for its planned $2.4 billion underground lithium and borates mine.

Lithium is in big global demand as a vital ingredient in batteries for increasingly popular electric cars, while borates is used in solar panels and wind turbines.

Big foreign carmakers want to secure direct access to raw materials via partnerships with mining companies to avoid bottlenecks and keep plants at full capacity.

Serbia is among central and east European countries most scarred by industrial pollution dating to former Communist rule.

But the government, seeing higher economic growth and reducing unemployment as priorities, has offered mineral resources to investors including China's Zijin copper miner (601899.SS) and Rio Tinto.

President Aleksandar Vucic has said an environmental impact study will be carried out for the Rio Tinto project and, once complete, he will call a referendum to allow people to decide whether it should go ahead.

"Everything we build today we are leaving to our children," Vucic wrote on Instagram.

In August, Rio Tinto Serbia's CEO Vesna Prodanovic said it would meet all European Union and Serbian environmental regulations to mine lithium. read more

Green activists say such projects will aggravate land, water and air pollution in the Western Balkan country.

GOVERNMENT BENDS TO ACTIVISM

The road blockades prompted Vucic to send the expropriation law, which allowed faster acquisition of private land, back to parliament for reworking. read more

And on Friday, parliament, dominated by Vucic's allies, amended a referendum law to require that legislation comply with any referendum outcome and remove a requirement for payment of fees by any civic group to launch referendum initiatives.

Bojan Klacar, executive director of Belgrade-based pollster CESID, said the environmental protests had succeeded because they had "clear, achievable and non-divisive demands".

In another concession, the infrastructure ministry said on Thursday waste dumps which are part of the Rio Tinto lithium project must be moved out of the flooding-prone western Jadar area to another location.

"These (concessions) do not mean that all the problems in Serbia will vanish. We will keep fighting on other levels," said Savo Manojlovic, head of the Kreni-Promeni (Move-Change) group that oversaw the roadblock protests this month.

But economists warn the various protests could backfire. Sasa Djogovic of the Belgrade-based Institute for Market Research said Vucic's bowing to the demands of protesters "is testimony to an unstable business climate" in Serbia "where ... everything depends on one man (Vucic) and his inner circle."

Urgently needed foreign investors could put their plans on hold until after next year's election, Djogovic said, adding: "None has guarantees now that any major investment could come under attack from environmental protests."

(This story has been refiled to correct dateline to Dec 10 from Dec 9, no changes to text)

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Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic Editing by Mark Heinrich

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