Exclusive: We were first to enter Serbian villages under which lies enormous world wealth - lithium
Researchers, environmentalists, noise measurers are now cruising the Jadar valley, while locals, already accustomed to them, look toward a better tomorrow. And we had the opportunity to visit those places that lie on top of the world's riches, or as it's increasingly heard, on top of "the new oil"
Video: Bili smo u selima koja leže na litijumu - naša budućnost je bela
Our future is white and it's is the Jadar River basin. There, in the fields, meadows and cornfields are several villages from the Loznica area. At a depth of 300 meters, our new industrial era begins. It takes 26 steps to get to that raw material with which we could supply the whole world - lithium.
Here, under the grass, or under some hillock, lie the largest reserves in Europe, i.e., deposits sufficient to supply half the world.
Without lithium, neither electric cars nor a mobile phones can be produced. Without it, a future where the driving force will be electricity is simply not possible.
Jadarite, as the mineral has been named after the Jadar River, is a great hope of the locals, not only for Loznica but also for Serbia.
OUR TICKET TO A BRIGHT FUTURE
Exploration of the site will be complete by the end of this year and the start of ore exploitation is expected in the near future. The mine is expected to open in 2023. In addition to the mine, it's believed that lithium will bring other factories, perhaps even those producing electric cars, which is our ticket to a brighter future.
Researchers, environmentalists, noise measurers are now cruising the Jadar valley, while locals, already accustomed to them, look toward a better tomorrow. And we had the opportunity to visit those places that lie on top of the world's riches, or as it's increasingly heard, on top of "the new oil."
On the slopes of a hill above Jadar, we meet Milenko Djuric from Draginac, who says he is "from the other side of the river", but certainly on rich soil.
"This is the future of Western Serbia. Something that's already done, certain. It's only a matter of days before the mine opens. There are rigs on the left side of Jadar. In the last 15 years, more than 50 rigs have been made, some 160 million tons of mineral resources - all at a depth of 300 to 600 meters. We are delighted with the work of Rio Tinto. They made great contact with the locals. They hired local people, poured gravel on the roads," he tells us.
It's not just the presence of the workers that has changed the village, they say - they also brought with them some new habits, a different culture of behavior.
"When you get up at five in the morning you see the only place in Serbia where 300 people are at work. They work 12 hours, buy food, their SUVs pass all the time, they're getting to work. That's a work culture. You won't see their SUVs speeding at 60 kilometers an hour. Still, the pleasure of working with them is best seen in the field," says Milenko.
YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHICH HOUSES WILL BE EVICTED, LAND EXPROPRIATION TO FOLLOW
Tomislav Arnautovic, coordinator for cooperation with Rio Tinto, a man in charge of local economic development, is closest to the events in the valley that have caught the attention of the world public.
"I have been in the local government since 2008. This collaboration is taking place at several levelse. We have meetings once a month with their representatives. We keep them informed about what is happening here, and they regularly tell us about their work, about their plans a little less so. We respect that," says Tomislav.
He explains that the company has its own rules and thinks that this is fine. However, they also very much take care of their own interests, so they are an unavoidable participant in quarterly meetings with the villagers.
"To be a link between the population and to be present if a problem arises."
They don't hide that some houses will have to be evicted. But they believe the owners will get decent compensation.
"We follow that without interfering. That's a matter between the company and the locals. We know exactly which households will need to be evicted, and everything they agree on will be carried out."
In the city, as well as its surroundings, they hope the future mine will attract a number of subcontractors. This would bring multiple benefits that would spread across the country, but also improve the standard of living, increase wages.
FOREIGN COMPANIES ARE ALREADY MAKING INQUIRIES
"For sure. Every major investment attracts other companies involved in the service industry. We expect that surely dozens of other companies from various fields will come, who will find their place with the growth of the mines," adds Arnautovic.
The news of the work being done in the villages near Mt. Cer has reached many places, so there have already inquiries, mostly from Australia.
"Our ambassador to Australia is constantly receiving inquiries, several companies are already interested in this area, of course because of Rio Tinto," he explains.
Much is expected from future investments, they say, and a lot has been invested already. The locals we spoke to believe there is no reason to quit now that the work has started.
"We expect a lot from this company, they took a serious stance. They take this job seriously. Wherever our roads were bad, they were generous and repaired them. There are people who are petty and create some problems, but that's resolved quickly," says Dragan Tomic, president of the Brezjak, Nedeljica and Slatina local administration units, where the largest ore deposits lie.
He expects young people to find work in there, and some may return. They realized, he said, "what was actually discovered there, and how much the world needs it." However, they all have the same question:
"Most often they ask when the mine will open and how much the land expropriation will be," Tomic recounts.
According to him, the plan is to buy out several hundred hectares, maybe more.
"WE HOPE THEY'LL EMPLOY US, LOCALS"
"We would be pleased to see that this is not only about raw materials, but also that those batteries are made here. A railroad, ra oad, a transformer station for the needs of the industry. A lot of money is invested. Noise, ecology experts are coming. They're here."
The locals don't hide their huge hopes, they follow, ask, visit, watch the rigs...
"All this leads to a better tomorrow. We hope that the seriousness of this company, and that's how they have acted, that a number of jobs will be filled by our fellow citizens. There's a lot of expecations. We hope that this will contribute to the return of people to their homes," says Borisav Karajcic, a resident of Gornja Nedeljica.
At the meetings, experts from Rio Tinto are mostly asked how dangerous what is happening is to their villages is. Is it safe, does it affect health...
"It's important that they take care of the environment the most, whether this is healthy, protected, and they often explain it to us. It's important for all this to start as soon as possible, for people to start working and for the population to stop migrating," added a neighbor from Cikota, Dragic Terzic.
NEW JOBS FOR A FUTURE MINE
People from Loznica are already preparing. They say they want to be ready for when the mine opens. City officials are proud to talk about jadarite, and they took us right there - to the river that is so much talked about.
"Here in the valley of the Jadar River, in December 2004, a previously unknown mineral, jadarite, was discovered. And it was named after the river. They noted that it was a mineral rich in lithium and boron," Ljubinko Djokic, Assistant Mayor of Loznica, recalls how it all started.
They understand what lithium means and how it is used. They hope they can turn it all to their advantage.
"Back in Davos it was said that there is a revolution in the electronics industry. The Chinese company Long announced at the time that it intended to take over Ikarbus, and according to their statements, they would also make electric cars. For us, the future lies in electric vehicles, and as the president of Serbia announced, the location of a factory making those vehicles could be somewhere here in Western Serbia," he says.
Where does Loznica see its biggest chance?
"Of course, above all in the employment of young people, especially in the manufacturing industry. We, as a city, are are moving toward meeting them halfway, so in conversation with Rio Tinto we agreed that we will also create occupations, mining technician and miner in underground exploitation and that this will be the profile they will need. We have create a study to verify this profile so that in 2023, when the mine is expected to be open, we will be ready to have workers for this mine," Djokic is optimistic.
And that's not all, they expect that development of the mining industry will accelerate the development of corridors, highways, railways...
"When such a large company arrives, it makes a good step forward for the whole country," concludes Djokic.
We climb one of the hills overlooking the Jadar Valley. Only a few rigs can be seen from here, but all that's been talked about can be heard - machines are buzzing, hammers are tapping, ore is being tested.
"See that red roof over there," a villager from Nedeljica points his finger.
"I heard it this morning, they'll drill there. Those guys who measure noise were already there. That's 200 meters from me, by air."
He, too, is pleased, though he would like to know a little more about the plans.
"If that comes to life, if the mine officially opens, it will means prosperity for the whole town and for Western Serbia. Hiring young people who will stay in these areas to start their families," he hopes.
IS SUPERMEN REALLY FROM LOZNICA?
Otherwise, Rio Tinto said that the chemical composition of jadarite is similar to kryptonite - the fictional mineral that deprives Superman of his powers. Ours, however, is not green, but white.
Is Superman from Loznica?
(Laughter) That's a bit of a story by us locals...," our interlocutors are enigmatic.
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