Strategic metals are important for the EU as it seeks to reduce its dependence on Chinese or Russian raw materials. However, a major mining project in Bosnia and Herzegovina is stirring anger among some residents.
In just a few weeks, the Vares Polymetallic underground silver mine in Bosnia and Herzegovina is set to begin full-scale operations. Silver, gold, lead, zinc, copper, antimony and other metals can be extracted from the host rocks.
These strategic metals are important for the EU as it seeks to reduce dependence on Chinese or Russian raw materials.
But the problem is increasing. Ecological activists from the nearby town have filed a complaint with the Bern Convention office of the Council of Europe, claiming that the project is endangering local biodiversity and that the planned mining activities will pollute the water.
Euronews sent its reporter Hans von der Bray into the Bosnian mountains to investigate what was happening.
go underground: thewares silver mine
I want to visit this Varese silver mine operated by UK-based mining company Adriatic Metals. But this is only possible with emergency breathing equipment and special safety training. Jimmy from New Zealand takes me underground. He has 26 years of work experience in Australia, Mongolia, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso. He is now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working for Adriatic Metals.
“The minerals here are good for the country and will benefit the local community,” says Jimmy.
Every year 800,000 tons of minerals will be extracted from underground. It is currently the largest mining project in Bosnia and Herzegovina, representing 25% of the country’s foreign direct investment.
I have an appointment with Marco, the geologist. His team is the company’s treasure hunter. The 29-year-old has analyzed hundreds of drill cores, most of which are filled with metals.
A year ago, they expected to find about 12 million tons of ore. But his initial calculations were far off target. In fact, the treasure present there weighs 22.5 million tons, which is almost double their original estimate.
Marco Matic shows me the laboratory. He explains, “It is the host rock of the mineralization of the Rupis deposit in Varese. It contains sulphites that contain silver, gold, copper, zinc, lead and antimony – with very high grades of each element.”
The answer to Europe’s strategic raw materials need?
Australian Chief Operating Officer Matthew Hine is proud of its shiny new processing plant where silver, lead and zinc concentrates will be pre-processed. Workers are still busy painting pipes bright yellow and blue, fixing metal rods and completing a sophisticated closed-circuit water treatment system.
Sparks from welding fly into the air amidst sounds all around and the roar of heavy machinery.
There is an investment of €200 million in the mine. Once operational, the mine is set to contribute more than 2% to Bosnian GDP. Breakout is scheduled for early 2024.
“We see that the recent legislation passed by the EU for sourcing its critical raw materials intrinsically recognizes the need for Europe to be independent for its own future resources,” Matthew Hine tells me with a big smile.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina has a huge role to play in this. The concentrate we are producing, which is shipped across Europe, contains all the metals that are really important in the green and clean (energy) transition.”
A few kilometers ahead, a huge railway bridge crosses a hilly forest valley. Workers are upgrading the railway track. Varese’s strategic metals are needed for Europe’s energy transition: for solar cells, electric vehicles, charging stations and wind turbines.
The metal concentrate will be transported from Varese to an export port in Croatia. Then, they are shipped to European metal smelters in Germany, Scandinavia and other European countries.
Geopolitically, the Bosnian mine responds perfectly to EU efforts to secure strategic raw materials. Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to become a member of the European Union. Both sides are trying to accelerate cooperation and build closer economic ties and improved transport connections.
growing environmental concerns
In the neighboring town of Kakanj, a mountain range further from the mine, protests are raging. Hajarija Kobo is an English teacher and studied environmental law. They accused the mining company of playing dirty tricks with the environmental study and allegedly ordering an unlicensed UK-based institute to carry out work in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“This second study is practically illegal in this country. It has not been approved by any authority in this country,” she tells Euronews.
Hajarija Kobo filed a complaint with the Council of Europe, more precisely with the Secretariat of the Berne Convention, which oversees the protection of biodiversity.
Secondary mining roads are being built. Trees are being cut. Hajarija points to a yellow construction machine that is slowly crawling downhill.
“These are works along the river bank which is safety zone number two, where such construction works are strictly prohibited,” she says. “And they’re still doing it. All they do is come into my tubes. Should I drink it?”
There are some big plastic containers behind his car. She knows of an untouched water source from where she fills the vessel for her drinking water.
“My government is putting the lives of at least 40,000 people in danger in my city,” says Hajrija. “For the sake of profit for a British company and providing employment to a few hundred people.” Did you know? What is it called? This is neo-colonialism.”
Adriatic Metals denies wrongdoing
In light of the allegations, the Office of the Legally Binding Bern Convention calls on the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to temporarily halt mining activities until the case is resolved. The government has been asked to file an official report to the Bern Convention to clarify whether the mine is threatening biodiversity.
Vildana Mahmutovic, sustainability manager of Adriatic Metals, rejects all allegations.
“It is very far from our underground mining activities. All studies are convinced that there is a water barrier in the middle, so our underground water will not affect this water supply on the opposite side of the hill,” he told Euronews. ,
“Heavy metals are present (in the water) but below the limit values and the point to be made here is that we have been tracking this for three years before we started our activities. The presence of heavy metals in this water is actually It’s Varese’s nature.”
After fellow mining company Rio Tinto was forced to close a lithium mine project in neighboring Serbia amid massive protests, Adriatic Metals is taking a different approach.
They are investing extensively in strict pollution controls, including communication, transparency, close collaboration with local stakeholders, and expensive, updated environmental protection plans.
Vildana Mahmutovic showed me the water treatment plant under construction.
“This is the first flotation processing plant in the history of the country that is going to recycle water, which we are very proud of. We understand, even though we are not in the EU, we want to have a European mine following all the European laws or Adhere to international conventions […] It is possible to have a ‘green mine’.”
Varese’s fortunes rise
The mining history of the city of Varese goes back centuries. Indeed, the Romans searched for – and found – ore in the mountains surrounding the city.
Industrialization increased when the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But today, the magnificent industrial buildings have fallen into disrepair.
22,000 people once lived here. Now, the number has dropped to around 8,000. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, civil war, fighting, genocide, displacement and economic decline have left their mark: abandoned buildings, broken roofs and streets filled with empty houses.
But Varese is on the rise again. Thanks to the new ore mine, the municipality’s budget has doubled. Finally, funding is available for urgently needed infrastructure such as bridges, waste management, thermal insulation and building restoration.
The recent arrival of new families and returnees is music to the ears of Varese mayor, Zdravko Marosevic.
He revealed, “We had a kindergarten with 18 pupils last year and it was barely surviving financially. A few months ago, they already had four classes and 60 children, but next year the number of enrollments will increase. Can even go to 100 children.”
“It was just a dead city and now it’s a vibrant city with jobs, work and order.”
For three years, Verres High School has offered underground mining classes. Because the mining company recruits locally, school officials and parents see this as a real opportunity for their children.