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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
- A popular Serbian proverb quips that when it comes to politics there are as many opinions as there are people in this central European country of seven million.
But the adage was turned on its head last week when the masses sent a strong collective message to the government: no nickel exploitation in the country.
The controversy began when mining minister Milan Bacevic announced earlier this month that Mokra Gora – a 10,813-square-kilometre state-protected national park – and other areas in central Serbia contain more than four million tonnes of nickel deposits.
Bacevic went on to inform the public that several international companies were interested in exploiting the metal, bringing into the country investments totalling 1.44 billion dollars.
Like many nations in the region, Serbia is close to bankruptcy as a result of the global economic crisis. A new national government, elected to power in July, made a slew of promises to boost living standards and curb unemployment, which is currently at 25.5 percent, with 13.2 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to the government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy for 2011.
Efforts to pull the country back from the brink of depression include plans to attract a diverse range of foreign investments, namely for nickel extraction projects.
The metal is used in thousands of everyday products by hundreds of millions of people. It is found in a range of commodities from batteries to computer hard disks. Stainless steel, which is used in cookware, cutlery, kitchen appliances, hardware, surgical instruments, storage tanks, firearms, car headlights, jewellery and watches, is a nickel-iron metal alloy.
As a result, nickel sells for close to 15,000 dollars per tonne.
But even a population struggling to make ends meet is not ready to accept the harsh environmental and social costs of the project.
“Nickel (extraction) technology is among the dirtiest in the world,” Vidojko Jovic, a professor at Belgrade University’s Mining and Geology Faculty, told IPS.
“It involves extraction (from the) ore, purification with sulphuric acid at adequate facilities, followed by the emission of gasses and water discharge that intoxicates nearby vegetation, as well as ground, underground and surface waters,” he added.
“There is no clean method for this. Pollution (from the extraction sites) spreads from 50 to 100 kilometres.”
The health hazards of nickel exploitation and production, which mostly affect local populations, include problems with the lungs and stomach, nausea and diarrhoea, among others.
A mass movement?
The issue gained wide public attention last week when the popular and internationally-renowned film director, Emir Kusturica, created the ‘Group for Protection of Serbia’ to raise awareness and garner public opposition to nickel extraction.Kusturica, who is also director of the Mokra Gora national park, quickly elicited the support of mayors from the central Serbian towns of Topola, Arandjelovac and Vrnjacka Banja, the most popular tourist destinations and wine-growing locations in the country.
Kusturica believes that extracting nickel for export will have major health impacts on surrounding populations, without any of the revenue being reinvested in local communities.
Speaking to journalists in Mokra Gora last week, Kusturica lambasted a process that could lead to a “million deaths, just so that a billion dollars can be earned.”
Several top wine producers from the soon to be affected areas have also joined a growing movement to halt nickel mining.
“I won’t allow any digging or research around my vineyards,” Boza Aleksandrovic, owner of one of the biggest wineries in Serbia, told IPS.
“Serbia is exporting agricultural produce worth much more than the investment Bacevic promised; agriculture is our major export tool,” he stressed.
According to Jovic, major nickel producers like Canada have introduced sophisticated methods for nickel extraction, but such facilities “are not (possible) in densely populated areas like the ones in Serbia, which are surrounded by highly developed agricultural lands.”
Projects for nickel exploitation in Serbia were shelved twice in the past, in 1996 and 2006, due to environmental and possible health issues, despite offers by several multinational corporations.
But past expressions of public opposition never came close to harnessing the kind of mass support that Kusturica’s group has generated, with almost all media staunchly behind the movement in a rare instance of unity.
Photos of the Russian town of Norilsk, where almost a century of nickel exploitation has created a wasteland, flooded Serbian papers and news sites this month.
Almost all major media outlets also carried statistics from all over the world on health issues associated with nickel extraction.
Government deaf to opposition
Bacevic decided to counterattack the public on Friday, at a press conference supposedly aimed at “calming the nation”.
In his words, the technology to be used in Serbia would be “of highest sophistication” and completely different from that employed in Norilsk. He accused the media of using a “notorious scam” to “scare the public”.
“Media efforts, as well as attacks by individuals and lobbies amount to an attack on the government of Serbia,” according to the minister, adding that reporters have “deeply disturbed the public.”
As proof of the benefits of nickel production, the minister presented a black-and-white photograph of a nickel production factory in Kavadarci in neighbouring Republic of Macedonia, which allegedly turned the town of 29,000 into a prosperous one by producing 12,000 tonnes of nickel annually.
“It’s a pity there was no colour photo of Feni (the nickel plant in Kavadarci) and its surroundings,” Roberto Parizov, head of the Kavadarci-based environmental organisation ‘Eko Zivot’ (Eco Life) told IPS over the phone. “People here have been poisoned for decades.”
On Sunday the Macedonian paper ‘Utrinski Vesnik’ carried the statement of local engineer Blazo Boev, who said, “Kavadarci and its surroundings have been turned into a wasteland and dumpsite.”
“We wish that it (Feni) was never opened at all, but it is too late now,” Parizov said, in a sombre warning to Serbia.