Audience at a recent information session held by Portugal Fortescue in Sonim (Valpaços). Image: A Voz Trás-os-Montes Facebook page
Audience at a recent information session held by Portugal Fortescue in Sonim (Valpaços). Image: A Voz Trás-os-Montes Facebook page

Lithium prospector in Chaves/ Valpaços to hold 45 briefing sessions

… against deep-seated local antipathy; wider national ‘kick-back’

Portugal Fortescue, a subsidiary of the Australian Fortescue Metals Group (the 4th largest iron producer in the world) is embarking on an exercise to try and take communities with it as it rolls out lithium prospection and research across a massive stretch (428 kms) of land in the districts of Chaves and Valpaços.

But it won’t be an easy task.

It may not be enough, for instance, that Portugal Fortescue has a green light from the DGEG (directorate general for energy and geology) – because local communities have little intention of playing ball.

Earlier this week, Valpaços town council warned it will go to the ‘final consequences, resorting to all national and international bodies if necessary’ to block Portugal Fortescue whose intentions, for the council, represent “the destruction of the municipality’s forests, soils, environmental wealth and potential”.

This could be viewed as a local issue. But it isn’t: almost every area that Portugal’s government has ‘earmarked’ for the mining of lithium is seeing ‘local opposition’: not just a question of people complaining, more one of people resorting to every legal instrument available to secure what they see as their future sustainability. It is becoming an existential fight between ‘real people’ who want to preserve their lives and livelihoods and a government focused on what it believes is the bigger picture ‘the growth of the economy/ energy transition/ green agenda’.

Today, in the UK, the BBC is carrying a story on a similar fight in the Barroso area – one which the Resident has been covering for some years now.

The argument is just the same. Says the news channel: “Portugal’s lithium reserves are considered central to Europe’s increasing demand for electric cars, but the villagers say it doesn’t justify ruining their way of life”.

In Barroso, convictions are that ‘every legal avenue’ will need to be taken to ‘fight for the land’ people adamantly refuse to ‘give up’ (mining company Savannah Resources is still trying to buy plots of land in areas where it wants to install its open pit mine…) As the BBC article concludes: “The rest of Europe will be watching the outcome closely, as pressure grows across the continent to open new mines for raw materials needed for the green transport and energy of the future”.

Valpaços can be seen as ‘just another example of that pressure’, but in Portugal it is one of a legion of communities facing off against a government seen as increasingly tin-eared.

For now, Portugal Fortescue’s 45 information sessions have started. The project’s technical director, geologist Romeu Vieira, has been explaining what kind of work is envisaged over the next three years, stressing that the focus will be on mining lithium (even though the contract signed with DGEG last May allows for the prospection and research of other metals, including tin, tungsten, gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper).

Vieira told a recent session how Fortescue wants to involve the communities and will study the historical data of the area, carry out remote sensing (using aerial photography, for example), collect regional lithogeochemical samples (hand samples and current sediments) and, if the results are positive, begin drilling more intensively in the area of interest in the third year.

At that point, mineral resources will be estimated and metallurgical characterisation will be carried out. 

The project, emphasised Romeu Vieira, will only move into the exploration phase if evidence of lithium is found. Says Lusa, he stressed that the mining industry is currently one of the most scrutinised in the world.  

In addition to the Mariola prospecting concession in Chaves/ Valpaços, Fortescue has been prospecting for two years in the districts of Mirandela, Macedo de Cavaleiros and Vinhais, in the district of Bragança, in the area known as Circo, Lusa continues, reserving space for the concerns of local people who stand to be affected. These concerns invariably centre on air and water pollution, and the destruction of agriculture on which rural communities depend..

Water has become the driving argument “because the mining industry is a major consumer of this commodity” which is in diminishing supply in Portugal as the climate heats up. But other arguments centre on ancient heritage which is seemingly considered irrelevant in the face of ‘the energy of the future’. As environmental groups have warned, this race to embrace ‘decarbonisation’ could actually cause environmental disaster, in Portugal as well as other areas and territories where mining is planned.

In 2019, ‘people power’ forced Fortescue to rethink plans which then included mining for lithium in the Peneda-Gerês national park. At the time, Quercus hailed the victory warning that the way in which fossil fuels are being substituted by lithium ion batteries is “unsustainable and does not correspond to the urgent need for the planet to face the serious climatic alterations ahead as well as the issues of loss of existing biodiversity”.

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