Victor Char Le Devoir Aida Fernandes with her three-year-old dog, Sally
Under an autumnal sun, wedged between green hills, not far from houses white with terracotta-colored tiles, the field is occupied by 25 long-horned cows lounging along a winding road in Covas do Barroso.
The hamlet of 192 souls in northern Portugal, surrounded by a pine forest, sits on a pile of gold: lithium, a metal essential to the construction of electric car batteries. The bovids of Aida Fernandes and Nelson Gomes will have difficulty cohabiting with the exploitation of this “white gold”, which shines brightly in the current ecological transition.
It's been five years that the couple is mobilized against the future exploitation of an open-air lithium mine, the largest in Western Europe.
A little over four months ago, on May 31, the Portuguese Environmental Protection Agency finally gave its approval to the project led by the British company Savannah Resources. The first shovels should take place in less than three years over an area of at least 600 hectares. But…
“Não a mina. Sim a vide! »
The Fernandes-Gomes couple is keeping a close watch and, with the support of Portuguese and foreign ecological groups, they intend to fight in court with this “common sense” argument: no question of polluting our villages to clean up cities.
“Não a mina. Sim à vide» [No to mine, yes to life]. The battle has only just begun, but can it be won? Aida Fernandes, 43, has a sad smile. “Covas do Barroso is at least 90% against the opening of the mine in this priceless landscape. We do not want to lose the gardens of our paradise. »
Covas do Barroso is at least 90% against the opening of the mine in this priceless landscape
— Aida Fernandes
The region, located 140 kilometers from Porto, is classified as a world agricultural heritage by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
With her dog Sally, three years old, Aida Fernandes is weaves between his cows of the indigenous Barrosa breed, whose meat is renowned throughout Portugal. Each is worth nearly $3,000, and Iberian wolves, which are plentiful in the area, are never far away.
In her old little black car – there are around twenty in the village which had 500 inhabitants 50 years ago – the mother of Sofia, 17, and Gabriela, 12, goes to have an aperitif at Elizabeth's. Her friend's house will be the first affected by lithium mining.
“It is less than 500 meters from the planned drilling. Imagine the dust I'm going to get…” The Savannah project provides for drilling at least 1,700 meters deep and an open-air crater 800 meters in diameter for an operating life of less than twenty years.
Photo: Victor Char Le Devoir The streets of Covas do Barroso are plastered with messages in opposition to the mine. Top: Aida Fernandes raises, with her partner Nelson Gomes, cattle of the indigenous Barrosa breed, whose meat is renowned throughout Portugal.
The British company would have promised wonders to the villagers, quickly rejected: our ancestral lands are not for sale, no matter the price, repeats the mayor, Lucia Mo in front of the village bar O nosso café [our café]. The boss and his clients prefer not to take a position.
For Nelson Gomes, there is simply no clean mine and, if Savannah promises to buy the land inherited from her great-grandparents, “it's like she's telling us she's going to cut us off.” arm or leg and then offer to one of the best doctors in the world to cure us.”
No social acceptance
“Almost 40% of agricultural land in Covas do Barroso has been sold, but it is not enough. Social acceptance is not yet there,” says geologist Alexandre Lima, from the University of Porto. He has been prospecting the region for a quarter of a century and recalls this: the deposits of spodumene, a mineral with a glassy, opaque, almost white appearance, from which lithium will be extracted in the region, will have low water consumption.
Normally, one million liters of water are needed to release one ton of lithium. Savannah hopes to produce enough to power batteries for at least 500,000 electric vehicles each year.
Despite the não of the villagers, including the baldios, common lands, risk being expropriated by the socialist government of António Costa, Savannah opened a very small office in Covas do Barroso to try to convince them of the “merits” of its mine, minimizing the “collateral damage “.
Will they be important? For now, Camarco, who represents Savannah, responded in an email: “Unfortunately, we are too preoccupied to comment. »
Dreams… and realities
Aida Fernandes and Nelson Rodrigues are not stingy with their comments. They dream of seeing the Savannah Resources project go up in smoke, as was the case last year in Serbia, one of the most polluted European countries.
For reasons of social peace, Belgrade buried that of Rio Tinto. The Australian giant wanted to exploit the largest lithium deposit in the Old Continent.
The eyes of the European Union are now turned towards Portugal, which is said to hold the eighth largest lithium reserves in the world, with 60,000 tons.
Lisbon considers that exploiting this “white gold” is of “national interest”. The standoff between the centuries-old “small Gallic village” and Savannah Resources risks ending in victory for the British company.
Francisco Ferreira, president of Zero, one of the Portuguese environmental organizations mounted the barricades to defend Covas do Barroso, has not yet said this to its inhabitants: “They will be forced to live elsewhere, it's a question of time…”
Northvolt is interested in Portuguese lithium
Francisco Ferreira was not surprised when the Portuguese oil group Galp Energia and the Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt, the same one which is planning a battery cell mega-factory in Quebec, announced in December 2021 the construction of a lithium refining plant in Portugal.
“It will see the light of day in Setúbal, 40 kilometers south of Lisbon,” recalls the president of Zero, the main ecological organization defending the villagers of Covas do Barroso.
Galp and Northvolt intend to source ore from the British company in order to power the batteries of around 700,000 electric vehicles per year.
With this refining plant which expected to begin operations in 2026, Europe wants to reduce its dependence, particularly on China, which controls more than 40% of production capacity and at least 60% of refining capacity in the world.
Portugal holds the first lithium reserves in Europe and the eighth in the world.