Safeguarding Community Rights and The Issue of “Facilitating Public Acceptance”

Policymakers and the mining industry are currently co-opting the concept of “green extractivism” and using it to justify mining within Europe. They argue that it is not only a crucial aspect of the energy transition but also a geopolitical necessity to enhance Europe’s resilience and reduce its reliance on other countries for critical raw materials. As certain metals and minerals are essential components for green technologies, such as lithium for electric vehicle batteries, companies and governments are hopping on the bandwagon to increase investment in new mining projects. But at what cost?

Sophie Creager-Roberts reports.

The recently-proposed European Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) aims to ensure a “secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials” for the EU. However, its premise is fundamentally based on an unsustainable growth model and implicitly accepts that increased demand for raw materials is inevitable without ever questioning it or its feasibility. This piece of legislation is part of a global movement toward more resilient raw material supply chains to enable decarbonisation, digitalisation and increased militarisation, but risks significant consequences for the environment and communities impacted by mining projects.

One major issue currently in the Commission’s proposal is the notion that those promoting mining projects ought to “facilitate public acceptance”, rather than true consent. Savannah Resources’ lithium mine in northern Portugal is a case that exemplifies the (often insidious) mechanisms used by mining companies to circumvent meaningful engagement with civil society and local populations to “facilitate public acceptance.”

Explicitly referencing international agreements with respect to human rights and environmental justice, eliminating this problematic language on “facilitating public acceptance, and embedding demand-reduction are necessary changes that must be made to reduce potentially harmful outcomes of the CRMA. 

The Barroso mine in northern Portugal

The proposed “Mina do Barroso” in the Boticas municipality of northern Portugal is slated to interrupt at least four villages whose economies are driven by livestock and agricultural production. The Barroso region is also home to endemic plant and animal species and hosts one of Portugal’s best water resources. It was also the first place in Portugal to be designated a “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System” by the FAO. This recognition is a testament not only to the continued practice of traditional land management on common lands but also because of the region’s agrobiodiversity and its preservation of local plant and animal species. 

Not only is the Barroso region’s history rich in cultural tradition and systems of social organization, but it also has abundant mineral deposits, and thus has also become the target of mining exploration and exploitation. Since the mine’s contract was initiated, changes have been made without public notice or reasonable periods for public feedback. For example, in March 2023, Savannah Resources allowed a public consultation period of ten days following their revised Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) after receiving an unfavourable opinion the summer beforehand.

How the mining industry facilitates “acceptance”

Despite local anti-mining movements and mobilisation in solidarity with the Barroso region since 2017, there have been coercive tactics utilized by the state and Savannah Resources to sway public opinion and brand the project as “green.” Savannah colluded overtly and systematically with state entities, in addition to attempting to manipulate public opinion through more subtle techniques.

Social science researchers, Alexander Dunlap and Mariana Riquito, have examined the ways “social warfare” is employed to justify and promote “green mining” in this region of Portugal.

They discuss the fact that Portuguese governmental officials at every level are perceived to be colluding with mining authorities. The Portuguese state’s intentions extend far beyond marketing the country’s resource potential and attracting foreign investment, especially for lithium extraction. Its goal is to position itself as a crucial contributor to the EU’s pursuit of “clean energy goals.” This objective requires expediting the process of creating “socially friendly faces” for mining companies which can take many forms– via maintaining existing power structures in favour of proposed mines, legitimizing extraction through “apolitical” science and media campaigns, and sidestepping civil society and indigenous resistance.  

According to Dunlap and Riquito’s analysis, Savannah co-subsidises former Barroso residents who currently live elsewhere, often abroad, so that they can participate in municipal elections

In light of citizens’ historic denial of access to information – including an environmental impact statement – many residents feel as though this is simply another way the mining corporations are able to manufacture favourable conditions for their projects at great social and ecological cost.

Some of the covert mechanisms Dunlap and Riquito describe as contributing to “social pacification” include public relations initiatives and door-to-door community outreach, financing projects to improve local infrastructure, using academia to brand their lithium mine as environmentally sustainable, disseminating propaganda through local media outlets, and incentivising residents to sell their land to Savannah (alongside the veiled threat of potential expropriation).

An opportunity for change 

Recognising the inherent risks associated with mining projects, even within Europe, when human rights and environmental due diligence are inadequately addressed, it becomes imperative for Europe to take immediate action within the CRMA. Before the European Parliament adopts a final iteration of the Critical Raw Materials Act, it must consider and work to further integrate criteria which safeguard community consent, access to justice, environmental protection, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Specifically, the provision regarding engagement with local communities should explicitly refer to internationally agreed-upon instruments– such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), ILO Convention 169, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) to name a few – to reinforce its commitment to these ideals. 

*If you are interested in learning more about the EEB and 41 other aligned civil society organisations’ position toward the Critical Raw Materials Act, you can read our position paper: “A Turning Point: The Critical Raw Material Act’s needs for a Social and Just Green Transition.”*