United in defence of Barroso: reporting from the ground

From 10 to 15 August 2023, the 3rd edition of the acampada (camping gathering) Unidos em Defesa do Barroso (United in Defense of Barroso) – a protest against plans for an open-pit Lithium mine in the heart of Barroso – took place in a small, quiet village in northern Portugal. Despite the peaceful setting, the residents weren’t hesitant to raise their voices. Margarida Martins reports from her experience on the ground.

People familiar with the destructiveness of extractivism joined us in our little corner of Europe from all over the world: Serbia, Ecuador, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and many places in between. Some of us from the EEB went there too, and this is our report from the ground.

Friday the 11th started with a walk, guided by locals, to some of the areas that are threatened by a mining project proposed by Savannah Resources, a multinational UK mining company.  We made our way through the luscious green landscape, no houses as far as the eye could see. Barroso is classified as global agricultural heritage by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the region hosts numerous plant and animal species which are extremely important for nature conservation, particularly those considered Priority Species under the European Commission’s Birds and Habitats Directives. Every once in a while, we would pass by a handful of cows and horses. Midway through the walk, we met Maria, a farmer from Barroso, who is on the frontlines of the resistance against the mine. Maria is a native of Covas do Barroso and has lived there all of her life. She lives from her farmwork, breeding cattle (she has 12 cows), chickens, and goats, as well as producing olive oil, potatoes, wine and beans, among other things. She said that what she produces is enough to sustain her and her family, sometimes when there is a surplus, it also helps the neighbours. The community is tight, they rely on each other. When a sheep is lost in the mountains, someone will always return it home.

Maria fears that the mine would change their way of life irreparably – people would leave their farming land, their homes, and the narrow trails they have been taking for centuries between the fields. This would isolate individuals, disrupting community life, leaving people no choice but to move out of their ancestral homes – an expulsion, as far as she sees it.

“We will resist until the last consequences,” she said, not rebelliously – just as a matter of fact. It is her life and her home that are at stake. She felt that this intended mine is “making fun of the people. They have no need for it, why are they doing this to us?” She pointed to the valley in front of us, right in front of her house. “The mine would take up much of the valley, and the security area would come up to here,” she said, pointing to her doorstep. She would be cut off from her fields and the town below. The whole group stood for a while gazing over the quiet green in front of us, children perched over the small wall to get a better look. Was this the quiet before the mine? No one wanted to believe it.

As we gazed over the beautiful landscape, the locals were explaining how Covas do Barroso has a very old, traditional system of water maintenance and use. Draught is not a problem for the people there, not even for farming, and that is entirely their merit. It was a complex system of small water tanks, fountains and irrigation tunnels that you could see (or hear) throughout the whole village – water you could safely drink and access easily, a fact we had all been very grateful for in the Portuguese August heat. An open-pit mine poses a serious risk to this sustainable water management, as a mine pumps enormous amounts of water, depleting the river and underground water. Not to speak of the risk of contamination of water bodies by heavy metals and chemicals released and used in the mining process, which can poison water bodies and their ecosystems for multiple generations – this alone could irreparably destroy Barroso as we know it, according to the testimony of experts on hydrology and geophysics. And as far as the local community is concerned, they do not see the benefits of having their land destroyed.

As we parted, I squeezed Maria’s calloused hand, a gesture that I hoped conveyed my emotions better than words could. She reminded me of my grandparents, who had also been small farmers. I felt a lot of love, and even more rage. “Have you had a look at our oven yet?”, she asked smiling, referring to the communal oven, a small building made entirely out of stone, a typical construction style of that region, where anyone from the community can go to bake their loafs of bread. It smelled fantastic, especially after a long walk. She did not want to end our tour on a negative note, and I silently thanked her for it.

The next day, a meeting of anti-mining movements from all over Portugal, and from other countries too (like France), and local activists convened to discuss the threats of mining and what to do about it. We were all made to understand on no uncertain terms that Barroso is one of the areas of the country with the most biodiversity, so the struggle for Barroso is not only for the locals, but for everyone.

We heard of one successful case of community resistance from activists who were on the frontline: there was a lithium mining project in Serra de Arga, which is located in my home district of Viana do Castelo, that was apparently canceled due to massive mobilisation of the local population, who in turn put an enormous pressure on the local authorities to oppose the mining project, leaving the central government and the mining company no choice but to drop it. The activists adopted a very simple strategy: appealing to common sense. How could such a massive thing be done without consulting the people, without letting the local communities have a say about their own lives and land? With no real ‘right to say no’ guaranteed by law, the local communities were nonetheless determined to be heard, leading to a protest with over 2000 participants.

No one on the ground was convinced about the rhetoric of a “just, green energy transition” to justify the destructive lithium mining in their lands – not in these terms, where such environmental and social injustices were being committed. In the absence of a ‘right to say no’, we went through the means via which environmental defenders and local communities could resist a mining project:

  • Judicial: going to court – although litigation is expensive, and there are many obstacles, such as the lack of environmental lawyers in Portugal. Besides, there is no real access to information/documents for local communities, as they face insurmountable obstacles and restrictions (a breech of the Aarhus Convention), explained Catarina Scarrott, a Barroso native and organiser in the Association United in Defense of Covas do Barroso (Associação Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso). “Our lawyers were told that, if they wanted the documents that the Portuguese Environmental Agency (APA) used to green-light the Barroso mining project, they had to travel down to Lisbon to their headquarters, to get them. When they did so, after being kept waiting for a long time, they were finally denied access to any documents whatsoever, and ended up being kicked out by security”. With no information, there can be no access to justice.
  • Administrative: local authorities can deny operating permits to mining companies, they can prohibit transit of heavy vehicles (such as those needed for mining), and so on. – this, however, requires the political will from the side of the local authorities
  • Public participation: public consultations, etc – there are many failures of the democratic process though: companies choose small communities like Barroso, which has 191 inhabitants, on  purpose, so that is it harder for the locals to participate, as they inevitably face obstacles: bureaucracy, lack of information and transparency, outcomes of public participation that is merely symbolic, not being taken into account in the Environmntal Impact Assessments (citizenwashing), etc. “900 people answered the public consultation regarding the mining project in Barroso manifesting their opposition; 12 replied saying they were in favour”, explained Catarina, “However, the Environmental Impact Assessment did not reflect the outcomes of the public consultation, in what can only be described as citizenwashing”. She continues, “The local people have been working to educate and mobilise members of parliament to resist the mining lobby and the national Government, work that has to start from scratch every legislature. Meanwhile, the local people are living in limbo”. At this point, I was reminded of the ominous and problematic wording of the CRMA Commission proposal, which reads that those promoting mining projects ought to “facilitate public acceptance” – not actual consent.
  • Direct action: the local activists and defenders see it as self defense.

Then, some chilling statistics: 25% of the territory in Portugal is marked for mining prospecting. Mining projects in Portugal are threatening local communities and endangered species such as the Iberian wolf. The common feeling is that these projects will largely be approved, since the Government is in favour of this exploration (or exploitation), despite the negative environmental, social, and biodiversity impacts, and community opposition. Corruption is a big factor here since these large, rich mining companies work behind closed doors and at the sidelines of the law to bribe local officials, buy off local people in vulnerable situations, and conduct disinformation campaigns (greenwashing and citizenwashing).

A truly crushing testimony came from an environmental defender active in Alentejo, the warm and sunny south of Portugal. Not far from the popular Atlantic beaches where so many (really, so many, an average of 4 million between 2014 and 2022) tourists flock to each summer, local resistance against huge solar panel infrastructures was literally suffocated with arson which destroyed houses, agricultural land and nature. The logic is flawless: “How can you resist if there is nothing left to fight for?”

One can only imagine how these criminal practices that go unpunished (one might even say rewarded?) breed a climate of distrust in public authorities from the communities. “There is a democratic deficit, but we are seeing more and more people participating in public consultations relating to large-scale infrastructure projects (mines, dams, solar panel farms, etc)”, said Nuno Forner, from the Portuguese environmentalist association and EEB member ZERO. “The Commission’s proposed CRMA will facilitate mining in a devastating way, it does not take into account principles of circular economy, and it does not envisage human rights or social justice”.

Before the meeting ended, we learnt another piece of crucial information, delivered by geologist Dr. Teresa Fontão. “Portugal does not have lithium reserves – there are standards to define what qualifies as a reserve of minerals, and there is nowhere in Portugal that qualifies. We definitely do not have the biggest lithium concentration in Europe.” So, this mad race to mine lithium in Portugal in the name of the green transition – it’s not even worth it! “With no transparency, it is easy to manipulate the public’s view with narratives around the wonderful opportunity of lithium deposits.”

It seemed clear to all what the strategy of the mining companies is. The same phenomena were observed everywhere: corruption of public opinion, capitalist manipulation of people in need, and perverse corruption of local and national officials. Activists from Montalegre gave their testimony of how Lusorecursos, the company aiming to explore lithium in the area, is co-opting local events and the local government, throwing money everywhere with sponsorships of everything that happens there, down to magic shows, infiltrating themselves insidiously in every aspect of the community.

After the meeting was over, I struck up conversation with Dr. Teresa, and found out our families were practically neighbours, both living in a village in Ponte de Lima – the world is small! “Did you know your house was within the area that was projected for the lithium mine in Serra d’Arga?” … Come again? “Oh yes, they made it sound like it would be the uninhabited part of the mountain that would be mined, but indeed the biggest estimated concertation of lithium was underneath people’s houses.” Wow. And we never even knew – no one ever told us! My parents’ house, that had belonged to my great-grandparents before them, where my dad was born (it was common for babies to be born at home in rural Portugal up until the 80’s) and raised, where my brother and I were raised and that I always took for granted as my home, had been at risk. It was chilling.

The day after, alongside many of my countryfolk, I left Portugal for Belgium, where I live. I have left many times before and will leave many times more; we are a nation of emigrants, after all. But this time, it was a little different. My heart was heavy as I remembered what I had heard in Barroso – there were projects to mine around 25% of the country. My country. My own home had been threatened; it might very well still be for all I knew. It is very normal to feel “saudade” and melancholy when you are an emigrant, but this time I felt something else too: it was love and rage. Like the people of Barroso, I, too, was willing to go until the last consequences.

For more information/a comprehensive mapping of mining in Portugal and Spain, please consult MINOB, the Iberian mining observatory https://minob.org/english/index.html#cases