Hate to say we told you so: Raw materials scandal erupts in Portugal

Portugal’s corruption scandal is a symptom of a transition that wants to have its cake and eat it. A sustainable and just transition will not be possible if it is governed by worn-out systems of growth and exploitation. Let policymakers heed this warning, write Ruby Silk and Margarida Martins.

Hate to say we told you so

Last week, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa resigned as accusations of corruption relating to mining for transition materials were leveled at his government. At the heart of the investigation – which saw Costa’s chief of staff detained after €76,000 in cash was found hidden in his office – is alleged government interference in hotly-contested plans to build four open-pit lithium mines in northern Portugal.

While the political developments could not have been predicted, the EEB has been sounding the alarm bells around the dynamic that led to the fall out for some time.

These developments should highlight the path for policymakers in designing new due diligence rules for business, negotiations for which take place tomorrow, 22nd November, and the new legislation on sourcing transition materials which is under discussion.

‘Greening’ growth?

Used in batteries for electric vehicles, lithium has become the symbol of the green transition. But too often, the task of the transition is poorly framed: the emphasis is on replacing what we already use with ‘greener’ versions, rather than on reducing our consumption and recycling more. In this case, the goal is to replace fossil-powered vehicles with electric ones. This approach is driving undue pressure from businesses and public authorities to secure the materials required to execute this unsustainable and unattainable replacement operation.

Our recent report Sacrifice zones for sustainability? Green extractivism and the struggle for a just transition demonstrates the paradox inherent in ‘green extractivism’ which pays for transition materials with ecosystems and communities.

Indeed, the EU has labelled lithium as “strategic” in its Critical Raw Materials act – it’s bid for energy independence, which seeks to secure raw materials from within the bloc thus reducing its reliance on third-country suppliers. The European Commission claims it will do so in accordance with “the highest environmental and social standards,” but its call to those promoting mining projects to “facilitate public acceptance” has been raising eyebrows, not to mention questions about whether true consent is really being sought.

Social engineering for lithium extraction

In our work on citizenwashing, the mining conflict in Portugal’s Covas do Barrosso region has been held up time and time again as a textbook case (or, indeed, series of cases) of misrepresenting the public voice. In Covas do Barroso, the community has been manipulated, duped, and ignored in the mining company’s government-backed and greenwashed pursuit of lithium. The community has long been warning about promiscuity between authorities and the mining sector.

A representative from the Association United in Defense of Covas do Barroso (UDCB) told the EEB:

The corruption scandal linked with licensing of four projects including Mina do Barroso and Mina do Romano and the subsequent response of the Portuguese Government make it clear that environmental procedures and protections are seen as a hindrance and the environmental regulators, instead of protecting the environment and fulfilling the mission for which they are paid, easily  bow to pressures and  reveal an unacceptable lack of independence. The Portuguese government was and still is willing to do all it takes to have the mines in Barroso.” 

Many civil society groups have urged the Portuguese government to suspend and review all lithium projects while investigations are ongoing.

Local communities need to be given more say in the permitting process of mining projects, including a Right to Say No.

Transparency matters

Savannah Resources’ mining project involves the construction of four open-pit mines, covering an area of almost 600 hectares, on land that is mostly communal and very close to the villages of Covas do Barroso, Romainho and Muro, which are World Agricultural Heritage sites. If realised, this would be the largest open-pit lithium mining project in Europe, the impacts of which include the pollution of water and soil with chemicals and heavy metals, with serious health, economic and other repercussions for the community, as well as permanent damage to wildlife.

The environmental assessment (EIA) process for the “Mina do Barroso” has been characterised by a lack of transparency on the part of the Portuguese Environmental Agency (APA), which was recently fined €30,000 for refusing to provide information to the lawyers of the Covas do Barroso Parish Council. This is not the first time that the APA has been reprimanded and condemned for refusing or ignoring requests for access to information that should be in the public domain. Following several reprimands and judgements, a case is underway against Portugal in the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee, relating to failure to respect the right to access environmental information, which “has severely impaired the public’s ability to prepare and participate effectively” in the decision-making. 

Without stronger rules on transparency, the situation in Portugal will not be an exception in Europe’s green transition but the rule. The EU should sure up its legislation to support transparency, namely in the Critical Raw Materials Act and the Corporate Sustainable Due Diligence Directive.

Justice over profit

Global Witness’ recent investigation into lithium mining in Africa shows how mineral wealth that should boost the economies of Global South countries can instead become a lightning rod for corruption, human rights abuses and environmental damage. The EU must address this in its Due Diligence Directive, which could go a long way to prevent companies’ human rights abuses and environmental and climate damages in the Global South as well as in Europe as raw materials sourcing increases within the continent.

Heeding the warning

The European Parliament, Commission, and Council must take this scandal as a warning and respond appropriately. In particular, the institutions must ensure that EU principles are upheld in the negotiations of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD). This law has huge potential to force international businesses to become greener, more humane, and adapted to the climate crisis. Public participation is not a hindrance but a vital component of a successful green transition. Only by putting rights first will Europe’s transition be built to last.