Lithium in western Spain: the treasure should stay buried


Status: 05.09.2021 5:32 p.m.

Lithium is becoming more and more important as a raw material. There are large deposits in the Spanish Extremadura. Corporations want to mine the light metal there – and promise new jobs. But the population is resisting.

By Oliver Neuroth, ARD Studio Madrid

Maribel Rojo can’t get out of the radiance when she walks through the Sierra de Mosca, the “mountains of flies” at the gates of Cáceres. Rojo knows every stone here, it seems. The biologist is constantly pointing at something: be it the particularly old holm oaks that have stood here for hundreds of years, or the beehives that make particularly good honey. “At the moment two griffon vultures are flying overhead,” says Rojo and points upwards. “This is an area with incredible biodiversity, great fauna and flora. Orchid species grow that don’t exist anywhere else, we have reptiles that only live here.” According to the biologist, the variety of bird species is particularly spectacular.

“We are losing the region’s green lungs”

This is exactly where an Australian company wants to tear the ground up and unearth a treasure: 15,000 tons of lithium hydroxide per year for the next 30 years. Rojo is fighting against this, she is involved in the group “Let’s save the mountains of Cáceres”. The activists fear that a natural paradise is dying – and that drilling and blasting will release substances that can also be dangerous for humans.

“The health of 100,000 people is at stake,” warns the biologist. It’s not just about the residents of Cáceres, but also about the people in the villages around them. “We would lose the region’s green lungs, the ecosystem would be out of balance. In addition, we are only 800 meters away from the historic city center.”

UNESCO World Heritage in danger

The medieval center of Cáceres is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The socialist-led city government sees this title in danger and is therefore on the side of environmentalists. One lives from tourism, says city hall spokesman Andrés Licerán. Who would want to come to Cáceres when a huge mine is in front of the city?

“If you were to find lithium below the Eiffel Tower in Paris, next to the Retiro Park in Madrid or at the Taj Mahal in India – would it be mined there?”, Licerán asks rhetorically and answers the question himself: “Hardly. We are too unwilling to allow lithium to be mined. That would destroy an area that we see as a natural heritage. ”

Cáceres with its historic city center is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is very popular with tourists.

Image: ARD Studio Madrid

Suspended game for Australian group

In 2016, the also socialist regional government of Extremadura allowed test drilling near Cáceres. In 2019, however, she discovered a formal error, and the process had to start over. The government approved the drillings that had already been carried out retrospectively, but this spring refused to allow samples to be taken at other points in the mountains.

The share price of Infinity Lithium, the Australian company that wants to mine lithium at Cáceres, also known as “white gold”, then collapsed. A blow for the company: They had almost exclusively relied on the project in Extremadura. Cayetano Polo represents the group’s business in Spain as spokesman. He has officially asked the regional government to explain why it is no longer possible to drill: “The government now has six months to respond to our objection. If it does not answer or rejects us, we will take legal action. Then we will Courts decide on the permit, “threatens Polo.

“Companies want to fill their pockets”

Change of location. 40 kilometers north of Cáceres, near Cañaveral, there is also lithium in the ground, allegedly one of the largest deposits in Europe. César Gonzáles drives his car over a narrow dirt road to the area that a Spanish mining company would like to develop. The area is sparsely populated – just 25 people live in one square kilometer. There are only a few small villages.

“We are the zone that should be sacrificed,” laments Gonzáles. “We are to be handed over to a private company that wants to fill its pockets. It wants to use climate change for itself, the fact that Europe has its own resources and wants to tap into them. We should serve to ensure that this company is good goes.” He doesn’t play along, he says. Because the entrepreneur not only sees nature in his homeland in danger – also what he has built up in recent years: a small country hotel, housed in a historic building in his village of Grimaldo. Years of manual labor have gone into this, a lot of money and, above all, love.

Guests have a view of the endless landscape of Extremadura, mountains, holm oaks and fields. It is exactly the area where the lithium mine is to be built, just over a kilometer from Gonzáles’ hotel. It could mean the end of his business, he fears. “I wouldn’t be the only one affected. There is also a restaurant and a bar in the village. There are holiday homes back there. Tourists from all over the world come here. That is now at stake.”

Worries about the environment

The action alliance “No to the mine” gathers in Pedroso, one of the small villages in the area. Not even 100 people live here. The lithium opponents want to inform, they say, to educate the population about what the mine could do. Javier is particularly interested in the question of what about water consumption. The operator of the mine would like to use large amounts of water in order to keep the dust formation during the mining of lithium within limits. This should require 13 liters of water per second.

“If you extrapolate 13 liters per second to a day, you get more than a million liters,” says Javier. “The plan is for the mine to remain in operation for 19 years. We live in an area where it hardly rains. For us residents, there are restrictions on water consumption in summer.” This company wants to use the water without end – in times of climate change, complains the local resident. “This is not just a fraud against us citizens, it is also a drama for the ecosystem.”

Another man in the village is less critical: he thinks of the jobs that could be created in the structurally weak region, where youth unemployment is 56 percent. “After all, we need more jobs here in the country,” he says. Everything has to be done for this.

With its holm oaks, some of which are hundreds of years old, the potential lithium production area is the region’s “green lung”.

Image: ARD Studio Madrid

Companies attract with jobs

In fact, the lithium companies are attracting new jobs: 200 direct and 800 indirect jobs are in Cáceres. The critics of the projects oppose this: Most of these jobs are highly specialized, nobody from the villages can take them on, and skilled workers come from outside. And: It is possible that just as many jobs in tourism would be lost if there were hardly any holidaymakers left.

Mario Celdrán is one of those who promise an upswing. Together with other business partners, he would like to make Extremadura the lithium region of Europe. That means: The metal should be mined here and processed immediately. Celdrán wants to build a battery plant for e-cars in Badajoz, he explains on the Spanish television broadcaster TVE, and is speeding up: “The European funding is now available. Now the big car manufacturers are also deciding where to have the parts for e-cars manufactured We have a time window of between one and five years to get something off the ground here. ” Celdrán speaks of a historic opportunity: “Opportunities arise. They do not come when someone calls them.”

Expectations of the regional government

In the rural area near Cañaveral, politics has shown itself to be less critical of lithium mining. The mayors of the six participating villages had initially given their consent for a mine; in the meantime they are somewhat in doubt as to whether the job engine will really be that big for their region. And whether it is worth sacrificing a large part of the unique nature for this.

In the case of the lithium mine near Cáceres, the opponents still have an ace up their sleeve: They are speculating that the regional government of Extremadura will declare the zone a nature reserve. The chances are good. Then lithium degradation would no longer be possible.

Lithium in western Spain: a wealth that should stay in the ground

Oliver Neuroth, ARD Madrid, 8/30/2021 5:39 p.m.

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