'Like An Earthquake': Serbian Villagers Stand Up To Chinese Mining Company Over Environmental Concerns
KRIVELJ, Serbia -- "When they mine, it's like an earthquake," said Vukasin Lazarevic, an 84-year-old former miner.
"My wife is now sleeping in the kitchen and I'm in the other room because the ceiling in the bedroom has cracked and we're afraid it could kill us during the night," he said.
The Lazarevics are part of growing number of protesters from Krivelj, a village of some 700 people a few kilometers from Bor, the city that is home to a massive complex where copper and other minerals are mined and processed by China's Zijin Mining Group.
A group of older villagers, such as 80-year-old Ljubomir Radivojevic, are at the core of a blockade of the main road that is keeping trucks and other vehicles from accessing the mine.
Locals have long complained about pollution, contaminated drinking water, and other environmental damage from the sprawling operations, which were taken over by the Chinese mining giant in 2018.
Frustrated after years of inaction from Serbian authorities over their concerns, Radivojevic and others took to the village streets in late January and blocked access roads to the mines, effectively cutting the site off from supplies needed for its operations.
On February 13, Zijin said it was forced to suspend production at the mine because of the blockade.
But Radivojevic and others say their struggle is far from over and they will continue to block the main road, setting the stage for a prolonged fight over the future of their village and Zijin's expanding mining operations in eastern Serbia.
"[Krivelj] used to be something to be proud of," Radivojevic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service, saying that increased activity at the mine and blasting to expand the site had damaged nearby properties and weakened the village's infrastructure.
Zijin entered Serbia in 2018 with backing from Belgrade when it paid $350 million to recapitalize the failing RTB Bor firm, pledging to invest $1.26 billion at the site over the following six years. Since then, the company has revived mining in the area and sought to open new sites with a $3.8 billion investment announced in September to expand its copper mines as demand for it rises due to its value in the global energy transition away from fossil fuels.
While Belgrade has praised Zijin's role in rejuvenating the country's mining industry and bringing jobs to the Balkan country, grievances between the company and locals have grown.
In Krivelj, residents claim that roads have been turned into industrial ones to accommodate trucks and heavy machinery, which has led to unsafe road conditions. Locals also say polluted soil, air, and water have hurt agricultural production, while the use of explosives to expand the mines has damaged some residential buildings.
While residents view the temporary stop in operations announced by Zijin to be a success, the blockade is set to continue while protesters call for government mediation to settle the issue. So far, no talks have been initiated.
Dragan Cosic, a resident of Krivelj, says that the mining company has looked to find alternative routes for its trucks amid the blockade and even erected a path by blocking the flow of a river a few kilometers away from the village. He says locals told Serbian authorities, who ordered the removal of the makeshift road.
"They blocked the riverbed so they could pass through," Cosic said. "I can't build the most ordinary toilet -- 1 meter by 1 meter -- in my yard without a permit, but the Chinese can block the entire river."
Zijin has repeatedly said it operates in compliance with all laws and regulations in Serbia and, in a public statement, claimed it actively seeks dialogue with the organizers of the protests, local authorities, and the Serbian government "so that the road blockade can be resolved peacefully."
Since coming to Serbia, Zijin has been fined for pollution violations and in April 2021 the company was ordered to halt work at the copper mine after it failed to follow environmental standards and build a wastewater treatment plant.
In the face of public scrutiny, the Chinese company has engaged with disaffected communities by funding local sporting teams in what activists and watchdog groups say is an attempt to repair its tarnished image.
Jasna Tomic, a resident who helped draft and submit a proposal to Zijin to resolve the situation, says the situation largely stems from decades of failed government efforts to relocate people from Krivelj. Residents have long complained about living near the mines and authorities discussed relocation, but as Zijin has increased its activity, villagers say they feel desperate.
Ana Patrucic, who also drafted the proposal from the protesters sent to Zijin in early February, says it mostly focused on creating obligations from the company and the government to compensate households in the village and create a relocation plan.
"With these requests we only drew attention to past disagreements, but since we had no one willing to engage with us we had to express our dissatisfaction by setting up the roadblocks," she said. "People have realized that this is the only thing they have and that they need to fight for this with all means available."
Searching For A Solution
Krivelj has been surrounded by mines since the 1980s and the village's neighboring areas are dotted with a constellation of plants for processing extracted ore and tailings -- the dumping grounds for mining waste -- as well as quarries.
Due to these surroundings and the associated side effects from the mining, the inhabitants of Krivelj have several times asked for the government to relocate them.
Lazarevic, the former miner and longtime resident of the village, says he's been waiting for more than two decades for government action and, while he hopes the arrival of Zijin would speed up the process, no progress has been made. "They promise us all kinds of things but they do nothing," he said.
Serbia's Mining and Energy Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment, but the government has repeatedly promised to move the villagers. In October, Mining and Energy Minister Dubravka Djedovic Handanovic said a solution had been reached with Zijin and the villagers.
But villagers told RFE/RL many of them have not even seen a relocation plan and that no deal has been reached.
"[Right now] it only exists on paper," Lazarevic said.