Covas do Barroso, Portugal – Paulo Pires led his flock of sheep and dogs up the hill on a warm day in August, as a stream of water flowed down an ancient irrigation channel that has been maintained by local communities for generations. “There is a lot of wealth here,” said Pires, now resting in the shade of an oak tree by the flowing water. For centuries, Covas do Barroso’s water, pastures and forests have been managed collectively to integrate farming, livestock, and forestry in a sustainable manner. But Pires is worried. Savanah Resources, a UK-based company, aims to develop Western Europe’s largest open-pit lithium mine in Barroso, bordering the Peneda-Geres National Park in northeastern Portugal. “When I was a child I used to come here with my friends and we bathed in the spring,” said Pires, pointing to an area littered with plastic pipes and blasted rocks, the remnants of lithium prospecting carried out in 2017 in the village’s common lands. Since Pires first saw the wounds opened by prospecting, he has felt a sense of dread thinking about an open-air mine on his doorstep. “We’re afraid of the noise, of the dust, of water contamination. Where will I take my sheep?” he said. The lithium mine could threaten the pastures and mountainsides that Pires’s livelihood depends on.
The mountainous region of Barroso is believed to contain some of Europe’s most significant resources of lithium, a key component in batteries to power electric cars and store renewable energy. The Savannah Resources project is expected to produce enough lithium for about half a million electric car batteries each year. The European Commission has estimated that demand for lithium will grow 60 times by 2050. Maros Sefcovic, the Commission’s vice president, said climate goals cannot be achieved without critical materials like lithium. To prevent the European Union from being dependent on outside countries, the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act aims to facilitate mining activities and set a target that at least 10 percent of Europe’s raw materials should come from local supplies.
In addition to having indigenous livestock breeds and the rare Garrano horse, Barroso is home to important populations of Iberian wolf, a priority species classified as endangered, and critically endangered freshwater pearl mussels. Environmentalists argue the anticipated harms far outweigh the benefits of lithium mining in Barroso. “The impacts on the territory, on water and on people’s health will be very significant,” said Forner.