‘It’s [Not] Over’: The Past, and Present, of Lithium Mining in Serbia

Protesters block the E-75 highway in Belgrade, Serbia, 27 November 2021. Anti-government demonstrators blocked roads and bridges in Serbia to protest against new laws they say favor interests of foreign investors devastating the environment. EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

First time lucky

As he described it in a text he authored for the Serbian newspaper Politika in October last year, Grubin "loved teaching and science, but my entrepreneurial and research spirit kicked in so I moved to Rio Tinto."

It was 2001; Milosevic had just been overthrown and the West was lifting sanctions that, alongside the effects of a decade of war, had crippled the Serbian economy and driven a dramatic 'brain drain' of talent.

Grubin had left Serbia for Canada with his family in 1999, working part-time as a "contract geologist" for Rio Tinto, he told BIRN, on projects in Ontario and concerning the former Yugoslavia. He officially left the faculty in Belgrade in 2001 and became Rio Tinto's director in Serbia.

"When foreign investors appeared, a large number of our geologists found refuge there," recalled Zoran Stevanovic, a retired professor of the Faculty of Mining and Geology and former president of the Serbian Geological Society. "They moved to foreign companies, but also their knowledge, and certain maps and data they had, moved with them. It's hard to blame them for wanting to do their job somewhere," he said, citing a lack of state funding or support for geological research.

In 2004, working in the Jadar River basin of western Serbia for Rio Tinto, Grubin was one of four geologists who were credited with discovering 'jadarite', a new mineral made up of both borates and lithium and which, to the delight of headline writers around the...

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