Savannah Resources embarks on controversial lithium mining project in Portugal

Savannah Resources embarks on controversial lithium mining project in Portugal

Savannah Resources, a London-based company, has embarked on a lithium mining project in Boticas, Portugal, which has garnered significant attention due to potentially becoming Western Europe’s largest lithium mine. This initiative is part of a broader push to capitalise on Portugal’s lithium reserves, which are over 60 000 tonnes, positioning the country as a key player in Europe’s strategy to secure a more self-sufficient battery value chain and reduce dependency on imported raw materials. This initiatives was approved by the Portuguese Environmental Agency last year, conditional on some premises, for this initiative to take place. However, the project has encountered substantial legal and environmental challenges. Portuguese prosecutors have raised concerns about the environmental permit granted to the project, citing potential violations and the risks it poses to the local environment, including the Barroso region — a world heritage site recognised for its agricultural significance since 2018. 


The primary issues highlighted include the project’s potential impact on this heritage site, inadequate assessments of mining waste management, and water contamination risks. This is significant as poor environmental strategies in the context of mining projects, such as those involving lithium extraction, can have significant health repercussions, as well as, fundamentally eroding local human rights. This relationship stems from the fact that environmental degradation often directly impacts the fundamental needs and rights of local communities. For example, water contamination and air pollution can impinge on the right to clean water, and healthy living conditions.


In regions where mining projects for things like precious metals are situated, the environmental consequences can seriously disrupt local ecosystems, leading to loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, alteration of water courses and the water table.  Environmental impacts can, in turn, affect agricultural productivity and access to natural resources that local populations depend on for their livelihoods, thereby, infringing upon their right to food security and economic stability. 


The Prosecutor’s Office has requested that the Administrative Court of Mirandela, in Northern Portugal, to annul the approval of the Boticas mine on the basis that it “suffers from the defect of violating the law”.  Additionally, the cumulative environmental impact of Savannah’s project and another nearby lithium initiative by Lusorecursos in Montalegre has not been fully considered, raising concerns about the broader implications for the region’s ecosystem. In response, Savannah Resources has expressed it’s readiness to address these concerns and stated that the legal actions do not hinder the project’s operations. 


The legal challenges faced by Savannah Resources, couple with the ongoing investigation into alleged illegalities in lithium and ‘green hydrogen’ deals in Portugal, which led to the then-Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s resignation, highlighting the delicate and volatile state of environmental policy. The case surely serves as a serious reminder of the importance of adhering to legal and environmental standards to ensure sustainable development and trust in the workings of political institutions. 


With that being said, navigating the complexities of lithium mining projects such as the one undertaken by Savannah Resources necessitates a multi-faceted approach to the policy making to ensure sustainable development. There are a number of cogent options available to the Portuguese state, notably, Chile’s approach to managing it’s lithium reserves and the associated environmental and regulatory challenges could offer relevant insights for Portugal.


Chile has significant lithium reserves, the largest in the world, and has positioned itself as a key player in the global lithium market. Chile has established a legal and regulatory framework that treats lithium as a strategic mineral, limiting its extraction to state, state-owned companies, or private firms in partnership with the Chilean Production Development Corporation. This framework aims to ensure that lithium mining benefits the country, while mitigating environmental impacts. Chile’s experience highlights the importance of a clear regulatory framework that balances economic interests with environmental protection and social responsibility. Given Portugal’s significant lithium reserves, and the environmental concerns surrounding the Savannah Resources project, adopting a strategic approach similar to Chile’s could help Portugal navigate the complexities of mining. In this sense, implementing a framework, perhaps similar to Chile’s, would hold companies accountable for their environmental compliance and provide clear, actionable guidelines for conducting mining operations sustainably. 


The National Lithium Strategy, announced in April 2023, is the clear frameworks to “exploit lithium in Chile’s salt flats”. Perhaps with the longer-term goal of creating the “National Lithium Company”, which should lead to negotiations with private companies wishing to explore and exploit the salt flats. With the largest share of lithium deposits in the world, the Chilean state is looking to create a balance between private and public sectors. 


Furthermore, there is a critical need to enhance the rigor and comprehensiveness of Environmental Impact Assessments. By mandating the EIAs to consider the cumulative impacts of nearby projects, policymakers can gain a more holistic understanding of potential environmental consequences, thereby facilitating the implementation of effective mitigation strategies. 


Equally important is the engagement of local communities and stakeholders in the decision-making processes. Such involvement ensures that the concerns and insights of those most directly impacted by mining activities are heard, leading to mining practices that are not only more socially accepted but also sustainable. Developing clear forums for local discussion, perhaps through state initiatives, are the most cogent manner in which to develop clear community guidance. 


Accordingly, the protection of heritage sites also demands attention, with the development of specific guidelines and regulations aimed at ensuring mining activities do not encroach upon or degrade cultural and environmental values. This is particularly pertinent in areas like the Barroso region, which holds significant agricultural and cultural importance. 


Additionally, adopting a sustainable mining practice is another cornerstone of our policy recommendations. Urging the use of advanced technologies in waste management, investing heavily in protective measures, as well as, ensuring that companies are prepared to financially compensate locals for any issues that may arise are vital. Water protection is another serious issue. Minimising the environmental impact through continuous and public testing of the water table is vital. Precious metal mining, particularly lithium and copper mines, can be disastrous for local water supply if not persistently analysed. impACT implores the Portuguese state to consider establishing a public dataset for analysis of the regions ecological analysis.


Fostering cross-sector collaboration stands out as a vital strategy. By encouraging partnerships between the mining sector, environmental agencies, and research institutions, innovative solutions can be developed for waste reduction, the recycling of mining by-products, and the implementation of conservation strategies. Adoption of a similar public-private model, like Chile’s, may prove a good method of this collaboration. 


Through the implementation of these policy recommendations, countries like Portugal, endowed with significant lithium reserves, can leverage their natural resources to fuel economic growth and achieve strategic autonomy in the battery value chain. This approach ensure not only the safeguarding of environmental heritage but also the well-being of local communities, thereby aligning economic interests with sustainable and responsible environmental stewardship.