‘The challenge is to extract what we need without destroying the environment

Lithium (stone in Greek) is a soft, light, silvery-white metal and a key ingredient in batteries for electric cars and mobile phones. Worldwide, Australia has the highest production (40,000 tonnes each year). Portugal is one of Europe’s largest producers of this so-called ‘white gold’ with a modest reserve of about 60,000 tonnes.

Across the country, a battle is going on between companies eager to exploit the mineral and Portuguese locals determined to block exploration as the manufacturing process causes significant environmental hazards, such as water pollution and ecosystem degradation.

Last month the anti-mining movement reacted furiously over the way in which the government – only days after the local elections – launched an ‘international tender’ for the attribution of lithium mining in the Serra d’Arga region, while the Serra is an ‘Area of Protected landscape of Regional Interest’.

Four civic movements from the districts of Viana de Costelo and Braga are joining their forces against a report of the Lithium Prospecting and Research Program for launching tender procedures in eight areas in the north and center of the country, where most lithium can be found.

The current government is keen to develop a new industry, particularly when that can be linked to clean energy. However, on October 28 – on the eve of Parliament being dissolved after the collapse of the state budget – the Ministry of Environment and Climate Action signed in one day 9 new contracts conceding mineral exploration.

The minister of Environment João Pedro Matos Fernandes defended the signing by declaring that lithium is essential for the decarbonization of the economy. ’Portugal should only take out the minimum amount necessary but not suffer by importing lithium it can extract’.
Lithium exploration in Portugal is not viable at all says Oscar Afonso, president of the Fraud Economics and Management Observatory, instead. ‘Reserves are insignificant and explorations could well be abandoned early’.

Quercus, one of Portugal’s oldest environmental NGOs draws attention to the fact that nearly 30% of the regions affected by the threat of lithium prospection are ‘areas the State has promised to protect and safeguard’ and that not all contracts have completed the Environmental Impact Assessment (EAI) processes.

Demand for ‘critical’ minerals – including lithium – will increase sixfold, says the IEA (International Energy Agency) if the world is to reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions. Japan’s National Institute for Environmental studies even estimates a sevenfold increase in demand by 2050.

The question now is if Portugal will stick to the promise of its minister to ’only extract from the earth the minimum amount of lithium necessary’ for its own use.

Enjoy your week                   Aproveite a sua semana        

‘Watch out – Art under your feet!

This spring Portuguese pavement (calçada) was presented in Lisbon as a candidate for UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list.  As of last year a total of 1,120 World Heritage Sites – demarcated by UNESCO as protected areas – exist across 167 countries. Portugal has 17 sites, the most recent being the 18th century Palace/Convent of Mafra, listed in 2019.

The traditional-style pavement used for pedestrian areas in Portugal originates from the 19th century. It consists of irregularly shaped stones – usually black basalt and white limestone – forming decorative patterns or mosaics. It can also be encountered in Spain, Gibraltar, South Africa, Malaysia, and throughout former Portuguese colonies like Brazil, Macau, Timor-Leste, Angola, and Mozambique.

Unfortunately, very little new paving is done and the profession of paving masters (mestres calceteiros) at risk. Poor working conditions and low wages have reduced apprenticeships and thus new pavers.

Despite the fact that the City Council founded a vocational school for pavers in 1986, there are only 18 pavers in Lisbon, of which a mere 11 active. ‘And without pavers, there is no pavement’, explains Antonio Prôa, Secretary-General of the Calçada Portuguesa Association.

Moreover, there is declining interest in its investment and construction as the pavement is less safe (providing less traction when wet and loose stones become tripping hazards), costs more (especially through a decline in the extractive stone industry), and wears quicker than asphalt.

The proposal to UNESCO, therefore, contains concrete measures to foster attractiveness and enhancement of the profession. Furthermore, creation of a documentation center/observatory of the Portuguese sidewalk in the world, development of a reference for the formation of artistic pavers, and certification of artistic sidewalk interventions. The municipality has approved the candidacy with a financial support of 110,000 euros.        

Besides emphasizing the advantages of mosaic pavement (use of local materials, sustainability – reuse, ease of restoration, and efficient drainage), the promotors of the candidacy highlight the importance of the Portuguese cobblestone for its ‘distinctive and national identity element and its cultural and touristic value’.

Enjoy your week          Aproveite a sua semana          (pic Público/Sapo)