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13 September, 2021updated 01 Nov 2021 21:59

“My laundry turns yellow outside”: How Chinese investment is polluting a Serbian town

A Chinese-run mine in Serbia is spewing high levels of pollution over the town of Bor. Why has it taken the Serbian government so long to react?

By Sebastian Shehadi

bor-serbia-pollution

Chinese company Zijin runs the copper mine in Bor, and stands accused of unleashing unacceptable levels of pollution on the Serbian town. (Photo by Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Serbian town of Bor is synonymous with its enormous copper mine. However, an unfolding public health crisis is generating much darker associations. 

Like many other small industrial towns across Serbia, Bor’s economy is dominated by a single business activity. In this case, the Bor mine and smelting complex that presides over one of the world’s largest copper reserves. For decades, the site was owned by the Serbian government. However, in more recent years, it fell into financial trouble and was bought in 2018 by China’s state-owned Zijin Mining Group – through a contract that was not immediately made public

“Problems with air pollution were pre-existent [in Bor]. However, China’s takeover has exacerbated these issues to alarming levels,” Tena Prelec, a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, told Investment Monitor in an interview earlier this year. “The Chinese have increased production capacity to levels that exceed the ability of the plants to keep pollution under control.” Pledges to make plants more eco-friendly have tended not to bear fruit yet, Prelec points out.

Sulphur dioxide from the mine is visible to the naked eye. It looks like fog, scratches the throat, makes you cough, burns your eyes. Irena Zivkovic, Bor resident

Several years ago, when Zijin bought the mine, it promised to inject $1.26bn (811.36bn yuan) in upgrades that would decrease the plant’s pollution levels and improve its environmental impact. These commitments have been very slowly and poorly implemented, at best. 

For example, Zijin’s late 2020 expansion proposal failed to conduct a proper environmental impact assessment, according to Belgrade’s Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute. A few months earlier, the City of Bor filed a criminal complaint against Zijin due to excessive air pollution that summer, during which recorded levels of sulphur dioxide in Bor exceeded the EU’s legal limit by more than tenfold

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“On those days when the pollution is really bad in Bor, we put laundry to dry outside and it turns yellow,” Irena Zivkovic, a resident of Bor, told Investment Monitor in April 2021. Zivkovic is also a local environmental activist who manages the city’s There is Choice campaign, a local protest group fighting against the mine’s pollution. 

“Sulphur dioxide from the mine is visible to the naked eye,” she added. “It looks like fog, scratches the throat, makes you cough, burns your eyes. So [we] put handkerchiefs over our mouths, take shelter in a closed space, close the windows. Sulphur dioxide causes [or aggravates] bronchitis and asthma. During 2019, many children received asthma medications from doctors.”

How did things get so bad in Bor?

It is important to note that Bor’s inhabitants struggled with excessive air pollution long before Zijin’s takeover. 

In the summer of 2015, for example, after the incomplete construction of a new smelter in Bor, the city saw shockingly high (and illegal) levels of pollution, according to Zivkovic

Zivkovic claims that senior members of staff raised objections regarding the pollution levels but were removed from their posts. She adds: “Citizens organised street protests, which also gained lots of media attention. Finally, the pollution was reduced to legal limits.” However, since the privatisation of the mine, locals are again voicing concerns regarding pollution levels.

As Prelec wrote for Balkan Insight: “After running into an institutional ‘brick wall’, [Bor’s citizen’s] have resorted to organising creative flash mobs such as a ‘masked ball’, donning protective masks even before the advent of Covid-19. 

“[In Serbia], authorities are reluctant to provide information [on the environment]; when it comes, it is delayed and incomplete. A complete lack of transparency means that we still do not know, for instance, the origin of high levels of poisonous arsenic recorded in the air in Bor when there should not be any at all.” 

As highlighted by Prelec, an in-depth study of the contract concerning Bor’s copper plant shows that the Serbian government gave Zijin a ‘free pass’ on any environmental damage done in the transition period following the mine’s sale, while failing to define the duration of said period.

Little wonder, therefore, that Zivkovic believes that the solution can only lie in non-institutional forms of protest. However, she laments the fact that, with so many people in Bor economically dependent on Zijin, many are too frightened to partake in demonstrations out of fear of losing their jobs. 

Worse still, Balkan Insight reports that Zijin is relying increasingly on imported workers from China who are cheaper and easier to keep in line than the local workforce. Working conditions at the mine have also made headlines, and in January of this year, Chinese workers stood outside the mine to protest labour conditions such as 12-hour shifts and having to hand over their passports, according to Balkan Insight.

“The non-reaction of the Serbian institutions and the company towards air pollution show that laws in Serbia do not seem to apply to everyone,” says Zivkovic.

So who were the winners of all this? When Zijin bought the Bor mine, the Serbian government’s media portrayed those involved in the sale as the “saviours of the region” (since the mine employs so many people). However, research from the International and Security Affairs Centre – an independent, non-profit think tank – has shown that this was not the case

Belgrade is beginning to fear anti-pollution protests

Several developments over the past six months signal a change in tune from the Serbian government, which has a poor record of neglecting environmental concerns. On 10 April, the Serbian capital of Belgrade was rocked by anti-government protests that united the left and right (for once) in calls for less pollution across the country. 

Serbia is the country with the highest rate of pollution-related deaths in Europe (making it the ninth-worst globally), according to the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, while a recent UN environment report found that airborne pollutants are causing nearly 20% of premature deaths in western Balkan cities. While the Serbian government has long refuted this picture and these statistics, Serbian (and Bosnian) citizens have become increasingly vocal about air pollution over the past two years, not least due to several recent bouts of pollution in Belgrade and Sarajevo

This is beginning to rattle the Serbian government. A few days after the 10 April protest, Belgrade ordered Zijin to halt work in Bor until it complied with certain (not all) environmental standards – something that the company seems to have fulfilled. This was a highly unusual (and watershed) moment for the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, who has made strong relations with Beijing the hallmark of his foreign policy and political legitimacy.

In fact, Serbia has become Beijing’s staunchest European ally, a regional hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative activity and a back door into the EU market. In 2019, for example, Chinese companies announced investments of up to $625m in Serbia, making it the fourth-largest recipient of Chinese investment in Europe in that year. 

Similarly, Zijin has also made a recent show of its supposed green credentials. For example, at the beginning of the summer, the company caused derision by erecting a banner ‘reassuring’ the residents of Bor that it does indeed put a prime on the environment. 

However, Zijin took more concrete steps a month later, with China’s state-run media group CGTN announcing that the company had installed new emission-cutting technology at the Bor facility. Alongside a slick video, CGTN made sure to stress that: “Bor has a decades-old air pollution problem… But now, for the first time in the town’s long history, that problem is on the verge of being resolved thanks to Chinese company Zijin Mining.” 

Serbia can no longer afford to neglect its pollution crisis

It remains to be seen if the upgrade to the Bor facility will have a positive impact. A recent article by Balkan Green Energy News reported that Bor experienced another wave of illegally high air pollution in August, with many residents complaining about breathing problems from the “heavy smoke” – pictures and video from the toxic cloud are indeed shocking. 

Balkan Green Energy News also reports that on 15 occasions since the beginning of 2021, the daily limit for sulphur dioxide in Bor has been exceeded (that is more than any other Serbian city), according to data from a measuring station in Bor. It is against Serbian law for a location to exceed the daily limit more than three times a year. 

Beyond ethics, the financial fallout of air pollution such as that in Bor is profound. In 2016, emissions from coal plants alone caused approximately 8,000 cases of bronchitis in children and 2,000 cases in adults in the western Balkans, costing the region €3.6bn ($4.26bn), according to a recent EU report. This is without taking into consideration other respiratory diseases and cancers caused by equally deadly air pollutants from the likes of poorly kept mines and smelters. 

Such problems are becoming even more pressing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people living in areas affected by heavy air pollution have been found to be much more vulnerable to the effects of the virus, increasing mortality by up to 11%.

Unfortunately, the situation in Bor is part of a broader issue across Serbia and the Balkans for that matter. Several other towns, such as Smederevo (where it sometimes rains red toxins), are also being crippled by unchecked heavy industry, often run by other Chinese companies that have been given carte blanche by complicit Serbian authorities. The Vučić government has also allowed China to build a host of dirty power plants across the country, namely coal. 

Therefore, pointing the finger at Chinese companies alone is not fair. For too long, Belgrade has neglected the country’s public health and energy transition for the sake of back-door, kleptocratic deals that are politically and personally convenient

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