Activist company

Amid environmental concerns, a Chinese mining company in Serbia seeks to repair its image through sport

BELGRADE — Since Chinese group Zijin Mining acquired Serbia’s only copper mining complex in 2018, the company has faced protests over its poor environmental record and accusations that it was involved in unfair trade deals. transparencies in the Balkan nation.

Facing increasing scrutiny, the Chinese mining company has engaged with disgruntled communities by fund and reward local sports teams in what activists and watchdog groups say, it’s an attempt to repair his tarnished image.

Zijin’s last contribution was a donation of 300,000 euros ($295,000) to the Serbia women’s national volleyball team following their gold medal win Oct. 15 at the World Championships in the Netherlands.

“They are trying to show that they are a socially responsible company,” Mirko Popovic, program director of the Renewable Energy and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI), a Serbian environmental NGO, told RFE/RL. “[But] our past investigations of Zijin’s work in Serbia show that it is anything but a responsible company.

Zijin has been repeatedly fined by Serbian authorities for pollution violations over the years. In April 2021, the company was ordered to temporarily stop work in its copper mine after violating environmental standards and building a nearby sewage treatment plant.

The recent volleyball team donation is not the first time Zijin has donated money to fund sports teams amid growing environmental concerns and local backlash.

Earlier this month, the company donated 2,500 euros ($2,465) to a local table tennis club. Last year, he also signed a 17,000 euro ($16,765) sponsorship deal with the official football club of Majdanpek, a town in Bor district in eastern Serbia, which is home to operations. Zijin copper mines. That same year, Zijin donated 153,000 euros ($150,000) to the Serbian Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“China and Serbia are iron friends, and our bilateral relationship has withstood the tests of turbulent times,” Zijin said in an Oct. 17 statement accompanying her donation to the women’s national volleyball team. “Volleyball is also one of the most popular sports in China, especially women’s volleyball.”

A road leads to the Bor open pit copper mine, which Zijin took over in 2018. (File photo)

Snezana Todorovic, a local environmental activist, told RFE/RL that the recent donation “leaves a bitter taste” in her mouth as it came less than a month after authorities dismantled a camp built by militants in Majdanpek to stop Zijin’s mining expansion. in the zone.

“I think this money is meant to wash away [people’s] consciousness, then they go [turn a blind eye]said Todorovic.

Zijin and the Serbian Volleyball Federation did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment on the donations.

An eye on sports

Serbia and China have rapidly intensified their economic and political relations in recent years, with Beijing viewing the Balkan country as a frontrunner for its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and growing influence in Europe.

Chinese state banks have granted billions of dollars in loans to Serbia for construction projects that are mainly carried out by Chinese workers. Serbia has become an export market for Chinese drones, military equipment and surveillance technology. Chinese companies have also expanded their presence in Serbia, taking over mines, steel mills and building roads, factories and railways.

China’s largest gold producer and one of the country’s top copper producers, Zijin acquired its Serbian mining operations in 2018 when it took over the debt-ridden Bor copper mining and smelting complex. in a $1.26 billion deal. The deal follows a 2016 deal that saw China’s Hesteel acquire a major steel plant in the eastern Serbian town of Smederevo.

Zijin is not the only Chinese company that has sought to strengthen its brand in Serbian sport.

The logo of Peak, one of China’s leading sportswear and footwear brands, is affixed to the national jerseys of Serbian volleyball and basketball teams. Chinese company Linglong, which is building a nearly billion-dollar tire factory in Serbia, is the main sponsor of the country’s top soccer league, which has been renamed Linglong Tire Superliga.

A Serbian national basketball team player wears a Chinese brand Peak jersey during the Tokyo Olympics.

A Serbian national basketball team player wears a Chinese brand Peak jersey during the Tokyo Olympics.

Like Zijin, Linglong has also found itself embroiled in scandals over the years for an uneven environmental record and poor labor practices. In 2020, Serbian NGOs revealed that some of the construction work around the tire factory in the town of Zrenjanin had been made without permits or environmental impact studiesleading to protests and negative reactions.

A nationwide scandal also erupted after poor work standards were discovered at the factory, where hundreds of Vietnamese workers hired by a subcontractor were living in makeshift accommodation without electricity, heating or water and had their passports confiscated.

Environmental concerns in Serbia

Despite donations to local sports teams in the area, activists say Zijin’s alleged efforts to repair his reputation will not work.

Ljubica Vukcevic, the senior legal adviser of RERI, an environmental NGO, told RFE/RL that anger and frustration towards Zijin run deep in the region, especially as pollution and environmental problems are on the rise.

Chinese mining companies are not the only ones subject to controversy.

Widespread protests erupted in late 2021 in Serbia over plans to build a huge lithium mine to be developed by British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. Following the protests, the Serbian government abandoned its plans for the company.

Activists and watchdogs say the Serbian government has a weak legal and regulatory system that allows companies to circumvent environmental protections and due diligence. According to the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution, an international monitoring group, Serbia is the most polluted country in Europe.

Environmental activists and citizens block a highway in Belgrade in December 2021 due to now abandoned lithium mining projects in Serbia by the Anglo-Austrian company Rio Tinto.

Environmental activists and citizens block a highway in Belgrade in December 2021 due to now abandoned lithium mining projects in Serbia by the Anglo-Austrian company Rio Tinto.

But additional concerns have been raised in Serbia about the practices of Chinese companies, which have poor environmental records around the world. There are also concerns that Chinese companies are no longer willing to take advantage of Serbia’s weaker legal protections.

In a recent report, the European Parliament expressed concerns on Chinese investments, saying the lack of transparency around impact assessments could lead to growing environmental problems. Zijin, in his past statementsmaintained that he respects Serbian law.

Dutch advocacy group Just Finance expressed similar concerns. In May investigationhe said Zijin’s investments in Serbia had been undertaken “without the necessary environmental and social due diligence”, leading people to abandon villages near its mining operations.

Since Zijin acquired the copper mining and smelting complex in Bor, “the lives of citizens of at least five villages in this region of Serbia have been turned upside down,” the group said.

Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Sonja Gocanin.