Milos Bozic and Jasha Tomic in their village Veliki Krivelj. The mine tailings threatens the safety of the community, and many of their neighbors have been forced to relocate. Photo: Just Finance International (2024)

The Chinese mining company Zijin is rapidly expanding its copper and gold exploration in the Serbian cities Bor and Majdanpek. Community members, farmers and landowners say the company has confiscated their property while the Serbian state and justice system turns a blind eye.

For 200 years Ivica Jovic and his ancestors have been cultivating vegetables, raising livestock and keeping bees in the gently undulating landscape surrounding the northeast Serbian city of Bor. For generations, the area’s fertile soil has provided for his family’s nourishment and livelihoods.

The situation changed drastically beginning four years ago. The Chinese company Serbia Zijin Mining, which operates a major copper and gold mine in Bor and its surroundings, wanted to buy 1.7 hectares of his land. 

Ivica Jovic on his land. He claims that 1.7 hectares was confiscated by the Chinese mining company Zijin. Photo: Just Finance International (2024)

Jovic considered the offer but decided to turn it down. The part of his estate that Zijin offered to buy was central to his farming activities and a storage location for  his equipment. It was also a hub where many different roads connected on his land. Without access to this particular plot of land, it would be impossible for him to move between various fields. 

To Jovic’s surprise, his refusal to sell hardly seemed to matter to the company. Zijin soon began excavations on his land despite his decision. Construction machines appeared and installed a mining shaft, which cut off his roads and destroyed the rivers that previously helped to irrigate the land. Today, all of the roads between Jovic’s fields have been destroyed and his plot of land has been polluted beyond recognition. 

“They have been stealing from me”, he said. “This is a robbery. Nothing else.”

In a bid for justice, Jovic took his case to court. But the legal procedure has been so slow and inefficient, he is beginning to question whether the court is acting independently or not.

“I have been spending my own money to get back what was already mine,” he said. Across four years, his ongoing fight for the right to his own land has nearly bankrupted him.

The lanscape in Bor and Majdanpek is constatly changing. This open pit mine has grown quickly since Zijin Mining started its excavations. Photo: Just Finance International (2024)

China’s Serbia Zijin Copper, a subsidiary of Zijin Mining Group, first launched operations in Bor in 2018. As its production rose and mining operations expanded, normal life for residents of the nearby villages was irrevocably disrupted. Local community members have organized multiple public protests and lodged official complaints, but to little effect. As conditions for these communities worsen, so has their despair.

In Jovic’s mind, his troubles can all be traced to a particular statute in Serbian legislation first introduced in 2015. According to this law, the Serbian government was conferred the power to expropriate private land in the interest of a foreign investor. This had never been possible before.

Ivica Jovic was among the first landowners in the surrounding mining region to face land expropriation without consent. Now, he says there are around 30 farmers in the region facing the same situation.

A number of residents from different mining-affected villages told Just Finance International that  development activities overseen by the two companies, Serbia Zijin Copper and Serbia Zijin Mining, are threatening their health, private property and livelihoods. Rising pollution levels in the air and water were harming all the people living in the region. The area’s mining operations had even diverted the flow of an important river, leading to disastrous results on the irrigation of surrounding farmland.

The Chinese mining company is re-routing a river without consulting the Veliki Krivelj villagers affected by the project. Photo: Just Finance International (2024)

Despite these serious consequences, Zijin’s large-scale transformation of the local landscape has been implemented without the most basic oversight mechanisms – such as a spatial master plan or an environment impact assessment. In the absence of these standard protocols, citizens have no way to account for the impacts the mining operations are wreaking on their health and environment. Without better understanding the nature of the damage, they have no way to take precautions to better protect themselves and their estates. 

One of the many sites currently under threat is the village of Veliki Krivelj, an old cultural heritage founded in the 1600s. Formerly an important stopover for travelers on the main road to Belgrade, this village has preserved many of its traditional buildings. Even the old taverna is still standing. 

One of the inhabitants, Jasha Tomic, is pouring traditional coffee in her kitchen. A second-generation resident, Tomic has witnessed many of her neighbors move away in recent years. Since 2015, the population of the village has shrunk by a quarter to about 900. All the houses previously lining one end of the village road have been torn down to make room for large piles of tailings from the mining operations.

A mining shaft outside Bor. Photo: Just Finance International (2024)

Tomic and her neighbor, Milos Bozic, believe they will all be forced to leave their homes in a matter of years. There has been nothing but opacity about the future of the village.  Neither household has received any information about development or relocation plans from the local government nor from Zijin.

“We have written letters and asked the government several times about plans for relocations but without any answers,” Tomic said.

According to Bozic, the neighbor, the residents of the village are desperate for information and worried about the future. He believes that the Chinese company should not be able to acquire houses in the village until it has presented a transparent relocation plan and received approval from the village.

“They must first present a plan according to our legislation on expropriation, but they have done the opposite. They started to work without any approval, and they started to buy houses without a plan. What they are doing now is illegal,” said Bozic.

Abandon houses in the Veliki Krivelj village. For hundreds of years this was a stopover for travelers to Belgrade. Now the future for the village is unclear. Photo: Just Finance International (2024)

JFI followed Bozic and Tomic on a tour around the village. At the end of the main road, all the houses have been abandoned, sitting empty and overshadowed by a 100-meter-tall tipping point for tailings from the mining. When the wind blows it picks up the toxic dust and blows it across the whole village.

Bozic pointed to some of his neighbors’ houses. “They have all been forced to sell but they didn’t get paid enough to be able to buy an equal house somewhere else,” he said. “Now they must scale down and endure worse living conditions.”