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What Mountains Hold

Marina Otero Verzier

Energy dreams are too often realised at the expense of the lives of indigenous peoples, local communities, and their ecosystems. Under the pretext of progress, these groups are portrayed as backward or even non-existent, their bodies and territories equated to resources to be extracted, sacrificed to the logics of profit and ‘development’. Post-fossil fuel green futures are no exception. They still depend on extractivist industries that open wounds in mountains and communities, on their ground and the depths beneath them, breaking everything that exists down into pieces for its exploitation to keep the promise of infinite growth alive. All this ‘development’ is at the detriment of communities who carry the burden for us all.

Covas do Barroso is one of the areas affected by our compulsive desires for more energy and, in particular, more batteries. Located in a mountainous region in the north of Portugal, a site of biodiversity and unique centuries‑long cultural traditions, the community of Covas has been rendered a sacrificial area. Its lands contain lithium. Since 2016, the Portuguese and Spanish governments and the European Commission have instigated extraction projects in this region now advertised as one of the largest lithium reserves in Europe. These efforts have been further intensified and vindicated ideologically by the EU Green Deal in 2020 and the geopolitical instability and energy shortages of 2022.

In the name of a green economy and energy independence, the EU presents lithium extraction as a necessary step towards this transition and falsely promoted it as an employment generator. Multinationals operating in the region, such as Savannah Resources, are not only interested in what mountains hold. The possibility of lithium extraction and the prospecting and mining rights are, in themselves, a commodity, a future that companies buy and sell, making a profit out of the eventual mining and the consequent destruction of an ecosystem.

Despite operating under the “clean energy” label, lithium mines have a long‑term impact on the quality of air, water, and soil, as well as the lives of beings depending on them, far beyond the pit. The prospect of the environmental and social degradation of places like Covas do Barroso is presented as the lesser evil compared to the dependence on the fossil fuel industry. Since 2018, its inhabitants – supported by a wide range of societal actors and communities affected by lithium extraction in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Serbia, and Spain – have sustained direct and legal opposition against projects such as the Mina do Barroso, an open pit mega-mine that threatens the agricultural world heritage. As a result of protests across and beyond Portugal, the state reduced the number of prospective mining sites to 6. Covas de Barroso is among them, still threatened by Western and, particularly, European lithium-powered green futures.

Aida Gomes and Nelson Gomes, representatives from “Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso,” an environmental conservation organization created in defense of the communities’ interests, are suffering the effects of these futures. If not in Covas do Barroso, where? some ask them, accepting destruction as the inevitable cost of progress. The real question, however, is whether we are ready to resist our compulsive desires and live appropriately on Earth. The so-called green transition is in vain if not made alongside a reconsideration of the ethics of a society founded on extractivism and consumerism. Even when faced with the climate catastrophe, we tend to render the need for more energy inevitable and rely on finding new fixes rather than embracing other forms of living.

In this context, imagining new energy cultures is paramount for embracing a different way of being in the world. As philosopher Michael Marder contends, we conceive energy as something that the Earth holds or that our bodies and batteries store, which could eventually be released and put to work. This problematic conception of energy assumes the destruction of bodies and ecosystems while searching for and extracting energy. We gamble on, and auction, the future while carrying out actions that foreclosure the possibility of a future.

Mountains’ riches

Covas do Barroso is part of a larger area endangered by lithium extraction. Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, located in the north-eastern corner of Portugal and the South of Galicia in Spain, has long been known for the riches that mountains hold. Here, ores are often forcefully taken from the entrails of the mountain. Sometimes they burst unexpectedly to the surface. The territory has the most significant quantity of thermal springs in the Iberian Peninsula, whose curative waters contain the same endogenous resources that mining corporations dig for.

Paradoxically, while the EU encourages mining on the territory, and consequently the depletion of the water table, it also promotes the region as a water-based health and wellbeing destination and positions water, and thermalism as strategic resources capable of dynamizing the regions’ economy. The proliferation of mining projects puts the quality and quantity of these local springs and their natural mineral waters at risk, making it necessary to decide on which future these communities and ecosystems deserve. “No a la Mina, Si a la Vida!” (Não às Minas, Sim à Vida) read the posters, graffiti, and banners populating every corner of Barroso, words also pronounced by the inhabitants as they walk the streets and pass in front of the Savannah Resources headquarters.

The abundance of ores and mineral-medicinal springs in this cross-border region have been known since Roman times. Yet, it was only in the mid-nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century that it became a health destination. Hot springs were formalized in fountains, and those into sophisticated spa architectures in Verin, Vidago, and Pedras Salgadas. Tourism, social life and health converged, turning the region into a reference for European thermalism. For example, the waters from Fonte Campilho were celebrated since 1882 for their curative properties. But in 1895, when the fountain was transformed into Palacete Templo das Aguas, it started to be commercially explored as Gasocarbonic Mineral Water. A mineral and spring water bottling industry, the Fonte Campilho factory, was soon built nearby. From drinking them directly from the rocks to then tasting and bathing in them through elaborated rituals, and finally consuming them through bottled and commercialized versions (such as Campilho, Pedras Salgadas and Cabreiroa), these waters have been carriers of well-being aspirations for centuries.

The resorts erected in Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro around lithium-rich springs aligns with that of other regions in Europe at the time, which offered bathing and drinking cures to an exhausted society during the era of rapid industrialization. With the advancement of medical sciences in the twentieth century, however, the curative water industries declined, and many of these infrastructures were abandoned. The twenty-first century’s obsession with well-being and self-optimization has nevertheless revived these enclave’s thermal experiences. Today, exhaustion and depression—the maladies of neoliberalism—are treated in a system of springs, rivers and thermal baths that share grounds with prospective lithium extraction sites across Europe. These mining, bathing, and drinking territories shed light on lithium’s role as a critical component of energy and wellbeing projects. The search and intake of lithium for batteries and mineralized waters follows the capitalist compulsion to put bodies and mountains to operate within the mantra of efficiency and productivity.

The Termas de Bande, on the banks of the Limia River in Ourense (Spain), is one of the exceptions where the emergence of curative mineralized waters has yet to be exploited commercially. Long before nineteenth-century developments, the Romans had praised these waters as therapeutic and recreational. Between 69–79 AD, they erected The Aquis Querquennis camp, which includes a system of open-air thermal baths operating between 36–48 degrees Celsius. In 1948, the site fell to the power-hungry infrastructure developments that converge the electrical and political power in Francoist Spain. The Aquis Querquennis was drowned to build the As Conchas dam, partially constructed with the revenues of wolframite mining and its exports to Nazi Germany.

As Conchas radically altered life in the area and came to symbolize the fight between energy projects and socio-cultural and environmental conservation. Almost forty years after its inauguration, in 1985, the Bande City Council and the Hydrographic Confederation started recovering vestiges of both the Roman and a subsequent nineteenth-century bathing infrastructure. Today, people continue to undress and bathe together at As Conchas, floating back and forth between the hot lithium-rich waters coming from the mountain and the cold waters from the reservoir that partially submerge the baths during the summer months.

These embodied experiences allow one to comprehend the intricate energy processes that connect us to others and the planet. As extractivism breaks grounds and communities apart, exhausting lands and bodies to the point of mental and environmental collapse, it becomes increasingly important to practice collective care. Submerged in the hot springs in what Cheila Rodrigues came to define as a “Bathassembly,” bodies honour what has become a rallying cry in the region: “El agua no se vende se cuida y se defiende” (Water is not for sale, it is cared for and defended).