We meet Adams Maihota outside his house in the dead of night. A crab hunter, he wears white plastic sandals, board shorts, a tank top and a cummerbund to hold lengths of twine. He picks a sprig of wild mint and tucks it behind his ear for good luck.
The photographer Eric Guth and I follow Mr. Maihota’s blazing headlamp into the forest in search of coconut crabs, known locally as kaveu. They are the largest land invertebrate in the world, and, boiled or stir-fried with coconut milk, they are delicious. Since the cessation of phosphate mining here in 1966, they have become one of Makatea’s largest exports.
It’s ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiate the roots of pandanus trees and never-ending feo, a Polynesian term for the old reef rocks that stick up everywhere. Vegetation slaps our faces and legs, and our skin becomes slick with sweat.
The traps, which Mr. Maihota laid earlier that week, consist of notched coconuts tied to trees with fibers from their own husks. When we reach one, we turn off our lights to approach quietly. Then, Mr. Maihota pounces.
A moment later, he stands up with a sky-blue crab pedaling its ten legs in broad circles. Even with its fleshy abdomen curled under the rest of its body, the animal is much longer than the hunter’s hand.
Makatea, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, sits in the South Pacific about 150 miles northeast of Tahiti. It’s a small uplifted coral atoll, barely four and a half miles across at its widest point, with steep limestone cliffs that rise as high as 250 feet straight out of the sea.
From 1908 until 1966, Makatea was home to the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: Eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand were dug out and exported for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and munitions. When the mining ceased, the population fell from around 3,000 to less than 100. Today, there are about 80 full-time residents. Most of them live in the central part of the island, close to the ruins of the old mining town, which is now rotting into the jungle.
One-third of Makatea consists of a maze of more than a million deep, circular holes, known as the extraction zone — a legacy of the mining operations. Crossing into that area, especially at night, when coconut crabs are active, can be deadly. Many of the holes are over 100 feet deep, and the rock ledges between them are narrow. Still, some hunters do it anyway, intent on reaching the rich crab habitat on the other side.
One evening before sunset, a hunter named Teiki Ah-scha meets us in a notoriously dangerous area called Le Bureau, so named for the mining buildings that used to be there. Wearing flip-flops, Mr. Ah-scha trots around the holes and balances on their edges. When he goes hunting across the extraction zone, he comes home in the dark with a sack full of crabs on his back.
Mr. Maihota, too, used to hunt this way — and he tells me that he misses it. But ever since his wife fell into a shallow hole a few months before our visit in 2019, she has forbidden him to cross the extraction zone. Instead, he sets traps around the village.
Coconut crabs inhabit a broad range, from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to the Pitcairn Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. They were part of local diets long before the mining era. The largest specimens, “les monstres,” can be the length of your arm and live for a century.
There hasn’t been a population study on Makatea, so the crab’s conservation status is unclear — though at night, rattling across the rocks, they seem to be everywhere.
When we catch crabs that aren’t legal — either females or those less than six centimeters across the carapace — Mr. Maihota lets them go.
If the islanders are not careful, he says, the crabs might not be around for future generations. In many places across the Indo-Pacific, the animals have been hunted to the point of extirpation, or local extinction.
Makatea is at a crossroads. Half a century after the first mining era, there is a pending proposal for more phosphate extraction. Though the island’s mayor and other supporters cite the economic benefits of work and revenue, opponents say that new industrial activity would destroy the island, including its fledgling tourism industry.
“We cannot make her suffer again,” one woman tells me, invoking the island as a living being.
Still, it’s hard to make a living here. “There is no work,” Mr. Maihota says, as we stand under the stars and drip sweat onto the forest floor. He doesn’t want to talk about the mine. The previous month, he shipped out 70 coconut crabs for $10 each to his buyers in Tahiti.
In popular hunting spots, hunters say the crabs are smaller or fewer, but hunters rely on the income and nobody has the full picture of how the population is doing overall.
We visit Mr. Maihota’s garden the next morning where the crabs are sequestered in individual boxes to keep them from attacking each other. He’ll feed them coconut and water to purge their systems, since, in the wild, they eat all manner of food, including carrion.
By daylight, their shells are rainbows of purple, white, orange, along with many shades of blue. For now at least — without mining, and while harvests are still sustainable — they seem perfectly adapted to Makatea, holes and all.
Sergei Chernikov, my guide, had a bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder — in case we came across any polar bears, he said, or in case they came across us.
We were standing at the rudimentary dock in Pyramiden, a ghost town on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, in the High Arctic. I’d heard that in 1998 the Russian government had tricked the town’s 1,000 residents into taking a holiday on the mainland, only to close the mine and forbid them from returning. According to the rumor, it had been abandoned ever since, frozen in time at the top of the world. Was it true? I asked.
Sergei shook his head before I’d even finished my question.
Barentsburg, which is still functional, and Pyramiden, long since empty — are Russian settlements.
The presence of Russian settlements stems from the fact that the Svalbard Treaty granted signatories — including Russia — rights to Svalbard’s natural resources. Eventually, Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state-owned coal company, took ownership of both Pyramiden and Barentsburg.
Pyramiden would go on to outlast the Soviet Union, finally shuttering its doors over a series of months in 1998. In truth, the place had been in pretty steep decline for years. Accidents in the mine, financial turmoil in Russia and a 1996 charter plane crash that killed 141 people combined to seal its fate.
At over 78 degrees north, Pyramiden is a place of records and extremes. When the sun disappears below the horizon each fall in late October, it isn’t seen again until mid February of the following year. Conversely, in summer, the sunlight is unyielding for more than three months.
And yet, walking around with Sergei, I couldn’t help but sense that things had moved quickly in the end. Manuals sat open, bottles of vodka were left on windowsills. There were scattered journals, photographs of men with impressive mustaches, a typewriter — even an old basketball, burst at the seams.
Perhaps most poignant were the children’s toys, scattered among what was once a schoolhouse.
In its heyday, Pyramiden provided its 1,000 residents with urban facilities and a high standard of living. The town’s offerings included a school, a library, an ice hockey rink, a sports hall, dance and music studios, a radio station, a cinema that doubled as a theater and a cemetery for cats.
If something exists in Pyramiden, then it is very probably the northernmost example in the world. (The settlement is around 500 miles farther north than Utqiargvik, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States.)
The old cultural center houses what’s likely the northernmost grand piano and gymnasium. Nearby, Sergei and I walked around inside the long-emptied swimming pool — once heated, and the envy of the residents of Longyearbyen, the much larger Norwegian settlement to the south.
On a plinth outside that remarkable building stands an enormous statue of Lenin, his cold head sternly surveying the town, the sole remaining witness to the emptying of Pyramiden.
There’s real beauty here, too: the shimmering fur of a family of arctic foxes living under the hotel; sapphire blues laser-beaming out of the nearby Nordenskiold Glacier; low sun catching cracked windows in the canteen, kaleidoscopic light dancing on the floor; sunrise and sunset washing that extraordinary mountaintop in pinks and golds.
While much of the town now lies dormant, very slowly decaying, the Pyramiden Hotel — likely the northernmost in the world, of course — and the cultural center have been revived in recent years.
These are the only buildings in town that are still regularly used. While shifting permafrost has warped some of the wooden buildings, their sturdy structures stand firm.
It’s in the hotel that a small community of Russians and Ukrainians live and work, welcoming day trippers and adventurous travelers looking to spend the night.
During my visit, Dina Balkarova worked the bar. “Normally I live in Barentsburg,” she said. “But in Russia I don’t work in bars — I’m really an opera singer.” She told me that when she had time to herself, she’d ask one of the armed residents (no one can be without a gun this deep in polar bear country) to accompany her down to old oil drums by the dock. There, she’d test out her voice against the rusting metal.
This was the sort of eccentricity I’d hoped to find when, cruising around Svalbard earlier that summer, I’d first heard about Pyramiden. If anything, though, the place was less strange than I had imagined — the people were warm and proud of the town’s history, as they might be anywhere else in the world.
The few Russians and Ukrainians who have returned in recent years don’t dream of reviving Pyramiden as a functioning town. Instead, they told me, they’re hoping to preserve its heritage, which had so nearly been lost.
The buildings, they say, may be cold and lifeless, but at least they aren’t entirely abandoned.
Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers are preparing to start blasting and digging out a giant pit that will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a new domestic supply of an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy.
The mine, constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the near total reliance by the United States on foreign sources of lithium.
But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.
“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it,” said Max Wilbert, who has been living in a tent on the proposed mine site while two lawsuits seeking to block the project wend their way through federal courts.
Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear. Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.
That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.
Developers and lawmakers see this Nevada project, given final approval in the last days of the Trump administration, as part of the opportunity for the United States to become a leader in producing some of these raw materials as President Biden moves aggressively to fight climate change. In addition to Nevada, businesses have proposed lithium production sites in California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.
But traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there. That reality is not lost on automakers and renewable-energy businesses.
“Our new clean-energy demands could be creating greater harm, even though its intention is to do good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that vets mines for companies like BMW and Ford Motor. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
assembled by Bloomberg, and a hint of the frenzy underway.
Some of those investors are backing alternatives including a plan to extract lithium from briny water beneath California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, about 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas site.
At the Salton Sea, investors plan to use specially coated beads to extract lithium salt from the hot liquid pumped up from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet below the surface. The self-contained systems will be connected to geothermal power plants generating emission-free electricity. And in the process, they hope to generate the revenue needed to restore the lake, which has been fouled by toxic runoff from area farms for decades.
Businesses are also hoping to extract lithium from brine in Arkansas, Nevada, North Dakota and at least one more location in the United States.
The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles. Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be repeatedly recharged. Analysts estimate that lithium demand is going to increase tenfold before the end of this decade as Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors and other automakers introduce dozens of electric models. Other ingredients like cobalt are needed to keep the battery stable.
Even though the United States has some of the world’s largest reserves, the country today has only one large-scale lithium mine, Silver Peak in Nevada, which first opened in the 1960s and is producing just 5,000 tons a year — less than 2 percent of the world’s annual supply. Most of the raw lithium used domestically comes from Latin America or Australia, and most of it is processed and turned into battery cells in China and other Asian countries.
In March, she announced grants to increase production of crucial minerals. “This is a race to the future that America is going to win,” she said.
So far, the Biden administration has not moved to help push more environmentally friendly options — like lithium brine extraction, instead of open pit mines. The Interior Department declined to say whether it would shift its stand on the Lithium Americas permit, which it is defending in court.
Mining companies and related businesses want to accelerate domestic production of lithium and are pressing the administration and key lawmakers to insert a $10 billion grant program into Mr. Biden’s infrastructure bill, arguing that it is a matter of national security.
“Right now, if China decided to cut off the U.S. for a variety of reasons we’re in trouble,” said Ben Steinberg, an Obama administration official turned lobbyist. He was hired in January by Piedmont Lithium, which is working to build an open-pit mine in North Carolina and is one of several companies that have created a trade association for the industry.
Investors are rushing to get permits for new mines and begin production to secure contracts with battery companies and automakers.
Ultimately, federal and state officials will decide which of the two methods — traditional mining or brine extraction — is approved. Both could take hold. Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes and local groups are in blocking projects.
Mr. Bartell’s biggest fear is that the mine will consume the water that keeps his cattle alive. The company has said the mine will consume 3,224 gallons per minute. That could cause the water table to drop on land Mr. Bartell owns by an estimated 12 feet, according to a Lithium Americas consultant.
While producing 66,000 tons a year of battery-grade lithium carbonate, the mine may cause groundwater contamination with metals including antimony and arsenic, according to federal documents.
The lithium will be extracted by mixing clay dug out from the mountainside with as much as 5,800 tons a day of sulfuric acid. This whole process will also create 354 million cubic yards of mining waste that will be loaded with discharge from the sulfuric acid treatment, and may contain modestly radioactive uranium, permit documents disclose.
A Decemberassessment by the Interior Department found that over its 41-year life, the mine would degrade nearly 5,000 acres of winter range used by pronghorn antelope and hurt the habitat of the sage grouse. It would probably also destroy a nesting area for a pair of golden eagles whose feathers are vital to the local tribe’s religious ceremonies.
a lawsuit to try to block the mine.
At the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, anger over the project has boiled over, even causing some fights between members as Lithium Americas has offered to hire tribal members in jobs that will pay an average annual wage of $62,675 — twice the county’s per capita income — but that will come with a big trade-off.
“Tell me, what water am I going to drink for 300 years?” Deland Hinkey, a member of the tribe, yelled as a federal official arrived at the reservation in March to brief tribal leaders on the mining plan. “Anybody, answer my question. After you contaminate my water, what I am going to drink for 300 years? You are lying!”
The reservation is nearly 50 miles from the mine site — and far beyond the area where groundwater may be contaminated — but tribe members fear the pollution could spread.
hiring a lobbying team that includes a former Trump White House aide, Jonathan Slemrod.
Lithium Americas, which estimates there is $3.9 billion worth of recoverable lithium at the site, hopes to start mining operations next year. Its largest shareholder is the Chinesecompany Ganfeng Lithium.
A Second Act
CalEnergy, and another business, Energy Source, have tapped the Buttes’ geothermal heat to produce electricity. The systems use naturally occurring underground steam. This same water is loaded with lithium.
Now, Berkshire Hathaway and two other companies — Controlled Thermal Resources and Materials Research — want to install equipment that will extract lithium after the water passes through the geothermal plants, in a process that will take only about two hours.
Rod Colwell, a burly Australian, has spent much of the last decade pitching investors and lawmakers on putting the brine to use. In February, a backhoe plowed dirt on a 7,000-acre site being developed by his company, Controlled Thermal Resources.
“This is the sweet spot,” Mr. Colwell said. “This is the most sustainable lithium in the world, made in America. Who would have thought it? We’ve got this massive opportunity.”
unemployment rate of nearly 16 percent.
“Our region is very rich in natural resources and mineral resources,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, which represents area farm workers. “However, they’re very poorly distributed. The population has not been afforded a seat at the table.”
The state has given millions in grants to lithium extraction companies, and the Legislature is considering requiring carmakers by 2035 to use California sources for some of the lithium in vehicles they sell in the state, the country’s largest electric-car market.
But even these projects have raised some questions.
Geothermal plants produce energy without emissions, but they can require tens of billions of gallons of water annually for cooling. And lithium extraction from brine dredges up minerals like iron and salt that need to be removed before the brine is injected back into the ground.
Similar extraction efforts at the Salton Sea have previously failed. In 2000, CalEnergy proposed spending $200 million to extract zinc and to help restore the Salton Sea. The company gave up on the effort in 2004.
opened demonstration projects using the brine extraction technology, with Standard Lithium tapping into a brine source already being extracted from the ground by an Arkansas chemical plant, meaning it did not need to take additional water from the ground.
“This green aspect is incredibly important,” said Robert Mintak, chief executive of Standard Lithium, who hopes the company will produce 21,000 tons a year of lithium in Arkansas within five years if it can raise $440 million in financing. “The Fred Flintstone approach is not the solution to the lithium challenge.”
Lilac Solutions, whose clients include Controlled Thermal Resources, is also working on direct lithium extraction in Nevada, North Dakota and at least one other U.S. location that it would not disclose. The company predicts that within five years, these projects could produce about 100,000 tons of lithium annually, or 20 times current domestic production.
Executives from companies like Lithium Americans question if these more innovative approaches can deliver all the lithium the world needs.
But automakers are keen to pursue approaches that have a much smaller impact on the environment.
“Indigenous tribes being pushed out or their water being poisoned or any of those types of issues, we just don’t want to be party to that,” said Sue Slaughter, Ford’s purchasing director for supply chain sustainability. “We really want to force the industries that we’re buying materials from to make sure that they’re doing it in a responsible way. As an industry, we are going to bebuying so much of these materials that we do have significant power to leverage that situation very strongly. And we intend to do that.”
The pandemic abruptly slowed the global march of coal. But demand for the world’s dirtiest fuel is forecast to soar this year, gravely undermining the chances of staving off the worst effects of global warming.
Burning coal is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and, after a pandemic-year retreat, demand for coal is set to rise by 4.5 percent this year, mainly to meet soaring electricity demand, according to data published Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, just two days before a White House-hosted virtual summit aimed at rallying global climate action.
“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” Fatih Birol, the head of the agency, said in a statement.
dropped to its lowest level in a decade in 2019. And, over the last 20 years, more coal-fired power plants have been retired or shelved than commissioned. The big holdouts are China, India and parts of Southeast Asia, but, even there, coal’s once-swift growth is nowhere as swift as it was just a few years ago, according to a recent analysis.
In some countries where new coal-fired power plants were only recently being built by the gigawatts, plans for new ones have been shelved, as in South Africa, or reconsidered, as in Bangladesh, or facing funding troubles, as in Vietnam. In some countries, like India, existing coal plants are running way below capacity and losing money. In others, like the United States, they are being decommissioned faster than ever.
where coal use is growing, the pace of growth is slowing.
In South Africa, after years of lawsuits, plans to build a coal-fired power station in Limpopo Province were canceled last November.
In Kenya, a proposed coal plant has languished for years because of litigation. In Egypt, a planned coal plant is indefinitely postponed. In Bangladesh, Chinese-backed projects are among 15 planned coal plants that the government in Dhaka is reviewing, with an eye to canceling them altogether.
Pakistan, saddled by debts, announced a vague moratorium on new coal projects. Vietnam, which is still expanding its coal fleet, scaled back plans for new plants. The Philippines, under pressure from citizens’ groups, hit the pause button on new projects.
“Broadly speaking, there’s growing opposition against coal and a lot more scrutiny right now,” said Daine Loh, a Southeast Asia power sector energy specialist at Fitch Solutions, an industry analysis firm. “It’s a trend — moving away from coal. It’s very gradual.”
Money is part of the problem. Development banks are shying away from coal. Japan and Korea, two major financiers of coal, have tightened restrictions on new coal projects. Japan is still building coal plants at home, rare among industrialized countries, though Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in October that his country would aspire to draw down its emissions to net-zero by 2050.
Australia continue to mine their abundant coal deposits. Perhaps most oddly, Britain, which is hosting the next international climate talks, is opening a new coal mine.
And then there are the world’s biggest coal consumers, China and India.
China’s economy rebounded in 2020. Government stimulus measures encouraged the production of steel, cement and other industrial products that eat up energy. Coal demand rose. The capacity of China’s fleet of coal-fired power plants grew by a whopping 38 gigawatts in 2020, making up the vast majority of new coal projects worldwide and offsetting nearly the same amount of coal capacity that was retired worldwide. (One gigawatt is enough to power a medium-sized city.)
Coal’s future in China is at the center of a robust debate in the country, with prominent policy advisers pressing for a near-moratorium on new coal plants and state-owned companies insisting that China needs to burn more coal for years to come.
to remain open, and it is seeking private investors to mine coal. If India’s economy recovers this year, its coal demand is set to rise by 9 percent, according to the I.E.A.
But even India’s coal fleet isn’t growing as fast as it was just a few years ago. On paper, India plans to add some 60 gigawatts of coal power capacity by 2026, but given how many existing plants are operating at barely half capacity, it’s unclear how many new ones will ultimately be built. A handful of state politicians have publicly opposed new coal-fired power plants in their states.
How much more coal India needs to burn, said Ritu Mathur, an economist at The Energy & Resources Institute in New Delhi, depends on how fast its electricity demand grows — and it could grow very fast if India pushes electric vehicles. “To say we can do away with coal, or that renewables can meet all our demand,” Dr. Mathur said, “is not the story.”
nearly one-fourth of all energy worldwide.
Its proponents argue that gas, which is less polluting than coal, should be promoted in energy-hungry countries that cannot afford a rapid scale-up of renewable energy. Its critics say multibillion dollar investments in gas projects risk becoming stranded assets, like coal-fired power plants already are in some countries; they add that methane emissions from the combustion of gas are incompatible with the Paris Agreement goal of slowing down climate change.
in Vietnam. Gas demand is growing sharply in Bangladesh, as the government looks to shift away from coal to meet its galloping energy needs. Ghana this year became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to import liquefied natural gas. And the U.S. Agency for International Development has been promoting gas as a way to electrify homes and businesses across Africa.
And there’s the rub for the Biden administration: While it has set out to be a global climate leader, it has not yet explained its policy on advancing gas exports — particularly on the use of public funds to build gas infrastructure abroad.
“There’s fairly strong consensus around coal. The big question is around gas,” said Manish Bapna, acting president of the World Resources Institute. “The broader climate community is starting to think about what a gas transition looks like.”
Julfikar Ali Manik and Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting.
Greenland’s left-wing environmentalist party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, won a victory in national elections on Tuesday after campaigning against the development of a contentious rare earths mine partly backed by China.
The party, which had been in the opposition, won 37 percent of the vote over the longtime incumbents, the center-left Siumut party. The environmentalists will need to negotiate a coalition to form a government, but observers said their election win in Greenland, a semiautonomous territory of Denmark that sits on a rich vein of untapped uranium and rare earth minerals, signaled concerns from voters over the impact of mining.
“The people have spoken,” Múte B. Egede, the leader of Inuit Ataqatigiit, told the Danish broadcaster DR, adding that voters had made their position clear and that the mining project in Kvanefjeld in the country’s south would be halted.
Greenland Minerals, an Australian company behind the project, has said the mine has the “potential to become the most significant Western world producer of rare earths,” adding that it would create uranium as a byproduct. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the vote.
rare earths, a crucial part of the high-tech global supply chain and used in the manufacture of everything from cellphones to rechargeable batteries, is currently dominated by China. Shenghe Resources, a Chinese rare earth company, owns 11 percent of Greenland Minerals.
Opposition to the Greenland mine, which the incumbent Siumut party had supported, played a primary role in its defeat, its leader, Erik Jensen, conceded in an interview with the Danish station TV2.
The mining project has been in development for years, with the government approving drilling for research, but not issuing final approval for the mine.
Among Greenlanders, opposition to the mine had grown over potential exposure of a unique, fragile area to “radioactive pollution and toxic waste,” said Dwayne Menezes, director of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, a London-based think tank. “What they’re opposed to is dirty mining.”
The election result sent a clear message, Mr. Menezes added: Mining companies that want access to Greenland’s deposits will have to abide by stringent environmental standards and should look to give Greenlanders a “viable alternative.”
its polar seas become more navigable and as the melting ice unveils newly accessible resources, including the rare earths that play an essential part in the production of many alternative energy sources.
“On a global level, we are going to need to address head on this tension between Indigenous communities and the materials we are going to most need for a climate-stressed planet,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a nonprofit.
Given China’s dominance over the global rare earth production and supply, Mr. Menezes said that Western countries should be looking for ways to enhance their partnerships with resource-rich Greenland to keep it in “their sphere of influence.”
Two years ago, Greenland’s lucrative resources and its increasing strategic importance led President Donald J. Trump to muse about purchasing the island. Greenland’s government, however, made clear that it was not for sale.
“We’re open for business, not for sale,” the island’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on Twitter at the time.
METOVNICA, Serbia — The well in the retired couple’s yard, their only source of clean water, began to dry up two years ago. Last year, dead fish started washing up on the banks of the river that runs by their home in a bucolic village in southeastern Serbia.
But most disturbing of all for Verica Zivkovic and her husband, Miroslav, are the ever-widening cracks in the walls of the house they built after moving to the countryside more than a decade ago to raise goats.
“We came here for the peace and quiet,” said Ms. Zivkovic, 62, but that all changed when a Chinese company arrived.
In 2018, the company, the Zijin Mining Group, took control of a money-losing copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor and began blasting away in the nearby hills in search of copper and gold.
pro-democracy group Freedom House downgraded Serbia in 2019 from “free” to “partly free,” citing a tightening grip on politics, civil liberties and the media.
In January, 26 members of the European Parliament demanded a review of the “growing impact of China’s economic footprint in Serbia,” including “reckless projects with potentially devastating multiple impacts on the wider environment as well as surrounding population.”
The roots of Serbia’s tilt toward China date to 1999, during the Kosovo war, when U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. On that site now stands a huge Chinese cultural center. A marble memorial stone outside bears inscriptions in Serbian and Chinese hail China’s “martyrs.”
But memories of shared suffering at American hands have faded in places like Bor, site of the Chinese-owned smelter.
Pollution from the Bor plant skyrocketed to many times the legally permitted level in 2019 and 2020, setting off a series of street protests and prompting Zijin Mining’s general manager in Serbia to tell his managers last October that he was “very dissatisfied” with the “frightening” level of pollution, according to leaked minutes of the meeting.
He blamed the bad publicity, which he said had damaged “the government of the People’s Republic of China,” on “people who are in favor of the West and receive support” who “have stood in opposition to our work.”
Bor’s mayor, Aleksandar Milikic, a Vucic loyalist, initially dismissed the protests as the work of political agitators.
But, apparently worried about losing votes, he announced last year that he would file a court case against Zijin for negligence. It is not clear whether he actually did so. The mayor declined to be interviewed. Zijin Mining did not respond to requests for comment.
Milenko Jovanovic, an air pollution expert, said he was fired in November from Serbia’s Environmental Protection Agency after raising concerns about dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air around Bor.
The government, he said, rejected anything that might upset China and its investors. “It lets them do whatever they want to do,” he said.
A court in Belgrade ruled this month that Mr. Jovanovic had been unfairly dismissed and ordered that he be given his job back.
Activists concede that air pollution levels in Bor have fallen since protests, but say that the main danger has now shifted to towns and villages to the south, where hundreds of Chinese workers brought in by Zijin are developing one of the world’s biggest unexploited copper deposits, and digging for gold.
The earth around the new mine trembles from blasting work and the heavy trucks, driven by Chinese workers, that rumble along roads adorned with China’s red national flag. Rivers and streams are discolored by effluent.
The government has added to public anger by issuing expropriation orders so that Zijin can build access roads and expand its mine. Dragan Viacic, a farmer, said he had received a letter from Serbia’s finance ministry informing him that he must sell 13 acres of his land at a fraction of the market price.
“They said this was necessary in the public interest but in reality this is just the interest of the Chinese,” he said.
In Metovnica, a village near the mine, Mr. Zivkovic and his wife used to have 25 goats but, with no clean water on hand after their well dried up, they now keep just one.
“Why don’t we have any water anymore? Why are there no fish in the river?” The answer, he said, is Zijin Mining Group.
Pointing to fissures radiating across the wall of his house that appeared last year after Chinese miners started using explosives, Mr. Zivkovic said: “It was a tiny crack at first but then it spread.”
Confident that it has the support of Mr. Vucic and his officials, the mining company and other Chinese ventures in Serbia have mostly ignored complaints and shrouded their operations in secrecy.
Sasa Stankovic, an environmental activist and elected member of the Bor regional council, said he had tried unsuccessfully to contact Zijin to discuss pollution levels. The copper smelter in Bor, he said, had been hazardous to health for decades, but the dangers jumped sharply after Zijin arrived and ramped up production.
Bor now accounts for a stunning 80 percent of Serbian exports to China, repeating a pattern widely seen in Africa of Chinese firms extracting natural resources for shipment back to China.
At Slatina, a village down the road, Miodrag Zivkovic, a local farmer stood on a rickety bridge over the Bor River, its waters thick with sludge and garbage, and said: “We didn’t go to the Chinese mine but the mine came to us.”
All the same, he said, given the few jobs available in the region, his son would still like to get work at the smelter, which pays relatively well. “Everyone here needs a salary and is ready to risk everything,” he lamented.
Cao Li contributed reporting from Hong Kong and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration moved on Monday to reimpose financial sanctions on an Israeli mining executive who had turned to a team of lobbyists to have the measures eased during President Donald J. Trump’s final days in office.
The reversal came after a chorus of complaints from human rights advocates, members of Congress and activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the businessman, Dan Gertler, secured access to mining rights for decades through what the Treasury Department during the Trump administration called a series of corrupt deals that had shortchanged Congo of more than $1.3 billion in revenue from the sale of minerals.
In mid-January, shortly before Mr. Trump left office, Mr. Gertler secretly secured a one-year Treasury Department license that unfroze money he had deposited in financial institutions in the United States. The license also effectively ended a prohibition on Mr. Gertler doing business through the international banking system. The Trump administration had imposed those sanctions in 2017.
The Biden administration is now moving to reimpose those conditions, although Mr. Gertler is likely to have already moved at least some of the previously frozen money out of the United States.
Alan M. Dershowitz, a lawyer and lobbyist who helped represent Mr. Gertler in the push for the rollback of the sanctions, said he was disappointed with the Biden administration’s action.
“This decision was done unilaterally without an opportunity for Mr. Gertler to present evidence that he has been complying with all the requirements and conducting himself properly,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “We are now in the process of considering all of our options.”
Mr. Gertler has been doing business in Congo for more than two decades, securing a series of contracts to export diamonds, gold, oil, cobalt and other minerals. The Treasury Department said in 2018 that he had “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining.”
more than a dozen that had called on the Biden administration to revoke the license. “Dan Gertler’s corrupt partnership with former President Joseph Kabila cost the D.R.C. dearly in terms of lost resources, lost services and, ultimately, lost lives.”
In 2019, Mr. Gertler hired Mr. Dershowitz, who has served as a lawyer to Mr. Trump, as well as Louis Freeh, a former F.B.I. director, to work as a lobbyist to try to push Treasury to revoke the sanctions.
Mr. Gertler was issued the license after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin directed the acting head of the agency’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to take the step, even though several Trump-era State Department officials in charge of United States relations with Africa told The New York Times that they had been unaware that such a move was about to be taken and that they opposed it.
After the issuance of the license became public, associates of Mr. Gertler said that part of the reason he had been granted special treatment was that he had played some undisclosed role in helping U.S. national security interests. Treasury officials and representatives for Mr. Gertler would not describe the specific nature of the assistance.
The same office at Treasury that had granted the license for Mr. Gertler in January revoked it on Monday, yet another sign of how unusual this series of events has been.
Activists in Congo who have been working for years to try to ensure that the wealth produced by mining minerals in the nation — which is one of the poorest in the world, even though it has some of the world’s most important mineral reserves — said they hoped the action would mean continued progress to combat corrupt deals that shortchanged people there.
“This will give the government here a reason to push a little bit harder on holding Dan Gertler and his associates accountable,” said Fred Bauma, a member of The Struggle for Change, a human rights group in Congo. “It is a good message from the new administration in the United States.”
Democrats in Congress who had called for Treasury to reverse the action also praised the move.
“If well-connected international billionaires like Gertler think there is a chance they can get away with their corrupt actions, then they will not be deterred from doing them,” Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.