— The sun rose today, but it could've just stayed down. It's been raining for days, it's probably never going to stop. The Yeltes is flowing wild. I can hear the trees pleading it to stop. I fear it's going to take the spa with it. Wish it'd take that mine with it, and all those Australians, too.
Ha, that'd be something: "hey, mister big shot, that mine of yours? The river took it. That's what you get for getting nosey and messing with nature."
The Yeltes is a small river in Salamanca, Western Spain. It joins the Huebra and leads into the Duero in its way to Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. Along its riverbank sits Retortillo, a small town of 200 inhabitants 70km from Salamanca and at barely 1h car ride from Portugal. The town is located in the "Campo Charro", a vast extension of fertile land largely protected by environmental laws. Locals pride on the centuries-old chestnut trees and holm oaks that populate the land.
Neighbours tell stories about the river, how its waters have been used for healing purposes since the late Roman Empire. Retortillo hosts nowadays one of the largest spa resorts in the region, strengthening an economy that is mainly based on agriculture and cattle.
Since 2017, the town has been at the centre of a large-scale uranium mining project.
"Spain is the country in Europe with the most uranium resources, and currently the only one with uranium in conditions that allow for its exploitation. In Retortillo, we have detected great amounts of uranium in addition to the reserves we were already aware of. This project will allow us to mine for about 10 years."
In August 2017, Berkeley Energia, a large energy conglomerate, announced a 120 million USD deal with the State General Reserve Fund (SGRF) - the sovereign wealth fund of Oman - to begin exploring the uranium reserves in Retortillo. In 2019, Berkeley announced the discovery of additional tungsten, cobalt, lithium and cobalt reserves.
To realise is vision, Berkeley bought and sealed-off large portions of land and conducted large-scale felling to clear the way for the mines.
"It's an ambitious project that will greatly strengthen industrial activity in the area. Which is great, because this region suffered a great deal the economic crisis."
— Families are divided. Parents want to work the mines; children want to defend our land. They don't speak to each other anymore.
Claims of corruption loom over the project. Neighbours denounce local government employees are being paid-off to secure licenses and fend-off protesters, while several community platforms have been set up to actively oppose the project. One of them, "Stop Uranium", was built by Raquel, a shop-owner concerned about the consequences of the mining project for the local population. Raquel's shop is tended to by her mother, and sits just next to the spa. Both are now threatened by the mining project, which risks polluting the river and forcing the closure of the spa.
— Who gives them the right, anyway? Sixty-nine years I've been in this town and look at what they want to do to us. Poison us. Farmers have been working this land for centuries. I've seen the spa grow and the river heal countless people. To hell if I'm going to just sit here and watch that businessman with his shirt and his briefcase and his silly hair take it all away from me.
"Our relationship with the locals is excellent. Do you think they would have sold us their land otherwise?"
Berkeley has purchased 77 plots of land from local residents, accounting for over 650 hectares. It has also initiated a process to expropriate six plots from owners who refuse to sell them.
The local population are at a crossroads. While some point at the job- and wealth-generation potential of the project, others highlight the environmental impact and the limited economic gains for the region. Meanwhile, confrontation between those who want the mine and those who do not want it is growing.
— You spend sixty years working the land, breaking your back, raising your children. And then, uranium guys knocks on your door, offering you thousands for your plots. You either go, or you stay and suffer the consequences.