With up to 23,000 employees, Trepča was once one of the biggest companies in socialist Yugoslavia. In the 1930s, a British company gained the rights to exploit the Stari Trg mine close to Mitrovica. After World War II, under socialist management, the company expanded dramatically.
The enterprise known as Trepča was a conglomerate of 40 mines and factories, located mostly in Kosovo but also in other locations in Serbia and Montenegro. But the heart of its operations, and the source of most of its raw material, is the vast mining complex to the east of Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo, famous since Roman times.
However, with the closure of several mines and factories in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Trepça mining complex in Kosovo now comprises only seven lead and zinc mines, three concentrators, one smelter, and one zinc plant. Mines are categorized according to their geographic location:
- Northern Chain: Belo Brdo, Crnac and Zuta Prlina
- Middle Chain: Stari Trg/Stantrg
- Southern Chain: Ajvalija/Hajvali, Novo Brdo/Novobrde and Kisnica.
The mines still have a reserve of 60.5 million tonnes of ore grading 4.96% lead, 3.3% zinc and 74.4 gr/tonne silver, thus resulting three million tonnes of lead, two million tonnes of zinc and 4,500 tonnes of silver.
The early Middle Ages
Following Roman times the region was colonized, influenced, or dominated politically by ever-changing populations. Romans, after having occupied Illyrian's territories were amazed with their workmanship skills on extracting and refining different minerals from gold, silver, lead, iron, and copper. Having considered this expertise that was mostly rare at this period of time, the Roman emperor Trajan decided to move one of the Illyrian tribes in Transylvania's mines in order for Illyrians to work there and at the same time teach the other workers the art of mining. Many constructions back in the Roman Empire were constructed including fortresses, wells, drosses, etc. The main fortress was built for the Roman city Municipium Dardanorum which was the capital city of a Roman province in Dardani. With the dispersion of the Roman Empire, and the invasion of slave tribes which irrupted in Kosovo's and Albania's territories the mining activity decreased leading to closure until the late medieval (1000–1492). The long history of the successive influxes of the Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian and Turkish people helps explain the cultural mixing and the legacies of old grievances which underlie the chaos of the 1990s.
The Middle Ages
The first proven extraction phase dates back to medieval times, with intense activity starting from 1303. This activity answered the needs of the successive lords and their suzerain, for it financed military activities, such as the construction of fortresses all along the Ibar valley for protection against the Ottoman threats. On 15 June 1389, a dozen kilometers South from Trepča, the famous Battle of Blackbird's Field occurred, but production in the mine continued normally as some kind of protectorate had been settled first, and the seignory to which the mine belonged to (Shala e Bajgorës) kept some independence. In the mines, the Turkish supervisors disregarded the representatives of the Serbian owners and endeavored to prevent silver exports. The extraction was first disrupted because of the anarchic management and the escape of qualified laborers, but from 1455 it was taken by the Turkish administration again. They improved the Serbian mining code and actively exploited Trepča and the other mines in order to provide for their currency and weapon factories, until 1685. That year is the start of a fast decline of all the Balkan mines, quickly paralyzing the gold, silver and lead mines of Novo Brdo as well.
In 1925 a big exploration program was carried out by the British company, Selection Trust, which assessed the huge potential of the ore deposit and launched in 1927 the Trepča Mines Limited subsidiary in London. In 1930 the Stan Trg mine was opened in the same place as the ancient medieval pit. The name Stan Trg is a misprint by the British administration of the mine, derived from the toponym Stari Trg which in Serbian means old place, or old market. Amazingly, the obvious misprint was not corrected in any later document nor mine plan.
During the German occupation of Yugoslavia in World War II, Stari Trg, the centerpiece mine supplied 40 percent of lead used in the Nazi war industry.
This complex progressively collapsed during the last fifteen years, for reasons such as outdated installations; neglect and lack of maintenance, repair, and reinvestment; absence of control over production; robbery of equipment and workshops, etc. Privatization attempts remained without great follow-up. The downgrade increased from 1990 with the reduction of Kosovo's autonomy by Belgrade, the increasing ethno-political tension and the resignation of most Albanian workers.
The arrival of KFOR in June 1999 led to an outburst of the mining complex. The northern mines remained exploited by the Serbs, while the southern mines were in Kosovo workers' hands again but unable to restart production yet. In the center, KFOR had first promoted the resumption of Trepča and Mitrovica production, but a French-Danish environmental appraisal of the sites revealed an accumulation of polluting substances around the smelters, so the civil administrator Bernard Kouchner ordered the operations be stopped immediately by August 2000.
On 18 September 1999, the mineralogical museum of the mine, where guarded treasures had been accumulated since 1966, was plundered by thieves benefiting from the confusion. It was reported that the most invaluable vivianite specimen of the museum, more than 1,500 of the crystals collected inside the mine since 1927, and 150 specimens which had been given by 30 countries from all over the world had disappeared.
The 1989 miners' strike
The 1989 Kosovo miners' strike was a hunger strike initiated by some workers of the Trepča Mines on 20 February 1989 against the abolition of the autonomy of the Province of Kosovo by the Socialist Republic of Serbia. The strike quickly gained support in Slovenia and Croatia, while in Belgrade protests were held against the Slovenian, Albanian and Croatian leaderships. The strike council articulated ten requirements, which included obeying the 1974 constitution, stopping the chauvinist and hegemonistic politics of the time, having no single leader that would be held responsible, etc. The strike lasted eight days, being known as the longest underground strike to have been held. It eventually ended after the hospitalization of 180 miners and the resignation of the heads of the pro-Milošević leaders Rahman Morina, Ali Shukriu and Husamedin Azemi.
Kosovo has not yet fully recovered from its 1998–99 war and has failed since declaring independence in 2008 to build a stable economy. The Trepča mine complex hasn't recovered from its lost production during the war. Trepča once accounted for 70 percent of Kosovo's gross domestic product, but since the war ended in 1999, the partition of Mitrovica between Serbs and ethnic Albanians keeps most of Trepča's facilities closed. According to various statistics, the complex can not be reopened without at least $650 million of foreign investment to repair and update the smelters and refineries. 
The Trepča mining complex is derelict in a failing state that has immense potential, but has so far been ignored by serious investors due to a myriad of reasons. The mine effectively went out of production as a result of the 1999 civil war and has been rumored to be part of the reason for the conflict in the first place. Its economy is in dire straits and there are few options to improve it. Trepça, despite its problems, provides one of the few significant development opportunities. The facility needs major upgrades, especially if Serbian membership in the EU is on the horizon, but the mineral reserves are great enough to offset the start-up costs. Most importantly, a reactivated Trepča would provide several thousand jobs and increase Serbia’s foreign exchange. It is estimated that the necessary improvements would cost between 15 and 30 million US dollars. This would be justifiable if full scale mining where to return as a 2001 UNMIK report said that “29,000,000 tonnes of mine-run ore at grades varying from 3.40 to 3.45% Pb, 2.23 to 2.36% Zn and 74 to 81 grams/tonne Ag, i.e., around 999,000 tonnes Pb, 670,000 tonnes Zn and 2,200 tonnes Ag” are available. To make use of Trepča foreign investment is required. Since financial means to upgrade the mines’ facilities themselves are absent and there is not enough foreign aid still reaching Kosovo to make a difference the complex still will not be used at its highest level. The concern that letting in foreign investors will give away their promising source of natural resources since the complex is considered a treasure for the nation needs to be appeased in order for its privatization to happen sooner. In the following years, certain legislation like a new mining law and regulations for investment incentives, will support privatization efforts if approved in order for the complex to work and be used at its highest level.
According to the Minerals and Mining Committee, Trepča has 14700 million tons of lignite reserves used for energy production in Kosovo, making Kosovo the fifth country in the world for lignite reserves. More than sixty minerals are listed up to date, most of which from a museological viewpoint are of exceptional quality.
- Native gold
The amount of ore mining in Kosovo is continuously in decline, as represented here:
|Stari Trg||Kisnica & Novo Brdo||Northern Chain||Ore||Lead (%)||Zinc (%)|
|a.||^ Kosovo is the subject of a territorial dispute between the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Kosovo. The latter declared independence on 17 February 2008, but Serbia continues to claim it as part of its own sovereign territory. Kosovo's independence has been recognised by 107 out of 193 United Nations member states.|
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