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Toxic rare earth mines fuel deforestation, rights abuses in Myanmar, report says

  • Highly toxic rare earth mining has rapidly expanded in northern Myanmar, fueling human rights abuses, deforestation and environmental contamination, an investigation by the NGO Global Witness has found.
  • People living near mining sites have seen surrounding land polluted and waterways contaminated by the chemicals used to extract the rare earth minerals that are used in smartphones, home electronics and clean energy technology, such as electric cars and wind turbines.
  • The investigation found that China has outsourced much of its rare earth mining industry to Myanmar’s Kachin state, where more than 2,700 heavy rare earth mines have proliferated over an area the size of Singapore since 2016.
  • There is a risk of minerals mined illegally in Myanmar making their way into products manufactured by several global brands, the investigation says.

The dramatic expansion of rare earth mining in northern Myanmar in recent years is fueling human rights abuses, destroying forests, and bankrolling groups linked to the military regime that ousted the civilian government in February 2021, according to a new report from the NGO Global Witness.

The report, based on a six-month-long investigation of satellite imagery and local community interviews, shows that the number of rare earth mines in Myanmar’s Kachin state proliferated from a handful in 2016 to more than 2,700 mining collection pools spread across almost 300 separate locations by March 2022. The area of forested hills impacted by intensive mining encompasses an area the size of Singapore.

According to the report, Myanmar has supplanted China as the world’s largest source of rare earth heavy metals, a group of elements commonly used in smartphones, home electronics and clean energy technology, such as electric cars and wind turbines. Due to the global ubiquity of products in which rare earth minerals are used, there’s a risk of minerals mined illegally in Myanmar making their way into household brand products, the investigation says.

A lump of a rare earth element called europium. Image by Alchemist-hp via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Risks displaced across the border

While rare earth mining doesn’t involve the same razing of mountains as other types of extraction, such as mining for precious stones, its byproducts are highly toxic. The extraction process involves injecting potent chemicals such as ammonium sulfate into mountainsides, then precipitating the minerals out in bright blue collection pools.

Due to the toxicity of the industry and related human health problems, China has curbed rare earth mining within its borders over the past six years. But with a thriving rare earth processing industry to sustain, China has essentially outsourced its mining activity across the border to a remote corner of Kachin state in northern Myanmar, according to the report.

“Our investigation reveals that China has effectively offshored this toxic industry to Myanmar over the past few years, with terrible consequences for local communities and the environment,” Mike Davis, CEO of Global Witness, said in a statement.

The mining areas in Kachin state are poorly regulated, undocumented, and “illegal under Myanmar’s laws,” says the report. Moreover, many mining areas are run by militias affiliated with the country’s military junta, which raises the risk of industry revenues providing income for the junta’s activities.

“Since the 2021 coup, the regime has relied on natural resources to sustain its illegal power grab and with demand for rare earths booming, the military will no doubt be spotting an opportunity to fill its coffers and fund its abuses,” Davis said. Rare earth mining in Kachin state reportedly ramped up significantly during the immediate aftermath of the February 2021 military coup as unscrupulous companies took advantage of the ensuing breakdown of the rule of law.

The Global Witness investigation also traced illegally mined minerals from Myanmar into global supply chains. The minerals are partially processed near mining sites in Myanmar, then trucked across the border to Yunnan province in China and further processed in state-owned facilities that account for 80% of global rare earth refining.

According to the report, the refined minerals are then passed down the supply chain to manufacturers who supply permanent magnets to some of the world’s best-known makers of electronic goods and clean energy products, including General Motors, Mitsubishi Electric, Siemens, Tesla and Volkswagen.

Davis said the risk of illegal minerals from Myanmar finding their way into global supply chains demonstrates the need for governments to broaden sanctions against the military junta to include rare earth minerals.

A rare earth mine in China, chemicals such as ammonium sulfate are used to extract the metals, producing hazardous by-products that leach into the environment. Image by Kevnmh via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Harm to health and environment

People living close to the rare earth mines in Kachin state told Global Witness that the ecosystems and resources on which they depend have been impacted. Hazardous mining waste reportedly flows directly into tributaries of the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s major waterway, severely limiting many communities’ access to safe drinking water.

The investigation also found that human health issues once reported in proximity to mining sites in China, such as osteoporosis, respiratory diseases, and gastrointestinal, skin and eye problems, are now surfacing among communities living near mines in Myanmar.

Notwithstanding the impacts on local communities, there is little they can do to counter the industry. The militias that control the industry are “fostering a violent and repressive environment,” the report says. For instance, testimonies of intimidation gathered during the investigation included a reported incident of militia personnel threatening to shoot village representatives should they refuse to give up their land for mining.

“No-one wants to give up their ancestors’ lands, but if they [resist] they can be killed,” a Kachin civil society group member told Global Witness.

“Brave local people are risking their lives to speak out against these destructive mines and defend their land, livelihoods and sources of water, despite the threats they face from the local militias,” Davis said.

Rare earth minerals are crucial components of permanent magnets, used widely in clean energy technologies, such as this wind turbine rotor. Image by Eileen at OE via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Prioritize rights amid escalating demand

While rare earth mining is an incredibly toxic industry, it is unlikely to fade away any time soon. Demand for rare earth minerals used in magnets — a vital component of many clean energy technologies — is set to triple by 2035, according to a recent study. And the U.S. Department of Energy has identified rare earth minerals as among the world’s most critical materials, warning that bottlenecks in the rare earth supply chain could harm the clean energy industry.

To safeguard Myanmar’s people and the environment from the industry’s impacts and abuses, Global Witness recommend urgent action from mining companies operating in the country to cease activity and ensure rare earths mined in Myanmar do not enter global supply chains. The report also calls on international governments to impose import restrictions for rare earth elements sourced in Myanmar and to introduce standards that stipulate the need for clear evidence that products are not linked to human rights abuses, illegality or corruption.

Lastly, the report calls on governments to introduce stronger policies, investment incentives and recycling targets that will help to reduce the impacts of rare earth mining and extraction, and that will facilitate a shift away from the use of rare earth minerals in future products.

“As the climate crisis accelerates and demand for these low-carbon technologies skyrocket, [the investigation’s] findings must be a wake-up call that the green energy transition cannot come at the cost of communities in resource-rich countries,” Davis said. Energy solutions “must instead be equitable and sustainable, prioritising the rights of those who are most impacted.”

Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11

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