Toxic rare earth mines are fueling deforestation and rights abuses, report says

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

The reportbased on a six-month survey of satellite imagery and interviews with the local community, shows the number of rare earth mines in Myanmar’s Kachin State has grown from a handful in 2016 to more than 2,700 pits mining collection sites spread over almost 300 separate sites by March 2022. The forested hilly area affected by intensive mining encompasses an area the size of Singapore.

  • Mining of highly toxic rare earths has grown rapidly in northern Myanmar, fueling human rights abuses, deforestation and environmental contamination, an investigation by NGO Global Witness has found. .
  • People living near mine sites have seen surrounding land polluted and waterways contaminated by chemicals used to extract rare earth minerals that are used in smartphones, home electronics and energy technologies clean, such as electric cars and wind turbines.
  • The investigation found that China has outsourced much of its rare earth mining industry to Kachin State in Myanmar, where more than 2,700 heavy rare earth mines have proliferated over an area the size of Singapore since 2016.
  • According to the investigation, there is a risk of minerals mined illegally in Myanmar ending up in products made by several global brands.

According to the report, Myanmar has overtaken 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 technologies, such as electric cars and wind turbines. Due to the global ubiquity of products in which rare earth minerals are used, there is a risk that minerals illegally mined in Myanmar could end up in domestic branded products, according to the survey.

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

Risks moved across the border

Although rare earth mining does not involve the same mountain shaving as other types of mining, such as gemstone mining, its byproducts are highly toxic. The mining process involves injecting powerful chemicals such as ammonium sulfate into the mountainsides, then precipitating the minerals into bright blue collection pools.

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

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

Mining areas in Kachin state are poorly regulated, undocumented and “illegal under the laws of Myanmar”, the report said. Additionally, many mining areas are run by militias affiliated with the country’s military junta, increasing the risk that revenues from the industry provide revenue for junta activities.

“Since the 2021 coup, the regime has relied on natural resources to maintain its illegal takeover and with the explosion in demand for rare earths, the military will no doubt find an opportunity to fulfill its coffers and fund its abuses,” Davis said. Rare earth mining in Kachin State would have significantly increased in the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup as unscrupulous companies took advantage the resulting collapse of the rule of law.

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

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

Davis said the risk of illegal minerals from Myanmar ending up in global supply chains demonstrates the need for governments to expand sanctions against the military junta to include rare earth minerals.

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

Damage to health and the environment

People living near rare earth mines in Kachin state told Global Witness that the ecosystems and resources they depend on have been impacted. Hazardous mine waste is reportedly flowing directly into tributaries of the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s main waterway, severely limiting many communities’ access to clean drinking water.

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

Despite the impacts on local communities, there is little they can do to counter the industry. The militias that control the industry “foster a violent and repressive environment”, the report says. For example, testimonies of intimidation collected during the investigation included a reported incident of militia members threatening to shoot village officials if they refused to hand over their land for mining.

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

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

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

Put rights first growing demand

Although rare earth mining is an incredibly toxic industry, it is unlikely to go away any time soon. Demand for rare earth minerals used in magnets – a lifeblood of many clean energy technologies – is expected to triple by 2035, according to a recent study. And the US Department of Energy has identified rare earth minerals among the world’s most critical materials, warning that bottlenecks in the rare earth supply chain could hurt the clean energy industry.

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

Finally, the report calls on governments to put in place stronger policies, investment incentives and recycling targets that will help reduce the impacts of rare earth mining and mining, and facilitate the discontinuation of the use of rare earth minerals in future products.

“As the climate crisis gathers pace and demand for these low-carbon technologies soars, [the investigation’s] The results should be a wake-up call that the transition to green energy cannot come at the expense of communities in resource-rich countries,” Davis said. Energy solutions “must instead be equitable and sustainable, prioritizing the rights of those most affected.”

This article from Caroline Cowan was reposted from mongabay

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