China has controlled the global rare earth sector since the 1980s. But the environment concerns post 2016 forced them to close many of the heavy rare earth mines in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, known as China’s “rare earth kingdom and eventually they turned to neighbouring Myanmar, where there are rich deposits similar to those in Jiangxi. While doing so, Chinese ensured three aspects first Chinese workers will continue to hold the skilled roles, while Burmese workers, including children, do most of the manual labour and second mining method used would be the same as in Jiangxi and third mines will supply the rare earth to the same Chinese state-owned companies that control 80% of global rare earth refining in China. It is estimated that between 2016 and 2022 as many approx. 22,000 people had moved from Ganzhou to Myanmar to mine rare earths. The setting up of these operations within Myanmar was funded to a degree by certain Chinese state-involved entities instead of applying for permission to mine from Myanmar’s central government. The Chinese businessmen people have negotiated backroom deals with the militias that control Kachin Special Region 1. This region is run by warlord called Zakhung Ting Ying, who controls militia units that are part of the Myanmar military’s chain of command, and others that are loyal to the military, including the militia led by Zau’s boss.There is a high risk that revenues from rare earth mining are being used to fund the military’s abuses against civilians, which have intensified since its February 2021 coup. This is nothing new; Myanmar’s military has funded itself for decades by looting the country’s rich natural resources, including the multi-billion-dollar jade, gemstone, and timber industries.
The processes used to extract heavy rare earths are highly poluting ravaging landscapes and poisoning waterways and locals are now realising the health concerns despite the fact mining boom is a rare chance to make money as they are paid 3,000 yuan ($500) in cash every month, around twice the average salary in Myanmar. Locals are deployed to remove vegetation and drill holes into the mountains. Then ammonium sulphate solution is injected into the holes, effectively liquefying the earth. Once the chemicals have percolated through the mountainside, the solution is drained into bright blue collection pools, where minerals are precipitated out in a process called insitu leaching. Once the mountain is leached, workers will abandon the contaminated site, move to the next place and starting all over again.
But China continue to exploit as the mountains are rich in ores of dysprosium and terbium, the two most valuable of the heavy rare earth metals and they are “basically irreplaceable”. But their most important use, representing 90% of their value, is in permanent magnets, which are needed to make motors and generators for electric vehicles and wind turbines and it would be almost impossible to build a low-carbon future without these products.
Many people are afraid of speaking out against the mining because they fear retribution. Residents are also worried about hazardous waste from the mining area flowing directly into the N’Mai Kha River, a tributary of the Ayeyarwady, Myanmar’s most important river, whose basin is home to two-thirds of the country’s population of 54 million people. Residents told the survey that they no longer fished, swam, or washed in the local rivers, and that animals, including their livestock, had been poisoned by the toxic water.
We must understand the disturbing reality that the cash that fuels these abuses ultimately stems from the global push to scale up renewables. The global transition to clean energy currently depends on rare earth mining in Myanmar. If the unregulated mining in continues, global rush to embrace a greener future will be devastating for the communities in Kachin Special Region 1 who are now risking their lives to defend their land against the fast-expanding industry.