Fueling the future, poisoning the present: Myanmar’s rare earth boom

BNI editors review Global Witness investigation

A new report from Global Witness, a UK-based research NGO, shows that global dependence on heavy rare earths from Myanmar’s conflict-affected Kachin state has increased rapidly and is having a devastating impact on communities and the environment.

Myanmar’s lucrative heavy rare earth trade will be worth $1.4 billion in 2023 and most mines are providing a much-needed source of income for the desperate economic struggles of the junta under siege by sanctions.

Since the 2021 military coup, extraction has expanded rapidly with loyalist militia forces operating Special Region No. 1 of Kachin State. Imports of heavy rare earths from Myanmar to China – where they are processed – have more than doubled in the space of two years. From its previous high of 19,500 tonnes of heavy rare earth oxides in 2021, imports reached 41,700 tonnes in 2023.

As Global Witness notes in its report, increasing restrictions on rare earth mining in China have prompted a huge shift towards cross-border mining in Myanmar, primarily in an area that has long been Zakhung’s personal fiefdom. Ting Ying, a former communist. Commander of the Party of Burma (CPB) who formed a pro-army militia, the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDAK).

Myanmar is now the largest source of heavy rare earth elements globally. Heavy rare earths are currently in demand as part of the global energy transition: they are vital ingredients for permanent magnets used in electric vehicles and wind turbines.

In Kachin Special Region 1, in areas controlled by militias aligned with Myanmar’s brutal military rulers, the number of mining sites has increased by more than 40%. Numerous health problems have been reported and documented by mine workers and local community members, including two deaths attributed to chemicals used in rare earth mining.

Water sampling data revealed that streams in Kachin Special Region 1, where mining takes place, are highly acidic and contain high levels of arsenic. Pollution threatens to devastate a region considered a global biodiversity hotspot. The mining operations, located in Pangwa and Chipwe townships, are believed to be some of the largest rare earth mining operations outside of China.

The costs are felt by workers and local people. Across the mining region, workers complain of coughing, numbness, skin conditions and kidney problems, all known health risks from the chemical cocktail used in the mines.

The Kachin KIO/KIA Resistance also accused of collusion with mining groups

Global Witness also accuses the Kachin resistance of funding its anti-Junta movement with “dirty money” derived from deals made with Chinese mining companies to operate within KIA-controlled territory near the township of Mansi. The report admits that the KIA mining area is much smaller. than the militias aligned with the Junta.

Another important difference has been the response of the Kachin resistance to community protests over the environmental and health costs of rare earth extraction.

In 2023, many villagers living in N’ba Pa and Ding Sing Pa, near Mai Ja Yang, the second largest town controlled by KIO, had organized a series of unprecedented protests for five months in opposition to the KIO administration KIO issued a flood of new permits to allow rare earth mining operations.

General N’ban La, president of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has informed villagers living in a stretch of the group’s territory near the border with China that rare earth mining projects that were planned to be carried out in their areas have been suspended by their order. In fact, both KNG and BNI reported this in 2023.

The announcement by N’ban La, the highest-ranking official in the KIO hierarchy and long-time commander of the group’s armed wing, marked a considerable victory of sorts for Kachin civil society, which has struggled for years to convince the KIO not to expand. rare earth mining operations in the thin strip of territory that the KIO controls along the border with China, where many refugees and political dissidents have currently taken refuge.

Unfortunately, the GW report does not appear to have offered much praise for the KIO’s efforts to suspend or regulate projects. nor have they investigated in detail how many projects, if any, remain suspended in 2024.

When contacted by Global Witness before publication, a KIO spokesperson said they had imposed “strict rules” on rare earth mining companies to protect the environment. However, local sources consulted by Global Witness were not aware of any legal framework established by the KIO to regulate the industry.

Global Witness’s only weakness is the tendency to lump the involvement of the Kachin KIA together with the junta’s ruthless exploitation of rare earths and other minerals in Kachin State, without a clear examination of the extent to which the KIA leaders on the path to divestment. from depending on “dirty revenues” from rare earth contamination, in accordance with their political position.

General N’ban La made the announcement about the suspension of rare earth mining operations while speaking on April 15 to a group of more than 1,600 villagers and farmers from N’ba Pa and surrounding areas who had come to Mai Ja Yang to raise their concerns, according to a local community committee member who spoke to Kachin News Group (KNG).

“This is now over, KIO Chairman General Nban La has completely stopped all rare earth projects being prepared in the N’ba Pa area. More than a thousand people attended his meeting in his own cars and motorcycles,” said the committee member. “After the general said that he was completely suspended, we also expressed our gratitude,” the committee member added.

Damage from arseni river poisoning.

To local KIO authorities in the rare earth mining regions of Myanmar

Halt mining activities until safeguards in line with international standards are established that protect local communities and the environment from adverse impacts associated with rare earth mining. Work with civil society and local communities to develop regulations for responsible mining that benefit people and protect the environment.

Militias and KIO

When contacted by Global Witness before publication, a KIO spokesperson said they had imposed “strict rules” on rare earth mining companies to protect the environment. However, local sources consulted by Global Witness were not aware of any legal framework established by the KIO to regulate the industry. On both sides, this largely unregulated mining is environmentally devastating and the threat it poses to ecosystems and human health is increasingly urgent.…

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