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China-led rare earth mining in Myanmar fuels rights abuses, pollution

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London, Aug 10 (Ajit Weekly News) Chinas outsourcing of rare earth mining to Myanmar has prompted a rapid expansion of the industry there, fuelling human rights abuses, damaging the environment and propping up pro-juna militias, according to a new report published by rights group Global Witness.

The report, entitled “Myanmar’s Poisoned Mountains”, used satellite imagery to determine that what amounted to a “handful” of rare earth mines in Myanmar’s Kachin state in 2016 had ballooned to more than 2,700 mining collection pools at almost 300 separate locations, covering an area the size of Singapore, by March 2022, slightly more than a year after the military seized power in a coup, RFA reported..

Global Witness found that China had outsourced much of its industry across the border to a remote corner of Kachin state, which it said is now the world’s largest source of the minerals used in green energy technologies, smartphones and home electronics.

“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,” RFA quoted Global Witness CEO Mike Davis as saying.

The local warlord in charge of the mining territory, Zakhung Ting Ying, has become the “central broker” of Myanmar’s rare earth industry, the report said, along with other leaders of militias loyal to the military regime, making backroom deals with Chinese companies that are illegal under the country’s laws.

Global Witness noted that the processes used to extract heavy rare earth minerals have polluted local ecosystems, destroyed livelihoods and poisoned drinking water. It said multiple health issues reported near the rare earth mines in China have also been reported by residents living close to the mines in Myanmar.

Global Witness said that its findings come amid a huge increase in demand for the minerals as production of green energy technologies ramps up. Sales of processed rare earth minerals for magnet productions are expected to triple by 2035.

The group warned of a high risk that the minerals are finding their way into the supply chains of major household name companies that use heavy rare earths in their products including Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors, Siemens and Mitsubishi Electric, RFA reported.

The US Geological Survey estimates that about 240,000 tons of rare earth minerals were mined globally in 2020, with China accounting for 140,000 tons, followed by the US with 38,000 tons and Myanmar with 30,000 tons.

Though China is the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals, it buys the ore from neighbouring Myanmar, exploiting its cheaper labour.

Myanmar exported more than 140,000 tons of rare earth deposits to China, worth more than $1 billion between May 2017 and October 2021, according to China’s State Taxation Administration.

–Ajit Weekly News

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