New evidence shows massive and rapid expansion of illicit rare earths industry in Myanmar, fuelling human rights abuses, environmental destruction and funding military-linked militias
- New satellite analysis from Global Witness reveals over 2,700 rare earth mining sites in northern Myanmar by March 2022, covering an area the size of Singapore.
- Myanmar now world’s biggest source of supply of heavy rare earths, used in green energy technologies including electric vehicles and wind turbines, as well as smartphones and home electronics.
- Illegal rare earth mines in northern Myanmar poisoning surrounding land and waterways, harming local communities, wildlife and environment.
- Mines are funding military-linked militias that control industry with an iron fist and have threatened to shoot local community members if they refused to give up their land to make way for new mines.
- Minerals illegally mined in Myanmar risk ending up in products of global brands including Tesla, Volkswagen and Siemens.
Myanmar has seen a rapid expansion of illegal mining of heavy rare earth minerals, used in green energy technologies, smartphones and home electronics, with the industry fuelling human rights abuses, environmental destruction and funding local militias linked to the brutal military regime, our new investigation reveals today.
Our report shows that within the space of just a few years China has outsourced much of its heavy rare earth mining industry across the border to a remote corner of Kachin State in northern Myanmar, which is now the world’s largest source of these critical minerals. There is a high risk these minerals are ending up in 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.
Using cutting-edge satellite imagery, interviews with affected communities and industry experts, and data analysis, we can reveal the scale and speed of the growth in rare earth mining in Myanmar over the past five years, placing it at the centre of the global supply chain for these minerals.
Our analysis shows there were just a handful of rare earth mines in Kachin State in 2016, whereas by March 2022, a satellite we commissioned revealed over 2,700 mining collection pools at almost 300 separate locations, covering an area the size of Singapore. (1)
Our ground-breaking investigation, Myanmar’s Poisoned Mountains, is the first in-depth look at rare earth mining in Myanmar.
“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,” said Mike Davis, CEO of Global Witness.
The processes used to extract heavy rare earths are highly polluting and our investigation reveals that the impacts on local ecosystems, livelihoods, and access to safe drinking water have been devastating. Local communities in Kachin have reported that hazardous waste from the mining area is 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 and a crucial source of water.
Multiple health issues that were reported near the rare earth mines in China, including osteoporosis, respiratory diseases, and gastrointestinal, skin and eye problems have also been reported by residents living close to the mines in Myanmar. The mountainous area where mining is concentrated, known as Kachin Special Region 1, is also rich in biodiversity and home to dozens of rare and endangered plant and animal species all now threatened by the pollution and deforestation caused by the rapid expansion in rare earth mining.
Huge sums of money from this illegal trade have benefitted the local warlord in charge of the mining territory, 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. Together with members of his family and other militia leaders, Zakhung Ting Ying has become the central broker of Myanmar’s rare earth industry, making backroom deals with Chinese businesses that are illegal under Myanmar law. His militia’s links to the military regime means that there is a high risk that revenues from rare earth mining are being used to fund the military’s human rights abuses and crushing of dissent, which have further intensified since the February 2021 coup.
“Rare earth mining is the latest natural resource heist by Myanmar’s military, which has funded itself for decades by looting the country’s rich natural resources, including the multi-billion-dollar jade, gemstone, and timber industries,” continued Davis.
“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. The fact that tainted rare earths from Myanmar are entering global supply chains shows the need to broaden international sanctions against the military to include these crucial minerals,” he added.
Our investigation shows the dangers faced by civil society groups and community members, including indigenous people, if they speak out against this illicit industry, with the militias who run the area fostering a violent and repressive environment. For example, exclusive evidence seen by us shows that two leaders of a local militia unit called village representatives into a recent meeting and threatened to shoot them if they refused to give up their land to make way for new mines.
“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,” added Davis.
Illegally mined rare earths from Myanmar are processed in China by state-owned companies, which sell to permanent magnet manufacturers supplying to some of the world’s best-known global brands making electric vehicles, wind turbines and electronics, including General Motors, Mitsubishi Electric, Siemens, Tesla and Volkswagen.
These revelations come against the backdrop of a huge increase in demand for these minerals as production of green energy technologies ramps up, with total demand for processed rare earth minerals for magnet production set to triple by 2035. (2)
“The disturbing reality is that the cash that is fuelling the environmental and human rights abuses caused by Myanmar’s rare earth mining industry ultimately stems from the global push to scale up renewables,” said Davis. “As the climate crisis accelerates and demand for these low-carbon technologies skyrocket, today’s findings must be a wake-up call that the green energy transition cannot come at the cost of communities in resource-rich countries, and must instead be equitable and sustainable, prioritising the rights of those who are most impacted.”
We are calling for urgent action to ensure that communities and the environment are protected as companies and governments ramp up investment in critical minerals.
- Companies must stop mining heavy rare earth in Myanmar and ensure that rare earths from Myanmar do not enter global supply chains, in recognition that mining is illegal and is funding armed groups and environmental and human rights abuses.
- Governments must impose import restrictions for rare earth elements produced in Myanmar unless companies can present clear and convincing evidence that their products are not linked to human rights abuses, illegality or corruption. They should also impose sanctions on armed actors illegally profiting from the rare earth industry, to prevent profits from being used by Myanmar’s brutal regime.
- Governments should introduce stronger policies including producer responsibility laws and recycling targets to reduce the harms associated with extraction and promote investment into designing heavy rare earths out of key products.
- China has controlled the global rare earth sector since the 1980s but as its domestic industry boomed, so did illegal mining and environmental destruction. In response, from 2016 the central government shut down many of the heavy rare earth mines in Jiangxi Province, China’s “rare earth kingdom”. State-owned processers turned to neighbouring Myanmar for these minerals, where there are rich deposits of dysprosium and terbium ore, similar to those in Jiangxi, and thousands of people crossed the porous border to set up and work in the new mines.
- A report by research firm Adamas Intelligence estimates that demand for rare earth minerals used in magnets is set to triple by 2035: https://www.adamasintel.com/report/rare-earth-magnet-market-outlook-to-2035/.
- We approached all the companies named for comment and you can read their responses in the full report here: www.globalwitness.org/MyanmarMinerals.
- You can read our full policy recommendations here: Heavy rare earths supply chain risks EN – August 2022.
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