In last month’s MMI, MetalMiner reported how nations all around the globe were searching for alternatives to rare earth exports from China. After all, the ongoing Chinese property crisis and limited industrial output continue to strain the country’s rare earths industry. Aside from the supply problems, many nations simply want to break their dependence on Chinese rare earth elements.
For example, Africa has an abundance of rare earth elements. These are spread out among numerous nations all across the continent. For instance, South Africa and Tanzania alone hold around 1.7 million reserves of various rare earths. Among them is cobalt, which remains in high demand. Of course, this fact has put Africa’s rare earth exports right in China’s sights.
Faced with limited industrial output due to the property crisis, such a move would make sense for China. However, this doesn’t mean that China intends to play fair in its pursuit of rare earths.
Rare Earths Blood in Myanmar
With the push for green energy, rare earths for things like batteries are in high demand. However, Myanmar residents are concerned about rare earth mines in the northeast. According to a particularly insightful article, rare earth mines continue to crop up all along the Chinese/Myanmar border. However, these particular mines are causing problems for both the local ecosystems and the citizens of Myanmar.
The mining process in this section of Myanmar involves injecting chemicals through holes drilled directly into mountain faces. Then, the chemicals liquefy the contents of the earth, making it easier to separate rare minerals. However, there are no regulations in place detailing how, where, and how much of the chemicals mining companies can inject. Not only this, but due to lack of proper containment, these chemicals are free to seep into the earth, causing extensive pollution and contaminating Myanmar’s water supply.
As a result, many fear the practice will taint the drinking water for millions of Myanmarese. The mines mainly surround the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka river systems, two of Myanmar’s primary water sources. These river systems carry water down from the mountains, which then spouts off into various river systems in Myanmar. Those who drink this water could experience the deadly side-effects of consuming these poisonous chemicals.
Rare earths are notoriously difficult to mine. Most of the time, the process involves extensive digging and blasting. Afterward, mining companies ship the blasted segments of rock to plants for separation. Unfortunately, this new method takes a different and much more lethal approach.
Human Rights and Long-Term Damage
It’s important to note that mines of this nature are highly illegal in Myanmar. However, they continue to expand on an unprecedented scale in mountainous regions across the country. Indeed, in recent years, much of China’s heavy rare-earth supply has come from Myanmar’s Kachin state, which houses more than 2,700 of these rare earth “chemical mines.”
Complicating matters is the fact that many of the mines fall under the purview of armed groups operating within Myanmar’s illegal militia forces. Unfortunately, many Myanmarese in these regions seek employment at these mines to support their families and livelihoods. Most miners earn twice the average Myanmarese salary, making the offer especially difficult to resist. Of course, the long-term consequences of mining rare earths in this manner could prove deadly – in more ways than one.
By AG Metal Miner
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