Illegal rare earth mining harms environment in Myanmar’s Kachin state

Chemicals used in mining pollute drinking water, but the junta has increased production, sources said.
2022.03.10
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Illegal rare earth mining harms environment in Myanmar’s Kachin state A rare earth mine in Kachin State on March 3, 2022.
Citizen Journalist

Unregulated mining of rare earth minerals in Myanmar’s Kachin state for export to nearby China is irreparably damaging the environment, local watchdogs in the northern state told RFA.

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

Since Myanmar’s military wrested control of the country from Myanmar’s democratically elected government more than a year ago, exports to China of rare earths–which are used in smart phones, electric cars and other high-tech products–have increased, a local activist group told RFA.

According to residents of Kachin, the rare earths were discovered in the Pangwa area in Chi-pwe township, in Myitkyina district in the east of the province, only a few years ago. Since the coup the regulations on mining have disappeared and the military and its trading partners appear to be in total control of the mines there.

“Under junta rule, and the minister of natural resources being in the junta, there are a lot of opportunities for these illegal miners,” a resident living near the mines told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“They are so much more active than ever. Following the overthrow of Myanmar’s elected government in a February 2021 coup, the number of people coming to this region from the lower parts of the country increased significantly,” said the resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Each illegal miner must pay 10,000 kyat ($5.63) at the entrance of town after they are tested for COVID-19. From this, the town is able to collect about 1 million kyat per day ($563) from all the workers passing through.

“As far as I can tell, the number of people entering this part of the country must be in the tens of thousands since the end of the rainy season at the start of winter,” the resident said.

The border between Kachin State and China was temporarily closed in early 2020 at the height of a major COVID-19 outbreak, but it reopened last November. During the closure, 3,000 to 4,000 tons of rare earth ore mined in Myanmar were found stranded at the border.

When the closure was lifted, a manager of a Chinese state-owned mining company based in Guangzhou on Dec 2 said all the ore was trucked to Jiangxi province, China’s Global Times reported.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that about 240,000 tons of rare earth minerals were mined globally in 2020, with China accounting for 140,000 tons, followed by the United States 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 neighboring Myanmar, exploiting its cheaper labor.

An environmental activist in Pangwa told RFA unregulated mining in Kachin State has destroyed many local forests and mountains.

"The main business owners are Chinese. Their allies inside Myanmar make arrangements with local landowners for use of their land. Now we can see the mountains disappearing,” the activist said.

“These miners usually clear the ground and then dig holes. After that, they pour in chemically treated liquid into the holes. When they are done, they don’t cover up the holes in the ground, causing landslides when the rains come,” said the activist.

Growing international demand for rare earths is closely linked to illegal mining in Myanmar, and the demand is increasing as developed countries shift toward technologies like electric cars and wind turbines, Yadanar Maung of Justice Myanmar, a Myanmar-based activists’ group, told RFA.

She said that after the coup, the junta has been using various means to raise revenue, including mining, putting local people at greater risk.

According to The Harvard International Review, the amount of hazardous waste in Myanmar was estimated at 284 million tons and radioactive waste at around 14 million tons during the period from May 2017 to Oct 2021.

A worker who was involved in one of the mining operations told RFA that five toxic chemicals, including oxalic acid and ammonium bicarbonate, were used in the mining of rare earth minerals.

“In the beginning, we had to test the topsoil to see if there were any possible deposits. After that, if the deposits were found, we’d build the ponds and get pipes connected. And then soil was fed into the pipes once every five or 10 days. Later, the metallic deposits are dug up and baked. After that the ore is taken away to China,” he said.

“The boss here is only in charge of us. It is said that the actual bosses are all in mainland China. Drinking water for us had to be brought in from another area. The water near the mining site was said to be undrinkable. The Chinese said we must not drink the water there,” he said.

The Myitkyina-based Shwe Social Development Foundation and the Chi-pwe-based environmental group Laung Byit Khaung told a news conference in December 2018 that they had tested the water sources near the mining areas and found them to contain toxic chemicals. 

Local sources told RFA that Myo Ko Ko, a Myanmar medical company, has been awarded a license to set up to mine rare earth minerals in Kachin State, quoting a 2019 report of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. The licensed area is 281 acres of land in Chi-pwe Township, equivalent to 159 football fields.

Myo Ko Ko did not respond to emails from RFA inquiring about the current mining situation and environmental impact. RFA also attempted to contact the director of the Kachin State Department of Mines about the matter, but he could not be reached either.

Chemicals from mining are definitely seeping into citizens’ drinking water, Tu Khaung, Minister for Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) told RFA. The NUG consists of lawmakers and officials ousted in the coup.  

"Basically, acidic chemicals were poured into different places all over the mountain to get the rare earth deposits. You get this liquid that comes out from the bottom of the mountain after pouring in that acid,” he said.

“The workers cannot take out all the chemicals they poured in and some of them seep into the mountain soil and through the underground water and then into the surrounding area. People living near the mining areas usually have to rely on natural water for drinking and now this water is all polluted," said the minister.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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