Chinese companies mining rare earth minerals in Myanmar’s Kachin State have promised to halt activities after more than 1,000 local residents protested, acknowledging the environmental damage caused by extracting the elements key to the production of many everyday tech-heavy devices such as smartphones.
The protesters came from more than 10 villages in the area controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic groups, and its armed group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The protests began in December after the KIO granted Chinese enterprises permission to mine in Kachin State in the area near the border with China’s Yunnan Province, witnesses told VOA Burmese. The most recent protest was Saturday.
Rare earths contains elements widely used in products such as computer components, electric vehicles, solar cells, and an arsenal of modern weaponry. Myanmar’s mines produce the fourth-largest amount of these minerals, at 12,000 metric tons (MT) of rare earths in 2022, according to Investing News.
A committee representing the villagers from the KIO-controlled N Ba Pa and Dingsing Pa boroughs of Bamaw district in Kachin State met on Saturday with KIO Chairman General N Ban La. A committee official who did not want their name used for safety reasons told VOA Burmese that as of Monday, mining had been halted at the Chinese sites.
“The KIO chairman met with the residents and promised that the mining will stop. … As for Chinese companies, it is difficult to abruptly stop all the ongoing mining. Therefore, they will stop mining once they have done necessary steps. But we still need to wait and see how it goes,” said the official.
VOA Burmese attempted to contact Chinese mine operators for comment about the protests but received no response. Local sources told VOA Burmese that N Ban La, who granted mining rights to the Chinese companies, promised he would not allow the mining to continue.
On March 21, residents destroyed Chinese rare earth mining facilities in Bamaw district, but the mining continues.
Kachin religious and civil society groups organized the most recent protests. The groups issued a statement questioning whether KIO allowed rare earth mining in its territory because of financial needs or because KIO must obey Beijing.
“We are concerned about the effects of environmental degradation, the livelihoods of local communities and the wellbeing of animals due to the extraction of rare earth,” said church leaders from Bamaw diocese in Kachin state, according to a March 9 Union of Catholic Asian News report.
Chinese companies have been rare earth mining in Kanpaitee, Chipwi and Panwah Townships in Kachin State since 2014, local residents told VOA Burmese. Demand for rare earth minerals may spike three to seven times higher by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency as governments pursue policies to slow climate change.
China is the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals, with its 210,000 MT output far exceeding the combined total of second-place United States (43,000 MT), third-place Australia (18,000 MT), Myanmar (12,000 MT) and fifth-place Thailand (7,100 MT), according to Investing News.
Most of Myanmar’s rare earth minerals are exported to China, according to Resource Trade.earth, a website affiliated with the British think tank Chatham House.
There are two ways to mine the rare earth minerals. Both are environmentally hazardous, contaminating groundwater and topsoil while producing toxic dust, according to an August 2021 report in the Harvard International Review. In some areas, mining operations have left open pits, many filled with water tainted by chemicals, and swaths of land stripped of trees, according to Earth Journalism Network.
The United States offshored its rare earths mining and processing to China in the 1980s because of environmental and cost issues. China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, declared rare earth minerals were to China as oil is to the Middle East — commodities of strategic importance.