AP – The birds no longer sing, and the herbs no longer grow. The fish no longer swim in rivers that have turned a murky brown. The animals do not roam, and the cows are sometimes found dead.
The people in this northern Myanmar forest have lost a way of life that goes back generations. But if they complain, they, too, face the threat of death.
This forest is the source of several key metallic elements known as rare earths, often called the vitamins of the modern world.
Rare earths now reach into the lives of almost everyone on the planet, turning up in everything from hard drives and cellphones to elevators and trains.
They are especially vital to the fast-growing field of green energy, feeding wind turbines and electric car engines. And they end up in the supply chains of some of the most prominent companies in the world, including General Motors, Volkswagen, Tesla and Apple.
But an AP investigation has found that their universal use hides a dirty open secret in the industry: Their cost is environmental destruction, the theft of land from villagers and the funnelling of money to brutal militias, including at least one linked to Myanmar’s secretive military government. As demand soars for rare earths along with green energy, the abuses are likely to grow.
“This rapid push to build out mining capacity is being justified in the name of climate change,” said author of the book Rare Earths Frontiers, Julie Michelle Klinger, who is leading a federal project to trace illicit energy minerals. “There’s still this push to find the right place to mine them, which is a place that is out of sight and out of mind.”
The AP investigation drew on dozens of interviews, customs data, corporate records and Chinese academic papers, along with satellite imagery and geological analysis gathered by the environmental non-profit Global Witness, to tie rare earths from Myanmar to the supply chains of 78 companies.
About a third of the companies responded. Of those, about two-thirds didn’t or wouldn’t comment on their sourcing, including Volkswagen, which said it was conducting due diligence for rare earths. Nearly all said they took environmental protection and human rights seriously.
Some companies said they audited their rare earth supply chains; others didn’t or required only supplier self-assessments. GM said it understood “the risks of heavy rare earths metals” and would source from an American supplier soon.
Tesla did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and Mercedes said they contacted suppliers to learn more in response to this story. Apple said “a majority” of their rare earths were recycled and they found “no evidence” of any from Myanmar, but experts say in general there is usually no way to make sure.
Just as dirty rare earths trickle down the supply chains of companies, they also slip through the cracks of regulation.
In 2010, in response to war in the Congo, Congress required companies to disclose the origin of so-called conflict minerals – tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten – and promise their sourcing does not benefit armed groups.
But the law does not cover rare earths. Audits are left up to individual companies, and no single agency is held accountable.
The United States (US) State Department, which leads work on securing the US rare earths supply, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But experts say the government weighs the regulation of rare earths against other green goals, such as the sales and use of electric vehicles. With ongoing negotiations in Congress, the issue has become increasingly touchy, they say.
Rare earths are also omitted from the European Union’s 2021 regulation on conflict minerals. A European Commission statement noted gaps in oversight of the supply chain stretching to Europe, and said “it is yet unclear how” a Chinese push to regulate rare earths will work.
With no regulation or alternatives, companies have quietly continued shipping rare earths without environmental, social and governance audits, known as ESG.
“What would be the result if now the world would say, ‘We want to do ESG audits on all rare earths production’?” said Thomas Kruemmer from Ginger International Trade and Investment, which does mineral and metal supply chain management.
“The result would be that 70 per cent of production would need to be closed down.”
A GRAB FOR RESOURCES
The story of rare earths is one of a naked grab for resources while leaving the wreckage to other countries.
The US offshored its rare earths mining to China in the 1980s because of environmental and cost issues. China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, declared rare earths China’s answer to “oil in the Middle East”. Tens of thousands of Chinese in the countryside discovered that they could make more in a month of mining than years of farming.
For decades the industry prospered. China became the world’s foremost miner of rare earths. A Beijing magazine called the profits “more addictive than drugs”.
Then, stung by public criticism, officials in Beijing declared war on the country’s dirty industries, including rare earths mining.
At a 2012 press conference in Beijing, a top Chinese industry official brandished photos of the devastation – pockmarked land stripped bare of vegetation.
Caught in the crossfire were miners like Guo, who asked to be identified by his last name only.
For years, Guo, a former car repairman, earned a handsome living after joining the booming rare earths industry in his native Jiangxi province. Then Beijing began enforcing some of the world’s strongest environmental laws, shutting down mom-and-pop operations like his.
Chinese satellites now snap photos from space, hunting for hidden mines.
But even while the supply from China is now monitored, the global demand for rare earths is expected to explode by 300 per cent to 700 per cent by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.
“The disturbing reality is that the cash that fuels these abuses ultimately comes from the world’s fast-growing demand for these minerals, driven by the scaling up of green energy technologies,” said Clare Hammond, a senior researcher at Global Witness, which also conducted field work in Myanmar.
China is also responding to competition from Europe and its greatest rival, the US, which has called its dependence on rare earths from China a “national security risk.” Concerned that its shrinking reserves could allow Western countries to break its stranglehold on the industry, China encouraged companies to look abroad.
“Environmental controls have become much stricter,” said a government trade researcher, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “That’s why imports have increased. It’s better to get rare earths from abroad.”
As mines in China shuttered, ore prices rose. In neighbouring Myanmar, home to some of the world’s richest deposits of what are known as heavy rare earths, opportunity beckoned.
Thousands of Jiangxi miners streamed across the border. “It reminds me of the European colonial attitudes towards Africa,” said an industry analyst.
“You just can’t be relying on third-world-type mining practices in a dictatorship like Myanmar. It’s not sustainable.”
That does not bother Guo. In 2019, he got a call. An old contact was opening up shop in Myanmar and needed a technician. Would he like to go?
Guo said yes, joining what he describes as a modern-day gold rush. He recounted primitive working conditions, including clouds of mosquitoes and nights spent burning logs in ramshackle cabins. The miners dug hundreds of feet deep with shovels and their bare, callused hands. “I lived in a virgin forest, I lived like a savage,” he said.
He and other workers in Myanmar described a web of small, unlicensed private mines that sell to big mining conglomerates – directly or through trade intermediaries. When cash changes hands, few questions are asked. “I’m only responsible for digging the mountain up and selling it,” Guo said. “The rest is none of my business.”
Since 2015, imports from Myanmar have grown almost a hundredfold, according to UN trade data.
Myanmar is now China’s single largest source of heavy rare earths, making up nearly half of the supply, according to Chinese customs data and expert estimates.
A few years ago, there were just two or three mines in Myanmar, then dozens. Today there are hundreds, and Guo guesses there may soon be thousands. At this pace, he predicts, it won’t be long before Myanmar’s rare earths are all gone.
But Guo cares little about preservation or politics.
“They talk about future generations, I’m talking about survival today,” he said. “We just see if we can make money. It’s that simple.”
A SACRIFICE ZONE
There is a name for what Myanmar has become: A “sacrifice zone”, or a place that destroys itself for the good of the world.
The sacrifice is visible from the air, in toxic turquoise pools that dot the landscape covered by mountain jungles just a few years ago.
Since rare earth clays in Myanmar are soft and near the surface, they can easily be scooped into these pools of chemicals.
Satellite imagery commissioned by Global Witness showed more than 2,700 of these pools at almost 300 separate locations.
The leaching agents have tainted tributaries of Myanmar’s main river, prompted landslides and poisoned the earth, according to witnesses, miners and local activists.
Water is no longer drinkable, and endangered species such as tigers, pangolins and red pandas have fled the area.
A villager who lives along a river some 15 miles from the center of the mining sites said his wife used to catch and sell fish. Now the few they can catch make them ill, so they must buy from elsewhere at higher prices instead. Every time he enters the water, his feet feel itchy.
“There are no fish along the creek, not even small fishes,” said the villager, who asked to be anonymous for his safety. “Everything went extinct.”
Militias are rampant in these northern forest frontier areas, with at least one tied to the Border Guard Force backed by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw.
After a coup last year, the Tatmadaw is under international sanctions for human rights abuses, which means the rare earths money it gets from the militia may be going into a violent crackdown against civilians.
With the armed militias in control, villagers have no recourse to defend their land.
When village leaders filed a complaint about the effects of rare earth mining and testing on land needed for black cardamom, walnuts and livestock, a high-ranking militia leader aligned with the Border Guard Force angrily summoned them.
He said rare earth mining would proceed with or without their agreement. “You, village leaders, should solve this issue,” he yelled as he pointed to the leaders, according to a recording of the January meeting obtained by Global Witness, which was shared with and verified by the AP. “Otherwise, I’ll have to start shooting and killing people. Do not underestimate me. I am not a child – this is not child’s play.”
The Myanmar military, militia-owned mining companies and militia leaders did not respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, mining projects continue to get ever closer to the land villagers are trying to protect.
“We dare not complain,” said a villager, who also asked to be anonymous for his safety. “If we say something … they beat us. We don’t want to be in prison.”