Illegal rare-earth mining surges in Myanmar

Illegal rare-earth mining surges in Myanmar

Militia linked to junta behind stepped-up activity near Chinese border in Kachin state

A mining machine is seen at the Bayan Obo mine containing rare earth minerals, in Inner Mongolia in China. (Stringer via Reuters)
A mining machine is seen at the Bayan Obo mine containing rare earth minerals, in Inner Mongolia in China. (Stringer via Reuters)

Illegal mining of rare-earth minerals has surged in an area controlled by a junta-linked militia since the Feb 1 military coup in Myanmar, according to local reports.

The mining is taking place in northern Kachin state on the border with China, The Irrawaddy news site reported, quoting local environmental groups.

They say mining has increased by at least five times in Pangwa and Chipwi townships amid the political turmoil, with a rapid influx of Chinese workers.

“Before the coup, we only saw one or two trucks per day. Now there is no proper inspection we are seeing 10 to 15,” an activist in Chipwi told The Irrawaddy.

He said the trucks are loaded with ammonium sulphate fertiliser bags filled at the illegal mines.

“The Chinese authorities have tightened border security for imports from Myanmar due to Covid-19. But materials for the mining move across the border easily,” he added.

Myanmar is China’s largest rare earth source, accounting for over half of its supplies. In 2016, Chinese mining companies entered Pangwa looking for rare earth as Beijing cracked down on illegal mining within China, The Irrawaddy said.

According to Chinese customs data, China is heavily dependent on medium and heavy rare earths from Myanmar. In 2020, rare earth imports from Myanmar rose by 23% year on year to around 35,500 tonnes, accounting for 74% of imports, according to the Global Times, a Chinese government media outlet.

Rare earths is the term applied to a group of 17 similar soft heavy metals that are in high demand for diverse applications in electrical and electronic components, lasers, glass, magnetic materials and industrial processes. 

Ja Hkaw Lu of the Transparency and Accountability Network Kachin (Tank) told The Irrawaddy: “Under the civilian government, if we complained about illegal rare earth mining, officials immediately visited and investigated. [Illegal miners] stayed away but now it is totally out of control.”

Heavy rare earths from Kachin State are exported to China for refining and processing and then sold around the globe, according to environmental protection groups

According to Tank, around 10 rare earth mines have opened near the border in Zam Nau, which is controlled by the military-affiliated New Democratic Army Kachin (NDAK).

Kachin environmental groups estimate that there are over 100 rare earth mines in Pangwa and Chipwe townships controlled by the militia and Chinese investors.

Chinese media have reported that some Chinese companies are facing rising logistical costs exporting rare earths from Myanmar since the military takeover.

But Chinese buyers have not seen any significant decline in imports since the coup, the Chinese media reported.

The Kachin State Mining Department said it found several illegal mines and Chinese workers in 2019 and 2020 after a series of inspections. But it has acknowledged that the involvement of armed groups makes regulating the industry challenging.

China’s rare earth exports fell 22.7% in April from the previous month, Reuters reported, citing data from the General Administration of Customs on Friday.

Exports from the world’s top producer of the group of 17 minerals were 3,737 tonnes, down 13.4% from April 2020.

Exports in the first four months of 2021 were up 1.9% on the year at 15,642 tonnes.


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