Real cost of ‘The Sacrifice Zone’


Environmental damage: In this early 2022 photo provided by Global Witness, a new rare earth mine is dug into the side of a mountain in Pangwa, Kachin, Myanmar. — AP

THE birds no longer sing. 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 Tesla engines.

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. And 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 Julie Michelle Klinger, author of the book Rare Earths Frontiers, 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 did not or would not 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.

Just as dirty rare earths trickle down the supply chains of companies, they also slip through the cracks of regulation.

In 2010, the US Congress required companies to disclose the origin of so-called conflict minerals – tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten. 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 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”.

For decades the industry prospered. Then, stung by public criticism, officials in Beijing declared war on the country’s dirty industries – including rare earths mining.

As mines in China shuttered, ore prices rose. Thousands of miners streamed across the border to neighbouring Myanmar, home to some of the world’s richest deposits of what are known as heavy rare earths.

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.

Satellite imagery commissioned by Global Witness showed more than 2,700 of these pools at almost 300 separate locations.

A villager who lives along a river some 15 miles from the centre of the mining sites said his wife used to catch and sell fish. Now the few they can catch make them ill. — AP

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