Two rare earth miners stand at the bottom of a leaching pool in Kachin State, Myanmar

Myanmar's poisoned mountains

The toxic rare earth mining industry at the heart of the global green energy transition

9 August 2022 | Read in Burmese

China has long dominated the world's supply of heavy rare earths, minerals needed to build electric vehicles and wind turbines. Demand for these products is skyrocketing as we rush to meet climate goals, but there is a problem at the root of the supply chain.

The processes used to extract heavy rare earths are highly polluting, ravaging landscapes and poisoning waterways. As concerns over the environmental toll of extraction have grown in China over the past decade, more and more domestic mines have been shut down. Yet global demand is growing rapidly, and China remains the world's largest processor.

But with many of its own mines now closed, where is China's supply of these minerals coming from?

In 2014 Myanmar exported just $1.5M of rare earths to China
By 2021 this sum had reached $780M

A six-month investigation by Global Witness followed the outsourcing of this highly toxic industry across the Chinese border into Myanmar.

There, heavy rare earth mining has exploded so quickly that within just a few years a mountainous corner of Myanmar, known as Kachin Special Region 1, has become the world's largest source of supply. This region is a semi-autonomous territory run by militias that are affiliated to Myanmar's brutal military regime. The mining is illegal under Myanmar's laws, and hardly exists on paper.

Yet the damage that global demand for products manufactured by international companies is fuelling in this remote, lawless part of the world is all too real for the communities who are now risking their lives to defend their land.