23 May 2024, London - A new report by Global Witness shows that the world’s dependence on heavy rare earths from Myanmar’s conflict-affected Kachin state has rapidly increased and is having a devastating impact on communities and the environment. 

Myanmar is now the single largest source of heavy rare earth elements globally. Heavy rare earths are currently in demand as part of the global energy transition – they are vital ingredients for permanent magnets that are used in electric vehicles and wind turbines. 

Many western consumers could be unknowingly buying or using electric vehicles that contain heavy rare earths extracted from often unregulated mines in Myanmar, with a potentially devastating environmental and social footprint. 

Our investigation found:

  • Much of Myanmar’s heavy rare earth output is used to manufacture permanent magnets, which are in demand from a range of US, European and Asian electric vehicle and wind turbine brands.
  • Imports of heavy rare earths from Myanmar to China - where they are processed - have more than doubled in the space of two years. From their previous high of 19,500 tons of heavy rare earth oxides in 2021, imports reached 41,700 tonnes in 2023. 
  • In Kachin Special Region 1, controlled by militias aligned with Myanmar’s brutal military rulers, the number of mining sites has increased by more than 40%.
  • Mine workers and local community members have reported and documented numerous health issues - including two deaths attributed to chemicals used in rare earth mining.
  • Water sampling data revealed that streams in Kachin Special Region 1 where mining takes place, are highly acidic and contain elevated levels of arsenic. Pollution is threatening to lay waste to a region regarded as a global biodiversity hotspot.
  • Myanmar’s lucrative trade in heavy rare earths is worth $1.4 billion in 2023 and risks financing conflict and destruction in a highly volatile region. Since the military coup in 2021, extraction has continued in the context of a ruthless dictatorship and widening civil conflict.

Colin Robertson, Senior Investigator – Transition Minerals, Global Witness said: 

“Wind power and electric vehicles have a huge role to play in combatting the climate crisis. But they cannot be allowed to fuel toxic and lawless mining. It seems that communities in Myanmar and their lands are increasingly being sacrificed to fuel the world’s hunger for heavy rare earths.”