Birds no longer sing. Fish do not swim in rivers whose water has turned cloudy to brown. Animals do not roam the forest and cows are often found dead.
The people of this forest of northern Myanmar have lost the lifestyle of many generations. But if they complain, they are threatened with death.
The forest is the source of many important metallic elements known as rare earths, which many call the vitamins of the modern world. Rare earths appear in almost everyone’s life on the planet, in hard drives and cell phones, elevators and trains.
The Associated Press investigation relies on dozens of Chinese interviews, customs data, business documents and academic papers, as well as satellite imagery and geological analysis collected by environmental NGO Global Witness, to link rare earths from Myanmar to supply chains. Can you 78 companies.
About a third of the companies responded to requests for comment. Two-thirds of these declined to comment on their sources. Volkswagen said it was investigating rare earths. Almost all of them said that they take protecting the environment and human rights very seriously.
Some companies said they audited their rare earth supply chains; Others did not rely on or rely on providers’ self-assessments. GM said it understands the “rare-earth heavy metals risks” and will soon seek a US supplier.
Tesla did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and Mercedes said it has contacted suppliers to respond to this story. Apple said “most” of its rare earths were recycled and that it “found no evidence” that they came from Myanmar, but experts say there’s usually no way to be sure.
Rare earths seep through the cracks of regulation as they move down corporate supply chains.
In 2010, the US Congress forced companies to disclose the origin of the so-called conflict minerals: tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten. But the law does not cover rare earths. Audits match each company, and no one body is accountable.
The State Department, which is leading efforts to secure US supplies of rare earths, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But experts say the government is weighing the regulation of rare earths against other green targets such as the sale and use of electric vehicles. The 2021 EU regulation on conflict minerals also excludes rare earths.
The United States outsourced its rare earth mining to China in the 1980s due to cost and environmental concerns. The then head of the Chinese government, Deng Xiaoping, said for China that rare earths are “oil for the Middle East.”
For decades, the region prospered. But then, angered by public criticism, officials in Beijing declared war on dirty industries, including rare earth mining.
As sugar mines closed, ore prices rose. Thousands of miners crossed the border into neighboring Myanmar, which has the world’s richest reserves of so-called heavy rare earths.
“It reminds me of European colonial attitudes towards Africa,” said one industry analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relations with the Chinese government. “No one can trust the third world mining practices of a dictatorship like Myanmar. It’s not sustainable.”
Guo, a Chinese miner who asked not to use his full name so to speak freely, described primitive working conditions in Myanmar, spending nights burning among clouds of mosquitoes and in ramshackle huts. Miners penetrated hundreds of meters (feet) under the earth with shovels and their hard hands.
“I’m only responsible for digging up the mountain and selling it,” Guo said. “The rest is of no use to me… Let’s see if we can make a little money. It’s that easy”.
What has become Myanmar has a name: a “sacrifice zone”, a place that self-destructs for the good of the world.
The sacrifice appears from the air, in turquoise ponds, in a landscape previously covered with mountain forests. Since the rarefied clay soils in Myanmar are soft and shallow, it is easy to bring them into these chemical pools. Satellite images commissioned by Global Witness show more than 2,700 ponds in about 300 locations.
A villager living on the banks of a river, 25 km from the mining centre, said his wife used to do fishing and selling fish. Now some fish make them sick.
“There are no fish, not even small fish, in the stream,” the villager, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said. “Everything disappeared.”
Militia abound in these northern frontier areas; At least one has a relationship with a border guard backed by the military. Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, face international sanctions for human rights abuses committed when they took power last year. This means that the money he receives from the militia can be used to violently repress civilians. Military and militia chiefs did not respond to requests for comment.
For Dong, a Chinese miner, he hands hundreds of dollars to the armed men on the streets of Myanmar, which is the price of the deal. Make no mistake about the damage caused by acids so that they will corrode your excavator blades.
He said, ‘This thing is wonderful. “It certainly pollutes.”
Meanwhile, villagers are complaining in an area in northern Myanmar where black cardamom and walnuts are still growing…
“They are mining scarce soil everywhere and we can no longer drink water,” said a villager. “The children have nothing to feed. Nothing to eat.”