Rare-earth elements (REEs) are a group of 17 chemical elements considered critical for digitalization and for the energy transition. While called “rare”, they are not in fact rare in the Earth’s crust and can be found in many places. REEs have unique magnetic, optical and electronic properties that make them crucial (and difficult to substitute) for many uses such as wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, LED and LCD screens, hard drives, fiber optic cables, catalysts, steel alloys, hydrogen technologies and all kinds of electric motors for cars, toys or drones.
Nevertheless, REEs are not only strategic for wind, solar or electric batteries, but also for defense and aerospace engineering: to produce aircraft, missiles, satellites and communications systems. Indeed, the European Commission’s proposal for the EU Critical Raw Materials Act, published in the spring of 2023, mentions the strategic need for these materials for the green and digital transition as well as for defense and the aerospace industry.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that to meet Net Zero Emissions goals the extraction of REEs would have to increase by a factor of 10 by 2030. Indeed, it has already increased by more than 85% between 2017 and 2020, driven mainly by the demand for permanent magnets for wind power technology and electric vehicles.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), in 2022 China was responsible for 70% (210,000 metric tons) of global REE production, followed by the US (14.3%), Australia (6%), Myanmar (4%), Thailand (2.4%), Vietnam (1.4%), India (0.96%), Russia (0.86%), Madagascar (0.32%) and Brazil, among others. REE reserves are documented in over 34 countries. After China (44 million tons), the second largest reserves are in Vietnam (22 million tons), followed by Russia and Brazil (21 million tons each). In terms of processing, 87% takes place in China, while 12% takes place in Malaysia (by Lynas Rare Earths, an Australian corporation) and 1% takes place in Estonia (IEA 2022).
REEs comprise the 15 elements of the lanthanide group of the periodic table (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium). They also include yttrium and scandium because of their similar physical and chemical properties.
Pressures to extract and process REEs are accelerating globally. However, REE mining has been linked to larger environmental impacts than other minerals and metals. REEs are usually present in very low concentrations and are combined; this means that their extraction and separation are expensive, require large amounts of energy and water, and generate large quantities of waste. Moreover, they are often mixed with different radioactive and hazardous elements such as uranium, thorium, arsenic and other heavy metals which pose high health and environmental pollution risks. Extraction methods include open-pit mining (generally involving intense water usage), underground and in-situ leaching (Haque et al., 2014).
While there are high expectations regarding REE recycling, this remains a marginal source (less than 1%). There are many obstacles to REE recycling, such as the low concentration of end-products and the difficulty inherent in separating individual REEs from each other. Recycling is also far from being a clean industry, as it requires large amounts of energy and generates hazardous waste.
The Rare Earths Impacts and Conflict Map
The cases of socio-environmental resistance to REE extraction, processing and recycling documented on the map signal worrying trends regarding the historical and ongoing environmental, social and human rights impacts and abuses taking place across REE supply chains.
Communities around the world are denouncing the severe impacts that REE mining, processing and recycling have on water, soil, air and the health of communities. Since REEs are usually present in very low concentrations and in combination with radioactive elements and heavy metals, REE mining and processing is both highly environmentally and socially risky. Social unrest is also generated by a lack of transparency and participation in decision-making procedures and controls, including disregard for indigenous rights. Many of the documented cases involve flagrant abuses of human rights, with different forms of violence (repression, legal persecution, criminalization, physical violence) exerted against local communities, environmental and human rights defenders as well as civil society organizations.
Myanmar serves as a major exporter of REEs to China. Over the last decade there has been a significant surge in illegal REE mining in Kachin State, on the border between China and Myanmar. This illicit mining has occurred in collaboration with armed groups, resulting in human rights violations and causing extensive damage to local ecosystems and the livelihoods of the region’s inhabitants. Previously renowned for its pristine forests, rich biodiversity and clean waterways, this area is now transforming into a landscape marked by deforestation and the presence of turquoise-colored toxic pools generated by rare earth mining and harmful leaching agents. Mining activities are contaminating streams, causing wild animals to flee the area, impacting local livelihoods and causing multiple health issues among local communities. Reports signal that when village leaders have tried to file complaints about the impact of rare earth mining on their land and livelihoods, they have been met with threats and intimidation from militias. In some cases, villagers have been beaten or imprisoned for speaking out.
Communities and organizations are mobilizing against rare earth mining on the Ampasindava Peninsula in northwestern Madagascar. This area is home to northern Madagascar’s last remaining forests, recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot and home to IUCN-listed endangered and vulnerable species. The well-being of the populations on the peninsula depends largely on the maintenance of these ecosystems, which provide them with numerous products (food, energy, construction materials, pharmacopoeia and sources of income) and ecosystem services (water, protection against cyclones, microclimate, soil fertility). Since 2016, local communities have been opposing the mining project on the basis that it will infringe on many of their human rights. This includes their land rights and livelihoods, as most live mainly from fishing and agriculture—particularly the cultivation of high-value-added export crops such as vanilla, cocoa and coffee that would be put at risk. Since the beginning of the Tantalus Rare Earths Malagasy project –which was acquired by Reenova, then by HARENA Resources Pty Ltd in 2023– it has affected local communities that have denounced the irregular nature of mining permits, neglected test pit rehabilitation work, a lack of local participation and free, prior and informed consent, as well as disregard for the social, human rights and environmental impacts that would result from this project.
A deposit of REEs has been found near Jonköping, close to Lake Vättern in Sweden. Leading Edge Minerals, the Canadian company on the lead, claims the deposit will be important for the whole world and that the minerals will mostly be used for green technology. In 2009 they were granted a concession. However, the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden later overturned the concession as Leading Edge Materials had not submitted an environmental impact assessment. Norra Kärr is located near a “Natura 2000” area which is protected by EU law and is close to Lake Vättern which, as of 2020, provides 250,000 people in Sweden with fresh water. The local group Aktion Rädda Vättern (“Action to Protect Vättern”) is monitoring the companies’ moves closely. The project is still under discussion. There is a proposal to eliminate permit requirements for mining concessions near Natura 2000 areas.
Australia – Malaysia
Australia’s Lynas Rare Earth Limited (Lynas) mines rare earth ores from its remote semi-arid Mt Weld mine in Western Australia. The REEs are concentrated and enriched at the mine into a lanthanide concentrate (LC), which is then transported to Pahang State in Malaysia. The LC is then chemically processed at the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in the Gebeng Industrial Estate on tropical peatland. Since 2011, communities in Kuantan District have fought against Lynas’ pollution, unsafe radioactive waste management and disposal methods. These communities’ actions have gained recognition and support from some international organizations due to the massive radioactive toxic legacy of long-lived radionuclides such as uranium and thorium, toxic heavy metals (including residual rare earth minerals) and chemicals.
While Lynas promised to remove its radioactive waste to obtain an operating license from the Malaysian Government, it has since reneged on that legal undertaking by constructing a scientifically unsafe above-ground “permanent” disposal facility in the peat swamp next to the LAMP. In Western Australia, the same type of waste has to be disposed of in underground landfills engineered to be isolated from the biosphere for at least 1,000 years and under regulatory control for at least 10,000 years. To date, Lynas has accumulated over 1.5 million tons of radioactive waste in a wet and low-lying peat swamp in Malaysia near residential estates and coastal resorts. The community-driven campaign “Stop Lynas” denounces greenwashing by the company and a lack of law enforcement by the government, the risks posed by the radioactive waste and hazardous pollution, the impact on water availability, long-term cancer risks for the community, and damage to local livelihoods and ecosystems.
Bayan Obo, China
Bayan Obo is an industrial mining town that has extracted and processed REEs as well as iron and niobium (among other materials) in Inner Mongolia, China, since the 1960s. It is the largest REE mineral deposit in the world. In 2019 it produced 45% of the world’s REEs. Decades of operations have led to the massive pollution of local soil and water with heavy metals, fluorine and arsenic, which have been seriously poisoning local inhabitants and ecosystems. Long-term industrial mining activities have produced huge amounts of tailings that contain rare-earth elements as well as toxic chemical elements, heavy metals and radioactive elements. This pollution affects the Yellow River watershed, which nearly 200 million people rely on for drinking water, irrigation, fishing, and industry. Bayan Obo is a global reminder of the enormous hazards, radioactive pollution risks and related health consequences that REE extraction and processing entail.