PROJECT M
 

Spoils of the earth

In the Jiangxi Province of southern China, the mining of rare earths has caused a boom in the local economy. But as demand for the valuable elements increases, environmental and political challenges arise

Clifford Coonan & Greg Langley
© Panos Pictures

Spoils of the earth

In the Jiangxi Province of southern China, the mining of rare earths has caused a boom in the local economy. But as demand for the valuable elements increases, environmental and political challenges arise

Clifford Coonan & Greg Langley

Not as common as dirt

Rare earths (lanthanides – elements 57 to 71 in the periodic table – plus yttrium and scandium) are more common than the name implies. Worldwide reserves are considered sufficient to last 800 years at current consumption rates, but the challenge is finding concentrated deposits suitable for extraction and separation.

Rare earths are divided into light and heavy elements. While light rare earths are abundant, a critical shortfall in heavy rare earths is emerging, particularly in dysprosium and terbium because of their use in the growing green-energy field. China mines more than 99% of the world’s supply of these elements, with production taking place in northern Guangdong and Jiangxi Province.

Violent criminal gangs have taken to illegal mining – which can be more lucrative than drug smuggling. Smugglers mix rare earths with steel and then export the steel composites. The processes are reversed overseas and the elements recovered.

According to statistics, the amount of rare earths smuggled out of China in 2011 was 1.2 times the amount legally exported, Ma Rongzhang, secretary-general of the Association of China Rare Earth Industry, told the China Daily newspaper. This means nearly 22,320 tons of rare earths were smuggled out of China that year.