China Cracks Down on Illegal Mining of Rare Earth Metals

The Chinese government recently announced that it would further reduce exports of coveted rare earth minerals in the coming year. And now the New York Times reports that much of the mining of such elements is done by gangsters operating outside the law:

Such threats are all too common in this region of southern China, long plagued by gangsters who illegally mine some of the world’s most sought-after industrial metals. The gangs reap profits that can rival drug money, while leaving pollution and violence in their wake.

What is new are efforts by China’s national and provincial governments to crack down on the illegal mines, to which local authorities have long turned a blind eye. The efforts coincide with a decision by Beijing to reduce legal exports as well, including an announcement by China’s commerce ministry on Tuesday that export quotas for all rare earth metals will be 35 percent lower in the early months of next year than in the first half of this year.

Rogue operations in southern China produce an estimated half of the world’s supply of heavy rare earths, which are the most valuable kinds of rare earth metals. Heavy rare earths are increasingly vital to the global manufacture of a range of high-technology products — including iPhones, BlackBerrys, flat-panel televisions, lasers, hybrid cars and wind-power turbines, as well as a lot of military hardware.

China mines 99 percent of the global supply of heavy rare earths, with legal, state-owned mines mainly accounting for the rest of China’s output. That means the Chinese government’s only effective competitors in producing these valuable commodities are the crime rings within the country’s borders.

December 29, 2010 12:45 PM
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