Rare earth, a blessing and curse for Chinese villagers

08:15, March 14, 2011      

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When rare earth mining started in the 1970s, Yuan Dapeng thought the precious mineral resource was a gift of nature to his hometown. However, now he doubts it.

Yuan, a 63-year-old farmer, lives in Huangsha village in the southern part of east China's Jiangxi Province. The village has more than 1,700 residents and abundant rare earth resources.

Like the other villagers in Huangsha, Yuan does not know the names of Lanthanum, Praseodymium or Neodymium, and he does not know that the 17 so-called rare earth metals have become increasingly important in producing myriad modern goods from aerospace alloys to wind turbines, electric car batteries and mobile phones. But he does know mining these minerals has poisoned his village's fields and streams.

To dig up the minerals, trees on the hills were toppled and the topsoil was removed, while toxic chemicals were pumped into drilled holes to refine the metals, Yuan said.

Many hillsides around the village were turned into "lunar landscapes "in the 1990s because of a "gold rush" for rare earths. Although improved mining method in 1994 had minimized the destruction to vegetation, water pollution was left unsolved, he said.

The stream running through Yuan's village has turned bluish-green, with yellow mine tailings piled on both of its banks.

"The stream used to be our irrigation water source and habitat for a large group of fish and shrimp," Yuan said. However, the stream can no longer be used to water crops nor keep fish and shrimp alive.

Yuan could only turn to precipitation for his rice crops' output. The output of his 4.8-mu (0.32 hectares) rice fields was low last year, while the land plot near the stream harvested nothing.

To make things worse, the wells in the village were also poisoned. "We use pipes to drain drinking water from neighboring villages," he said.

Despite all these challenges and troubles, Yuan and his villagers do not want a ban on rare earth mining and exploitation, as the village lives off the minerals.

In Huangsha village, rare earth mining and refining has become a pillar industry, which provides jobs and around 40 percent of local fiscal revenues.

Like other villagers in Huangsha, Yuan always works temporary jobs at the rare earth mines during slack farming season, where he can earn more than 50 yuan (7.6 U.S. dollars) per day.

Speaking about the current situation, Yuan said he can do nothing but make a wish -- he hopes his crops can resume their previous high output and the village stream can resume its central role to the community, seen before rare earth mining.

Yuan felt hopeful as the Chinese government stepped up efforts to tackle environmental threats in the rare earths sector.

China's Ministry of Environmental Protection announced in January tough limits on emission of rare earth pollutants, aiming to raise the environmental threshold of rare earth mining and smelting.

The emission regulations will take effect starting from October 1.

As the world's largest rare earth producer and exporter, China supplies more than 90 percent of the global rare earth demand. However, its reserves account for about one-third of the world's total.

To control the environmental damage, China has announced a series of measures to regulate the sector, including reduced export quotas, crackdown on illegal mining and smuggling.

Source: Xinhua
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