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Bayan Obo world biggest rare earths mine, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China

The"Hometown of Rare Earth" in Bayan Obo, upon which half of all advanced technologies in the world rely, is also one of the most heavily polluted areas of the world. Local inhabitants, ecosystems, and the Yellow River are paying unbearable costs


Bayan Obo is an industrial mining town based on rare earth production (as well as iron and niobium), metallurgy and machinery manufacturing in Inner Mongolia, China. Self-proclaimed “Hometown of Rare Earths” [1], it is the largest rare earth element (REE) mineral deposit in the world, accounting for 45% of worldwide REE production in 2019 [2].  These 17 REEs are essential to advanced modern technologies, from smartphones to GPS receivers, but also to “clean technologies” such as wind farms, photovoltaic panels, and electric cars, as well as cancer treatments and sophisticated weapons [3]. Their unique physicochemical properties make them indispensable to both modern daily life and warfare and without them, a computer would be approximately as big as a room [4].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Bayan Obo world biggest rare earths mine, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China
State or province:Inner Mongolia
Location of conflict:Bayan Obo and Baotou, 白云鄂博矿区
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Tailings from mines
Metal refineries
Mineral processing
Specific commodities:Steel
Rare metals
Iron ore
Project Details and Actors
Project details

China now hosts 36% of the world’s total REE reserve base, and the Chinese REE production accounted for 63% of the total world production in 2019 [10]. 80% of the REE reserves in China are distributed in the Bayan Obo region, Inner Mongolia, Northern China [11]. The Bayan Obo open-pit mine contained approximately 1.4 billion tons of iron, 1 million tons of Nb2O5, and more than 40 million tons of REE minerals. Its production alone accounted for 45% of the total world REE production in 2015 [2].

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Project area:4,800 ha in Bayan Obo Mining Area and 1,150 ha in Baotou Tailing Area
Level of Investment for the conflictive projectUnknown but massive
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:2,650,000 in Baotou; 22,000 employees and their families near Bayan Obo; 2,000 in Xinguang Sancun
Start of the conflict:01/01/1980
Company names or state enterprises:Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Union Co., Ltd from China - Ferrous metal extraction, processing and manufacturing, massive pollution in the Bayan Obo mining district
Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth Hi-Tech Co., Ltd from China - REE extraction, reprocessing and manufacturing, massive pollution in the Bayan Obo mining district
Baogang Group, Baotou Iron and Steel Group from China - Mining company in Bayan Obo, massively polluting Bayan Obo Mining District, Baotou City and the Yellow River
Relevant government actors:- Baotou municipal government (supporting the Baogang Group mining activities, collecting financial compensation for local inhabitants, research and investigation about soil and ecosystems' pollutions, defining government reports public (in)accessibility )
- Central government (defining national environmental/health quality standards, criminalizing REE waste picking)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- Local villagers from Xinguang Sancun (gatherings, pressure to the local government)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageUnknown
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Industrial workers
Informal workers
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Referendum other local consultations
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents
Potential: Accidents
Other Health impactsContinuous exposure to trace metal, radioactive waste and coal burning residues (ingestion, inhalation, dermal contact)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Violations of human rights, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Numerous scientific environmental assessments and brownfield redevelopment, false government claims and secrecy
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:It is one of the most heavily polluted areas in the world from industrial mining, processing, and manufacturing. Ecosystems, farm animals, vegetables, and humans have been exposed to continuous pollution, contracted several serious illnesses, and died from it in a lot of cases.
Only financial compensation has been promised to the local farmers, which they didn't fully receive by 2012.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Li K., Liang T., Wang L., Yang Z. (2015) Contamination and health risk assessment of heavy metals in road dust in Bayan Obo Mining Region in Inner Mongolia, North China. Journal of Geographical Sciences.
[click to view]

[5] Pan Y., Li H. (01/2016) Investigating Heavy Metal Pollution in Mining Brownfield and Its Policy Implications: A Case Study of the Bayan Obo Rare Earth Mine, Inner Mongolia, China. Environmental Management.
[click to view]

[6] Si W. et al. (2014) Health Risks of Metals in Contaminated Farmland Soils and Spring Wheat Irrigated with Yellow River Water in Baotou, China. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 94, p. 214-219.
[click to view]

[7] Liu L. et al. (2019) Trace Elements in the Feathers of Waterfowl from Nanhaizi Wetland, Baotou, China. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 102, p. 778-783.
[click to view]

[8] Pan Y., Li H. (2015) Trace elements in scalp hair from potentially exposed individuals in the vicinity of the Bayan Obo mine in Baotou, China. Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, volume 40, issue 3, p.678-685.
[click to view]

[9] Li J, Hong M, Yin X, Liu J (2010) Effects of the accumulation of the rare earth elements on soil macrofauna community. Journal of Rare Earths, Vol.28, No.6, p.957.
[click to view]

[11] Fan H.R., Yang K.F., Hu F.F., Liu S., Wang K.Y. (2015) The giant Bayan Obo REE-Nb-Fe deposit, China: Controversy and ore genesis. Geoscience Frontiers, volume 7, issue 3, p.335-344
[click to view]

[1] Klinger J. (2013) Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Fall 2013. Center for Latin American Studies.
[click to view]

[3] Bontron C. (2012) Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages. The Guardian.
[click to view]

[4] Butters J. (2016) Elements of conflict - The scramble to control the rare elements powering the modern world. Arts and Sciences.
[click to view]

[12] Wikipedia (2020) Baotou Steel.
[click to view]

[13] You T. (05/2019) Inside China's 'capital of rare earths': Beijing flaunts its sprawling mining city which has '100 million tonnes' of the minerals as it warns to ban exports if US refuses to back down in the trade war. Mailonline.
[click to view]

[c1] 翟冠朝 (2009) 世界狂挖中国稀土 矿区附近村庄癌症患者激增. 每日经济新闻. (accessed on 2020-07-19)
[click to view]

[c2] 黎光寿 (2010) 暗藏生态炸弹 包头“稀土湖”调查. 每日经济新闻. (accessed on 2020-07-19)
[click to view]

[c3] 记者 王亚光 张云龙 朱晓光 (2011) 包头稀土尾矿库之危:村民常年受环境污染困扰. 新华网. (accessed on 2020-07-19)
[click to view]

Other comments:[10] Ober J. (2020) U.S. Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020. USGS, p. 132-133.
Meta information
Contributor:Noam Marseille, [email protected]
Last update04/08/2020
Conflict ID:5130
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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