European Moves to Restrict Palm Oil Have Enraged Malaysia and Indonesia
By Joe Sandler Clarke
"Don't expect us to continue buying European products," Malaysia's former plantations minister Mah Siew Keong told reporters in January last year. His comments came just after he had accused the EU of "practising a form of crop apartheid."
A few months later Luhut Pandjaitan, an Indonesian government minister close to President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, warned his country would retaliate if it was "cornered" by the EU.
In the past two years the European Commission and several European countries have weighed up plans to restrict imports of palm oil amid growing concern about the environmental impact of the crop. But the world's biggest producers launched an aggressive diplomatic pushback, threatening to cancel deals worth billions for everything from salmon to fighter jets.
Groups backed by the Malaysian government launched social media campaigns against European government officials and a well-known supermarket, at the same time.
Unearthed has pieced together the story of the diplomatic spat through conversations with stakeholders, politicians and official emails.
Palm oil is a cheap and versatile vegetable oil, derived from the oil palm tree that grows easily in the tropics. It has seeped into everything over the last two decades, from chocolate bars to jet fuel.
In the 20 years from 1995 to 2015, global palm oil production increased from 15.2 million tons to 62.6 million tons. It's been estimated that 50 percent of all packaged goods sold in western supermarkets contain palm oil.
Some conservationists say palm oil is a good alternative to other environmentally unfriendly crops, because it uses less land than other vegetable oils.
However, its environmental impact on Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce about 85 percent of the world's palm oil, has been marked; contributing to a big increase in deforestation in both countries. Today, Indonesia is the world's fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to land use change. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2017 the country lost 24.4 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover, equivalent to 2.44 gigatons of CO₂ emissions. Malaysia lost 7.29Mha of tree cover in the same period.
A study published in February last year in the journal Cell Biology found that 150,000 Borneo orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015, partly as a result of the expansion of the palm oil trade. The IUCN states that 193 critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable animals — including African forest elephants and chimpanzees — are directly threatened by palm oil.
As well as the obvious environmental disruption, the dramatic growth of the palm oil sector has reshaped the political and economic systems of both Malaysia and Indonesia.
Today palm oil exports make up between 5 percent and 7 percent of GDP in both countries. Helena Varkkey, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Malaya, explains that over the last two decades "palm oil has become intrinsically linked to development in Malaysia, both as a vehicle for economic growth and as a way for the state to get smallholder farmers out of poverty."
Varkkey says the growth of the industry in southeast Asia has created a powerful and well-connected political lobby, backed up by nationalistic pride and an ideological commitment to the crop.
Diplomatic pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia intensified at the start of last year, when MEPs voted to phase-out palm oil in biofuels from counting towards the EU's new renewable energy guidelines, which will take effect in 2020.
These rules pose a particular problem to palm oil companies, because a decade or so ago analysts predicted a glowing future for biofuels. In 2010 the EU drafted its first renewable energy directive, setting clean energy rules and targets for member states, and providing an incentive for member states to switch to palm oil-based biodiesel for cars.
In anticipation, palm oil producers stepped up production and created new plantations. These plantations have now reached maturity, but with scientists and legislators increasingly aware of the environmental impact of crops like palm oil, the expected biofuels boom has not materialized, leaving producers with a mounting oversupply problem.
Chris Malins, a consultant on alternative fuels explains: "The biggest potential growth area for palm oil is fuels. This is a growing industry in the medium and long term, and nothing Europe does will change that, but if we stop layering on additional demand for palm oil in biofuels that will limit those more aggressive demand scenarios."
The vote in the European Parliament set off a major lobbying effort by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments and palm oil interests both in Brussels and in European capitals, as the European Commission deliberated over the final shape of the new green energy rules.
In the UK Indonesian and Malaysian officials appeared to dangle a post-Brexit trade deal in an effort to get the UK to oppose the EU move on palm oil in biofuels, according to government emails from early February 2018.
Foreign Office officials said a few days later that "every minister engaging with Malaysia" should expect to be lobbied on palm oil, including Theresa May, who was due to meet then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in April 2018. In the end, Razak was unable to attend the event.
British diplomats also feared that the EU fight could torpedo a multi-billion pound deal for Malaysia to replace its aging fighter jet fleet with Eurofighter Typhoon jets manufactured by BAE Systems. And Foreign Office staff complained about both countries putting pressure on diplomats to hit back on a move by Iceland supermarket to remove palm oil from its own-brand goods.
With a number of European countries considering their own moves to limit palm oil imports on environmental reasons, the push-back on the continent was similarly intense.
This January, Malaysia's new-elected premier, Mahathir Bin Mohamed, sent a personal letter to Emmanuel Macron threatening the suspension of free trade talks and "regrettable economic and trade consequences" for €6 billion of French exports, because of the French "de facto ban" on palm oil. In early summer 2018, French politicians moved to cap and progressively phase-out imports of the commodity.
The move came two-and-a-half-years after French politicians scrapped plans for a tax on unsustainable palm oil in 2016 after being warned that passing the law could lead to the execution of a French citizen convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia, as reported here.
When the Norwegian parliament asked the government to develop measures to exclude biofuels with a high risk of deforestation, both Indonesia and Malaysia tried to hit back.
Mahathir wrote to the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg in January warning that the country's plan to phase out palm oil from biofuels in 2020 could have "regrettable economic and trade consequences" both for Malaysia's smallholder farmers and for Norway. Malaysia's new primary industries minister, Teresa Kok, warned that free trade negotiations with European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states (which includes Norway, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) could be "adversely affected."
Art direction: Georgie Johnson. Illustration: Freya Morgan
Speaking to reporters after the signing of the Indonesia-EFTA trade deal in December last year, Indonesian trade minister Enggartiasto Lukita said palm oil had been a major sticking point in negotiations.
Lukita added that he had threatened to leave Norwegian salmon out of the deal if EFTA states restricted access for palm oil. "I said, we've gone a long way. You will benefit from this and I too. So if you don't open up for our palm, let's just forget about this."
The Norwegian government declined to comment when approached by Unearthed.
'Don't Be Like Richard'
These high-level diplomatic spats have been matched by an online campaign established by Malaysia's smallholder associations and Malaysian government agencies targeting the EU, key member states and private companies.
Last spring, after Iceland supermarket announced its high-profile palm oil move, a group called Human Faces of Palm Oil began spreading messages on social media about the company's Executive Director Richard Walker. One video posted on Twitter and YouTube ran with the line: "Richard only wants to attack poor palm oil small farmers in Africa and Asia. Don't be like Richard."
Why Iceland and Mr Walker are wrong about palm oil, in one short video. https://t.co/SpYvoNIaUN— Faces of Palm Oil (@Faces of Palm Oil)1524088665.0
As the Times reported, while Human Faces of Palm Oil describes itself as a platform to tell the stories of Malaysia palm oil smallholders, it was set up by several Malaysian groups, including two government agencies: Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA).
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), an official trade body, is also listed online as one of the groups behind the Human Faces of Palm Oil. MPOC operates from the same physical address as the economic and industry division of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), a government agency.
MPOC made its presence felt during free trade agreement negotiations in Europe last autumn, when CEO Kalyana Sundram dominated discussions that were supposed to be led by plantations minister Teresa Kok, according to one senior European political figure at the table, who asked to remain anonymous.
"It was weird because this lobbyist was interfering a lot in the discussions," the official explained. "He would say stuff like 'the minister wants to tell you …' or [he would] translate what she had tried to say. I found it peculiar because normally the minister is the boss of the lobbyist but it seemed as if the lobbyist was in charge of the minister."
Neither Kok nor Sundram responded to a request for comment from Unearthed.
Farmers Unite, another online campaign publicly backed by MPOC, launched with three full-page ads in the run-up to Christmas in the London free newspaper City AM, calling on Iceland boss Walker to end his "colonial crusade" against palm oil.
The group's founder Thompson Ayodele wrote a series of op-eds in Asia and west Africa, at the same time, decrying moves in Europe to restrict palm oil imports. Ayodele is the founder of the Nigerian thinktank the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA) and in 2015 authored research for Malaysia's Sime Darby Plantation.
The National Association of Smallholders (NASH) is another Malaysian group publicly backing both the Human Faces of Palm Oil and Farmers Unite campaigns. Over the last 12 months, NASH has placed several ads in Politico Europe, a magazine that reaches power brokers in Brussels, denouncing the EU's palm oil policy as "crop apartheid."
Unearthed approached NASH, Thompson Ayodele and MPOC for a comment on this story, but received no response.
Farmers Unite did, however, issue the following tweet.
Last Wednesday, after all the diplomatic wrangling, the European Commission recommended that palm oil should be phased-out from transport fuel on environmental grounds. The EU measure places limits on what types of palm oil biofuels can count towards member states' renewable energy targets.
The Malaysian government called the move a "calculated political act" and threatened to bring a World Trade Organization challenge if it goes ahead.
A statement from the country's foreign ministry read: "Such an aggressive trade barrier targeted at Malaysia's national interests, and our 650,000 small farmers, cannot pass without a strong response."
What’s Worse Than Palm Oil for the Environment? Other Vegetable Oils, IUCN Study Finds https://t.co/Hr1LvfA2FS @RAN @orangutans @opfuk— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1530755705.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Unearthed.
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.