Millions of Seahorses Wind Up Dead on the Black Market for This Senseless Reason
By Amy McDermott
Behind the scenes at the California Academy of Sciences, baby potbellied seahorses roamed a tall, bubbling tank. They used their prehensile tails to cling to seagrass and to one another. The babies were small and slim as a finger, but as adults, they'd grow that eponymous potbelly, and wobble about, on display in the Academy's Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.
When a keeper approached the tank, the youngsters rushed to the glass, then swam up to the surface, expecting a meal. These fish were living the good life.
They were the lucky ones.
Worldwide, seahorses are in trouble, threatened by habitat loss, and sold in a massive global trade. Scientists say this can't go on, or seahorses will severely decline. But existing conservation efforts may not be enough to save them.
Researchers estimate that 37 million seahorses are taken from shallow, lush coastal waters every year, mostly ensnared by indiscriminate fishing gear. Southeast Asia and West Africa are the main regions exporting them. More than half of captured seahorses end up dead, dried and sold internationally for use in traditional medicines thought to boost virility and even cure impotence. A small percent are plunked into home aquariums, or sold as kitschy souvenirs.
Twelve seahorse species are listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, one step down from endangered. An additional 17 species are understudied, and listed as "data deficient." Two are endangered.
In 2002, an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, responded to mounting concerns by tightening trade restrictions on all 44 species of seahorse. But scientists say that existing measures don't go far enough.
In the decade after the restrictions took effect, tens of millions of seahorses still died worldwide because of nonselective fishing. Millions were still sold around the world. Between 2005 and 2015, the U.S. imported roughly 140,000 live, wild-caught seahorses through Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle alone, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.
To make matters worse, many of the fishing methods to catch seahorses also destroy their habitats. Overfishing is just one part of a much larger issue. Despite legal protection, life keeps getting harder for these unusual fish.
Researchers measure dried seahorses from shops in Viet Nam. Hoang Do Huu / Project Seahorse
A Beastly Problem
Victor Cheng leaned across his office desk, in a small business park, in San Jose, California. He poured over a thick Chinese medical encyclopedia, hunting for "hai ma" or seahorse.
Cheng, a graduate of UC Berkeley and UCLA, practices traditional Chinese medicine in California, and at Shuguang Hospital in Shanghai. When he found "seahorse" in the encyclopedia, he translated the entry. The first records of their medical use appeared about 2,000 years ago, he read, in a Daoist tome, the Baopuzi. They are typically soaked in alcohol, or boiled as a tea, to ostensibly increase sperm count and activity.
While Chinese medicine has a two thousand-year history with seahorses, Cheng said that today, they "are far from commonly used herbs." Seahorses are used recreationally and superstitiously, he said. "I don't even think they stock them in major hospitals in China."
That's not to say that seahorse doesn't work, Cheng added. But they are a folk remedy, like a supplement from a vitamin store. A doctor would prescribe something more potent, like seal's penis, he said.
Despite the seahorse's folk status, traditional medicine still fuels the majority of global demand. To understand why, consider the size of China's population, and its health care system, Cheng said. China is home to more than one billion people. Imagine if just 1 percent bought a single seahorse every year. That would still add up to 14 million animals.
And folk remedies, while sometimes suspect, remain popular because health care is especially unpleasant in China. To make social services affordable, doctors are paid very little. "That doesn't attract top talent to the industry," Cheng said. Rather than visit a doctor they don't trust, rural people head for prestigious (and crowded) urban hospitals, to see a physician with a good reputation, he said. They can wait in long lines for hours, even sleeping on the floor, before being seen. Locally available treatments, like seahorses, are an appealing alternative.
But medical demand isn't the whole story. The problem is much bigger, researchers say. Because, it turns out, most seahorses aren't caught on purpose.
These seahorses, imported from Thailand and photographed in Hong Kong, sell for $70 (left) and $80 (right) per 50 grams. That's roughly $4 to $6 per animal in this case, estimated Lily Stanton of Project Seahorse.Anita Wan Hong / Project Seahorse
The Wrong Catch
Most fishermen don't set out to supply the traditional medicine market. They snare seahorses accidentally, using indiscriminate trawl nets, gill nets and crab traps, while angling for other creatures, said marine scientist Sarah Foster of the conservation group Project Seahorse. Bycatch would be thrown away as trash fish if not for medicinal demand.
"So even if we weren't using seahorses, they would still be caught and killed," Foster said. That makes it unfair to blame traditional medicine for seahorse declines, she added. "It's the overexploitation by non-selective fishing gear that's the problem."
Bycatch hurts seahorses both directly and indirectly: It kills millions a year, while destructive fishing gear damages their habitat by mangling fragile ecosystems, Foster said. The weighted trawl nets that snag these fish also rip up the seabed, along with the grasses, rocks and corals that seahorses cling to.
Perhaps most insidiously, bycatch keeps wild seahorses cheap — at least for now. Fishermen can sell them for very little. They'd otherwise be thrown away, after all. Prices are marked up as seahorses move from local ports to distributors, and into herbal shops worldwide. And as these animals become rarer, demand may drive the cost up further, meaning they'll just get more expensive.
Boxes of loose tea, bags of roots and other natural products line the shelves of herbal shops in San Francisco's Chinatown. Bins of animal and plant-based products are filed neatly beneath glass counters. Dried seahorses used to be common. You could buy them by the scoopful.
Nowadays, questions about seahorses are met with hesitation or silence. Seahorses are gone — or at least, less visible — in Bay Area markets.
Importers now need special permits to sell any non-native species, so shop owners have a much harder time stocking their shelves with seahorses legally. The permits, which have been required since seahorses were listed on the treaty CITES in 2002, certify that any species for sale were caught without harming wild populations, meaning herbal shops can't sell bycatch anymore.
Following permitting requirements, most of the major exporting countries banned seahorse trade. Thailand, the biggest producer, voluntarily suspended its exports in 2016. Ninety-six percent of the global trade is now illegal.
"A decline in reported trade looks like a good thing on paper," Foster said. "But that does not reflect what's really happening." Between 20 and 25 million dead, dried seahorses are still moving across borders every year, she estimated, largely from the same countries as before. Trade bans forced the industry underground, but it's still massive.
"Now we're talking about illegal wildlife trade," Foster said. Desiccated seahorses have a long shelf life and are easy to hide in suitcases. They're shipped illegally, so they don't have permits, making the black market much harder to track.
But even if the trade bans had worked, seahorses would still be dying in droves, because most are killed unintentionally by fishing gear. Regardless if seahorses are traded legally or illegally, Foster said, "what matters is how many are coming out of the water."
More selective fishing gear is one broad solution. "They need to stop trawling," Foster said. "We need much more of the ocean set aside, where these gears are not being used."
As conservationists push for long-term international solutions, aquariums, zoos and private businesses are exploring another option: captive breeding. Learning to farm seahorses, breeders say, offers a glimmer of hope for their future in the wild.
Ninety-six percent of the international trade is now illegal, but seahorses are still sold widely on the black market. Hoang Do Huu / Project Seahorse
Farming the Future
Today, most imported seahorses are wild-caught. But alternatives, like captive breeding, do exist. Farming is especially promising for the pet and aquarium trades, where captive-bred specimens gained popularity after wild ones became harder to buy.
The baby potbellied seahorses that crowded the glass at the California Academy of Sciences, for example, were born and raised in captivity thousands of miles from their native Australia.
Steven Yong sat behind the scenes at the Cal Academy, in a bright conference room framed by sleek, sliding-glass doors. Yong is the Studbook Keeper and Species Survival Program Coordinator for lined seahorses, native to the Eastern Seaboard. It's his job to know the pedigrees kept in every American Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility, and to play matchmaker by recommending which lineages should breed.
Seahorses, he said, are challenging to rear in captivity, because babies, called fry, rarely survive to adulthood. "Tiny fry need tiny food," he said. In lieu of fish flakes, most aquariums feed their seahorses brine shrimp, which are small and relatively inexpensive, but offer limited nutrition. Facilities like the Academy are growing other live food options, to mimic the dietary diversity seahorses get in the wild.
Captive breeding is one promising way ahead for seahorses, but it may not be enough. Peter Vanbillemont / Guylian Seahorses of the World
While aquariums "try to limit our wild collections," Yong said, breeding programs are still far behind those for land animals or even freshwater fish. Scientists don't know enough about many wild populations to bring them into an aquarium setting. But some day, aquarists like Yong hope to breed imperiled seahorses, so they aren't taken from the ocean.
Across the Pacific in Hawaii, Australia and Sri Lanka, seahorse farms have already cropped up. Carol Cozzi-Schmarr has raised seahorses in Kona, Hawaii, since 1998. Her farm, Ocean Rider, supplies 30 species to the pet trade and for global conservation.
"We did it to provide an alternative to taking seahorses out of the ocean," she said. "If we weren't preserving the species, no one would ever see them again." Today, Schmarr said Ocean Rider is large enough to supply the pet trade with thousands of seahorses a year.
Even so, captive breeding is unlikely to be widespread or cost-effective enough to supply the much-larger traditional medicine market, Project Seahorse's Foster cautioned. Schmarr, Foster and Yong emphasized the whole picture of bycatch, lingering market demand and habitat loss as a tangled, wicked problem. Yong questioned if captive breeding can ever really put a dent in seahorse woes. "They still have so many pressures that are causing their decline in the wild," he said.
Until fishing changes, farming won't be enough.
The seahorse trade may have moved underground, but demand, bycatch and habitat loss continue to threaten these whimsical fish.Luc Eeckhart / Guylian Seahorses of the World
The baby potbellied seahorses in San Francisco were a minority—most seahorses aren't so lucky. If global trends continue, some species could disappear from the wild entirely; museums might be the last places to see these charismatic little fish. Captive breeding and farming may help, but imagine, despite the vastness of the oceans, the last of their kind all born behind glass.
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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.