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” , it is the largest rare earth element (REE) mineral deposit in the world, accounting for 45% of worldwide REE production in 2019 . 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 . 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 .
Observations made by the local inhabitants about the massive pollution of regional soils and water as well as the intoxication of animals and human-beings  are corroborated by extensive research literature exposing the consequences of heavy metals, fluorine and arsenic resulting from the decades of mining that have been seriously poisoning local inhabitants and ecosystems      . The geographer and REE specialist J.M. Klinger has done on-field research work to investigate the issue .
Long-term industrial mining activities have produced huge amounts of tailings. Iron and REE ore are currently mined at a rate of 15,000 tons per day, resulting in a tailing area covering 11.5 km2 containing 150 million tonnes of tailings, including mainly rare earth elements as well as toxic chemical elements, heavy metals and radioactive material (thorium) . This tailing dam (which was called by local people “Rare Earth Lake”, “xituhu” in mandarin) was built in 1966, at the same time as the processing plants which use several acid baths to extract REE from the tailings of the mined ore. The acid method is the most polluting one but also the cheapest, compared to the other available alkaline methods (low pollution but high cost) [c1][c2].
Xinguangsancun Village (新光三村) is located only 5 km East from the tailing dam, and Baotou residential areas are 12 km from it. Local inhabitants interviewed by the investigative journalist C. Bontron explained that at the end of the 1980s “Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful”. 10 years later as vegetables simply wouldn’t grow any longer, farmers were forced to leave their fields, or to grow contaminated wheat and corn . One of the farmers explained that he found the last of his pigs dead in 2007. It was the last of his farm animals to die, following the goats, chicken, cows and horses which had been deadly poisoned. According to a document from the Committee of Dalahai Up Village (located 1.5 km West from the dam) (打拉亥村) in 2000 “horses [had] long teeth; donkeys rotten teeth; mule mouth pain; cow stomach pain, rotten bones, and severe hair loss after drinking water, leading to death [by starvation]” [c2]. This “Long Teeth Disease”, known as fluorosis, also affected human-beings . A local villager, Hao Bingwen, said that at that time, the children's teeth were uneven, and some had double-layered teeth. Adults lose their teeth in their 30s, and they would fall off with a simple pull [c2]. In Xinguangsancun Village “There’s a lot of diabetes, osteoporosis [hemiplegia, cancer] and chest problems. All the families are affected by illness” says He Guixiang, a 60-year-old farmer . From 1993 to the end of 2005, 66 people died of cancer; and since 2006, there has been 14 deaths in the village, of which 11 were caused by cancer [c1]. Research studies also showed that the people living and working in the Mining Area were found with a higher concentration of 22 chemical elements potentially harmful to health in their hair, which was used as a biomarker of exposure to chemical elements .
Small-scale mining activities had been conducted in Bayan Obo for 80 years, before the discovery of iron minerals in 1927 and REE in 1936 . But industrial-scale mining overwhelmingly changed the extent of the environmental and health impacts. Bayan Obo received massive soviet investment, planning and expertise during the 1950s, laying the groundwork for the place to become the REE capital of the world . In the 1980s, globalization further accelerated the mining activities as companies and governments from the global North chose to subcontract steps of REE mining to China to save money, avoid environmental regulations , thereby importing essential resources while exporting the massive pollution and its dreadful consequences. In 2000, when the main U.S. mining site shut down in Mountain Pass due to environmental violations, China was mining more than 95 % of the REE used worldwide (63% in 2019 ). 80% of the light REE resources in China are distributed in the Bayan Obo region .
The operating company is the Baogang Group (Baotou Iron and Steel Group), a major iron and steel state-owned enterprise founded in 1954 in Baotou. It is the largest REE industrial research and production base in the world . Despite the strategies from the Chinese government to conceal the consequences of the Bayan Obo opencast mining activities, an increasing number of research papers about it are becoming available. This might be only the tip of the iceberg, knowing that most of government-funded research is kept secret – considered too sensitive for public disclosure –, often censored to minimize the problems caused by mining, or simply not translated in English to prevent “criticism of China”, according to Klinger .
The official story in public government reports is that there have been no farmers or herders in Bayan Obo for decades, that they all have been resettled or found other employment opportunities elsewhere . In fact, according to an elder herder, Bayan Obo used to belong to Mongolian nomads and the site of the actual mine was once a sacred mountain for them. Nobody wanted to leave but “first the animals got sick, then the infants, and then everybody else” . One of the first farmers to go, Lu Yongqing, explains that “I couldn’t feed my family any longer” . In Xinguangsancun, the population dropped from 2,000 to 300 people in 10 years. “The refugees from Xinguangsancun are treated as second-class citizens and mercilessly exploited” as reported by C. Bontron .
The villagers who stayed, organized gatherings to talk about their health problems and define resistance strategies. “I’ve been knocking on government doors for nearly 20 years” says He Guixing. “To begin with, I’d go every day, except Sundays” . For many years, the five villages around the tailing dam have been fighting against the Baogang Group. They finally obtained a promise of financial compensation, which had only been partly fulfilled in 2012 . The company invested 300 million yuan (US$43 million) and the municipal government 200 million yuan to relocate the five villages around the tailing dam. New housing was effectively built a few kilometers away. However, due to various reasons such as the distance of the relocation site, disagreements on relocation costs and compensation, and the fact that the government demands the villagers to buy the right to occupy their flat, no one among the villagers is willing to relocate, and the completed residential resettlement buildings were still vacant by 2012 [art3]. Some of the villagers organized to make some money by selling tailings – still containing some REE – from the tailings dam to reprocessing plants. But this practice was made illegal and criminalized by the central government, depriving them of even that resource. In 2012 one of them was on trial, risking a 10-year prison sentence . The villagers were clearly denied their human right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, as well as their right to security and freedom of expression with the efforts of the local and central governments to maintain secrecy around the issues and to minimise it when they started to spread  .
The dangers of this “misplaced nationalist pride”, according to Klinger, are serious and the consequences unfortunate . A research paper exposes the “considerable mixed heavy metal pollution” in several hot-spots of the mining area and mine tailing area. It also warns that at least two heavily polluted brownfield sites which have been redeveloped into a park and a large commercial centre because “It is claimed that the site was cleaned up” based on a general investigation of soil pollution launched by the Baotou municipal government. But “the results of these approaches remain unknown […] not public”. “However, the results of this research indicated that this site remained heavily polluted by heavy metals with high potential ecological risk” . Other available research studies warn against the large-scale health threat caused by the wastewater irrigation system in Baotou region which carries toxic trace metals from the mining activities to the Yellow River (YR) . According to a senior engineer in the Baotou Radiation and Environmental Management Office, in 2004 11 REE companies directly discharged sewage into the YR without any treatment [c2]. This river provides drinking water for 155 million people and irrigates 40% of the total wheat production in China. It is reported that “long-term irrigation with polluted YR water led to metal accumulation in local farmland soil and spring wheat. The consumption of YR water and spring wheat in Baotou region can cause adverse health effects to local people . There is therefore a large-scale disturbance of the hydro system in the region, as well as important long-term geological impacts due to the extensive mining activities and infiltrations from the tailing areas.