Sourcing Rare Earth Minerals In Central Asia
The availability and sourcing of rare earths are high-profile concerns for governments and corporations in the U.S., western Europe, Japan and elsewhere due to on-going supply chain disruptions and the essential role these materials play in a variety of civilian and defense products and technologies. Despite the name, rare earths are not especially rare, but what is “rare” is their being present in concentrations and quantities great enough for their extraction to make sense commercially. In 1993, the United States, for example, was a notable producer, but domestic production plummeted and by 2011 China controlled of 80 percent of the world’s supply and 90 percent of the rare earths needed for high-tech manufacturing. Finding alternatives to end this near monopoly has become a security imperative.
Central Asian states have promising, known deposits of rare earths and other important minerals. All these countries have sought to attract foreign firms to develop or expand production. However, for a number of reasons, including what experts report as a lack of readily available, up-to-date, and digitalized geologic data, and mining and other laws and practices that can disadvantage foreign firms in a competitive global economy, seem to have hampered developing these rare earth deposits. Good geology alone is not enough.
These issues can be addressed. Increased cooperation with entities such as the U.S. Geological Survey, something other countries have undertaken, can help with the reanalysis of existing data and help authorities in the region have better knowledge of the resources present and how to utilize them. The United States and other western countries can help facilitate interaction between their mining sector and those of Central Asian countries. Western partners and parties in the region can hold forums to raise the profile of the rare earth and other critical reources available in the region, forums which can also help authorities in the region identify laws, regulations, and procedures that need changing to attract and finalize new business in the mining sector. Agencies such as EXIM or the Development Finance Corp. might be able to help with needed financing – something that would also help undercut over-reliance in the region on Chinese investment.
Some of this work is already underway. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, for example, have taken measures to exploit these resources by partnering with international firms and foreign investors. Much more, however, can be done which would place the Central Asian region on the map as a greater source of rare earth elements.