In your pocket right now, you probably have some lanthanum, some europium, maybe a little cerium. At least, if you have your smartphone with you.
Called "rare earth" elements, these minerals critical to the operation of many modern devices live up to the scarcity implied by their name. Though the metals have been found in America, 97 percent of global supply comes from China. Two-thirds of that comes from an area in Inner Mongolia.
The Guardian details what the industry means for the surrounding region.
It was in 1958 -- when [Li Guirong] was 10 -- that a state-owned concern, the Baotou Iron and Steel company (Baogang), started producing rare-earth minerals. ... "To begin with we didn't notice the pollution it was causing. How could we have known?" As secretary general of the local branch of the Communist party, he is one of the few residents who dares to speak out.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Li explains, crops in nearby villages started to fail: "Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful." Ten years later the villagers had to accept that vegetables simply would not grow any longer. In the village of Xinguang Sancun – much as in all those near the Baotou factories -- farmers let some fields run wild and stopped planting anything but wheat and corn.