Myanmar, a developing country plagued by the world’s longest-running civil war, is the world’s third-largest supplier of rare earths, which can be found in most modern-day electronic devices, including green technology like wind turbines and electric vehicles. Tracing their origin reveals extractive practices taking devastating tolls on local environments and communities in Kachin State near the Chinese border. Conceived as Maran’s capstone project for the Mekong Data Journalism Fellowship, our fully-remote team collaborated across state and national borders to build out this investigation despite press censorship and internet and power outages in Myanmar.
While the [first iteration of our data story](https://kachinwaves.com/archives/2237) appeared in Burmese language intended for audiences in Kachin State where Myanmar’s rare earths are being mined, our aim in building out the story with additional research and visual flair was to engage and educate a wider international audience about the very real human and environmental impacts of increasing demand for “green” technology.
To this end, the story reached almost 10,000 unique page views, making it the Kontinentalist’s top story of 2022, as well as reaching over 3000 users on Instagram with 353 likes on our main story post.
Activist organization Justice For Myanmar [shared our story](https://twitter.com/JusticeMyanmar/status/1586587685581254657?s=20&t=_bFgdOM_VGBRrU2YLpuIkg) on Twitter along with a call for businesses to “not source any rare earths from Myanmar.” Nithin Coca, journalist and author of a popular newsletter on politics in Asia, called our story “the best piece I’ve read on #RareEarths,” while Emily Fishbein, a journalist covering Myanmar developments, [shared our story](https://twitter.com/EmilyFishbein11/status/1588905945383698433) ahead of COP27 to call to attention how a global environmental issue impacts a single state in Myanmar.
One year after the coup, Myanmar has shifted to the global news periphery. Yet, the consequences of sidelined conflict are still being felt today. Poor regulation and oversight have created a free-for-all condition for resource exploitation to intensify at the cost of local communities. As Myanmar Data Citizens, we feel it is more important now than ever to raise our community voices and hold institutions accountable.
We are a small, fully-remote team of data creatives, so we’re big on tooling that helps us collaborate across our “stack,” from research and writing to visual design and web development.
Google Sheets was the bread and butter of our hypothesis-driven research process. For each piece of our investigation, we kept track of where we found the data, how we cleaned it, and how we analyzed it, all in a sprawling spreadsheet which we called the “Masterfile”. We drafted our story on Google Docs so that our team members, many of whom were experiencing intermittent internet and/or power outages, could edit asynchronously. We then used our Google Doc as a “CMS” by marking it up with ArchieML, which allowed any team member to make changes to the webpage by simply editing the Google Doc.
Context about the project:
In the aftermath of the 2021 coup in Myanmar, our team participated as data consultants in a fellowship run by the Earth Journalism Network. Together with journalists in the Mekong region, we produced over 15 data-driven stories investigating environmental issues. One of the fellows, Maran, reported on the illegal rare earth mining in northern Myanmar. As an all-Burmese team, we took on this exciting opportunity to further work with a compatriot journalist on a local issue with global supply chain ramifications.
With dismal scores on press freedom, reporting from within Myanmar obviously comes with hurdles. Due to the crackdown on journalists after the coup, our team has chosen to use pseudonyms to conceal our identities. Maran himself reports from an undisclosed location which experiences regular power cuts and internet outages. Safety concerns and lack of oversight also hinder us from measuring the true scale of the problem.
While Maran’s [original article](https://www.mekongeye.com/2022/05/23/myanmars-environment-hit-by-rare-earth-mining-boom/) focuses more on local activities and impacts, we believe that the issue can be made relevant to a wider international audience – anyone who may use rare earths. We were driven by the guilt that the devices we are using might have components that have been siphoned from our own land. We want to instill this awareness to our readers and prompt them to become more responsible consumers
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Data journalism can be more inclusive and reflect the actual communities being impacted by the issue with more effort. In this article, the main author is a non-English speaking Burmese, the data and production team are Burmese, the editors are also Burmese. The story by an all-Burmese team serves an accountability purpose that a Western-led effort would struggle to achieve. To make the project work though, without the typical resources available in big newsrooms, it requires a highly collaborative team dynamic for putting together different skillsets to produce a cohesive piece.
Due to limited press freedom and various other challenges imposed by an authoritarian regime, stories on Myanmar have mostly relied on diaspora voices and foreign academics. It is easy to overlook direct voices from within Myanmar. With the right mix of tools and determination, a quality data journalism piece produced mainly by an all-Burmese team can be achieved.