Pedernales is the main vestige to date with the highest concentration of what is now called “rare earths” in the Dominican Republic. However, these are not used in any way at the local level, but rather are “gifted” to a company that, in turn, exports them to China for nothing, say experts in the field.
¿What are the rare lands? How important are they? What is the current context of the country? These are 17 elements of the periodic table grouped in block F and belonging to the Lanthanide family, which have in common that they are “excellent” conductors of electricity and have magnetic properties. Indeed, they are vital for the production of clean energy, the aeronautical world, medical equipment, weapons and technology.
The global demand for rare earths for this year is 62,230 metric tons (MT). In 2024 it will increase by 2.2%, since it is projected to be close to 63,610 MT and in 2025 around 4.5%, because it is estimated to reach 65,040 MT, according to Statista.
By 2040, the figures are expected to increase significantly, since only electric vehicles (they use 25% rare earths) are seen, a vehicle park of 50%. These are fundamental raw materials for the main sectors that move the world economy, say the experts, who indicate that it is the main reason why the great powers fight for control of these minerals and countries like China use it as a geopolitical strategy.
Reality in the Dominican Republic
For the professor and manager of the Environmental Section of the Scientific Laboratory of the General Directorate of Customs (DGA), Arismendis Gómez Pérez, the country has a high potential for deposits of rare earths. He assures that previous studies and the one carried out by that entity confirm the expectations, which, if profitable and depending on the amount, would unite the country with Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia at the regional level. But, also, it would place the Creole mine in the “eyes” of the international markets, since the big economies will want to acquire the “coveted mineral”. According to the data that elDinero had access to, at the Las Mercedes mine, in the province of Pedernales, there is a presence of at least 13 of the 17 rare earth elements.
Taken together, their abundance in the earth’s crust is estimated at 364 ppm (part per million). Of which, samarium (Sm) has the highest preponderance with 71.4% reporting 260 ppm. Praseodymium (Pr) follows with 9%, which is equivalent to 33 ppm. Followed by Yttrium (Y) that reflected 5.4% with 20 ppm.
Lanthanum (La) and Neodymium (Nd) reported 4.4%, because they accumulated 16 ppm, respectively. The rest (Scandium, Cerium, Promethium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium and Lutetium) elements with a lower presence were reported below four ppm, according to the studies.
As of January 2023, the price of these elements in the Chinese market varies according to demand and the type of element. They range from €14 per kilogram (Kg), which is the lowest in the case of Ytterbium, up to €1,880 / Kg for Terbium. Likewise, from €1,185 per meter (Mt) that Cerium is worth to €106,613 / Mt, which reflects Neodymium, according to the German Institute for Rare Earths and Strategic Metals (ISE, in German).
Gómez Pérez, a researcher and graduate of Chemistry from the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD), explains that the SYSMIN II program of the National Geological Service reported around 1,723 ppm in the samples collected at greater depths in these 13 elements. Meanwhile, those reviewed by the University of Barcelona yielded close to 1,250 ppm and the DGA Laboratory registered 775 ppm, which indicates positive data to be exploited.
“All that volume and proportion of rare earths goes into exports to China. The State has to stop with respect to the exploitation of the Pedernales bauxite again, because together with this material there are these elements, which are not contemplated, quantified or receive any type of profit or use for the country. The State is losing in this sales contract that, moreover, has expired,” says Gómez.
Enmanuel Echavarría Lluberes, also a researcher and professor of Chemistry at the UASD, agrees about the potential that the country has. He considers that apart from Pedernales, other areas that could have large concentrations are Bonao and Monte Plata. To a lesser degree he points to Cotuí, Independencia, Bahoruco and Hato Mayor. However, “the only way to be sure of what we have is through mineral exploration, a process that has not found political will here.”
On the subject of rare earths, bauxite and China, he points out that “in 2015 exports were paralyzed. However, today the same operations continue despite the fact that the report was submitted to these authorities. Rare earths are being taken from us and nobody is doing anything. We are not against it, what we want is responsible mining”, he indicated. At the same time, he explained that in one ton of extracted material, close to two grams of a single element can appear, for this reason he points out that specific studies are urgent, since, if it is “a lot or a little, whether it is exported or not”, it is he is letting in hundreds of millions of dollars.
“In the country, we have the technological equipment and human capital with the necessary capacity, the only thing missing is investment and state will. With US$3 million you can carry out a complete exploration and analyze the entire national territory. Indeed, creating the metallurgical profile, the geological, physicochemical and petrographic analysis, which would be a great advance for Dominican mining. The investment is “minimal” compared to all the return of benefits that can be obtained in the medium and long term,” says Echavarría.
The geologist Osiris de León, although he differs that the country could be a reality in terms of rare earths, since he considers that the concentrations are below what can be exploited, he suggested further investigation and that the State invest.
“This is an activity with high economic risk, but important. A single drilling 200 to 300 meters deep can cost close to US$40,000 without taking into account paying professionals, and dozens need to be done. It is a vital procedure to determine potential deposits such as rare earths, more gold, more silver or industrial rocks, such as: granites, tonalites, marble, limestone, among others”, he specified.
Between 2010 and the third quarter of 2022, the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the mining sector accumulated US$4,679.9 million, with 2012 (1,169.4 million) being the largest.
During the first 11 years of this period it registered an average of 0.5% as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP). Regarding the Pedernales mine, which began in 1958 with a reserve of 41,300 metric tons (MT) and currently stands at around 14,000 MT, he said that there is nothing interesting beyond bauxite, for this reason Alcoa Company, the first mining company to exploit it, returned it voluntarily to the State.
“For rare earths or gold to be a mine, more than two ppm per tons of material is needed, “therefore, if this mining company had detected this amount, I assure you that it would not return the concession,” he maintains.
The Las Mercedes deposit, comprised of four zones, has a total of 3,054 tasks and has been managed by seven more companies: Ideal Dominicana, Lecanto Materials Company, NovaMining, Sierra Bauxita Dominicana, Granos Dominicanos, Indobauxite Mining and Dovemco. Alcoa is the one that records the largest amount of bauxite extracted with around 22.3 million MT.
The former scientific adviser to the Executive Branch agrees that state support for local mining is low and criticized the low budget received, which goes on the payroll.
“The State is shy when it comes to investment. He doesn’t believe in mining. Investment is made here because the private sector gets involved and with everything it invests they put obstacles to development, a sample is in San Juan, with that of Romero; The border, with Unigold; the tail dam, with Barrick and Loma de Miranda, with Falconbridge,” he said.
In addition, he expressed that mining cannot be seen as a secret issue, a “cuckoo.” It must be open to all communities and sectors, since without mining the world today is paralyzed. Therefore, it cannot be politicized or depend on the government of the day.
At the end of 2022, China has a proven reserve of 44,000 million MT of these elements, the largest globally. However, this is not what makes it great, rather it is the only one that has the ability to extract, separate and regenerate, as well as an entire industry at its disposal to produce derivatives. In 2021, it had a production of 168,000 MT and last year around 210,000, that is, 25% more, according to Statista.
Vietnam is the second in reserves with an amount of 22,000 million MT. Followed by Brazil and Russia that reported the same amount with 21,000 million MT, respectively. India has about 7 billion MT and Australia about 4,200. Meanwhile, the United States registers 2,100 million MT.