Local officials say the miners are ‘opportunists’ seeking compensation
At least 45 families in Mondolkiri province involved in small-scale gold mining operations have been ordered to leave a site where Australian mining firm OZ Minerals is currently carrying out exploration activities, officials said yesterday.
On June 10, authorities visited the families in Keo Seima district for the third time and told them to leave the area, district governor Sin Vanvuth said, adding that the villagers are asking for compensation and a resettlement plan.
The families have carried out mining operations in the area since 2006 and come from Kompong Cham, Kratie, Kompong Thom, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces, Mr Vanvuth said.
“This is why they do not deserve to get compensation because the land has been granted [to OZ Minerals] before they arrived,” he added.
Mr Vanvuth said that in 2006 authorities removed about 500 families who were carrying out illegal mining activities in the same area.
“While the old ones have gone, newcomers have arrived hoping to get lucrative profits from illegal gold mining,” he said.
In March, OZ Minerals released exploration results finding an initial resource of 605,000 ounces of gold at the site known as Okvau Ochung in Mondolkiri, where the company has identified four separate mining targets.
Last month the government announced it would bolster its efforts to stop illegal mining operations but added that it would also strive toward legalizing some of them.
Mr Vanvuth said yesterday that authorities were considering options to remove the families from working at their mining sites. One option is to deploy security forces to oblige the miners to stop, Mr Vanvuth said. The second option is to file a lawsuit at the provincial court accusing the families of operating a mine without a proper license and cutting down trees in the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.
“If we can cut of their revenue source, they will move out of the area themselves,” he said.
OZ Minerals spokeswoman Natalie Worley said yesterday the company had been working with a group of about 1,000 artisanal miners for about four years in the province.
“We understand that very few groups are from Mondolkiri province. Most groups have been there for less than 4 to 5 years,” Ms Worley wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “The removal of these people is not required in order for OZ Minerals to undertake its exploration activities.”
Ms Worley said that many of the villagers being asked to leave are the focus of a government policy to clean up illegal mining activities, which can cause environmental damage due to the use of toxic chemicals.
She added that the government had begun a program asking the illegal miners to leave the Keo Seima area in 2009.
“[B]ut it appears to have recommenced recently,” she wrote, adding that loggers and poachers make up a “significant proportion” of the remaining 60 or so families in the area.
“We were informed around two weeks ago that the authorities were planning to stop illegal activities in the area including mining, logging and poaching,” she wrote. “Throughout the government’s process, we have engaged with authorities very regularly and strongly urged them to treat the people involved with respect and dignity.”
Kong Piseth, director of the provincial department of industry, mines and energy, said OZ Minerals wrote to the ministry about two years ago expressing concern over the widespread use of chemical substances by miners in its concession area.
“The firm and authorities are worried about the overuse of chemicals, which have led to an unmanageable situation,” he said.
Sam Sarin, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said the families had moved to the area between 2002 and 2004.
“The government should consider proper compensation because these families have a proper house and have been living there a along time,” he said. “They moved into the area before the firm [OZ Minerals] arrived.”
Mr Sarin said there are 65 families living in the area facing removal and not 45 as stated by the government.
District council director Len Vanna said that paying compensation to the families would “just encourage opportunists” and would result in illegal activities cropping up elsewhere in the province.
“If they do not move out themselves,” he said, “we will be using legal procedures to clear them.”
Chan Phea, one of the artisanal miners living in Keo Seima’s Chung Plash commune, said her community had been told by district police officers to move out of the area within seven days starting from June 10, a date that has been postponed until June 30.
“If we don’t, they threatened to come and burn down our homes,” she said. “We don’t have enough money to start a new life unless they give us a small plot of land and cash for transporting our belongings.”
But acting district police chief Heng Oung said, “Sometimes police can use strong words. But we never intimidated their life or threaten to burn down their homes.”