In addition to nearly six million tons of chromium and antimony, the site of a proposed mine within a Pursat province wildlife sanctuary may also contain several million tons of copper, a mining executive said Tuesday.
Khun Kakda, vice chairman of Southern Mining Company, which is seeking to extract the ore, said Tuesday that after nearly a year of exploration, his Cambodian company now believes there are sufficient deposits in the 10,000-hectare mining concession to warrant the construction of a refinery.
Along with the mine, the refinery could employ as many as 1,000 workers, he said.
“We will produce minerals for market unless any minerals require too much energy to refine. We’ll send those overseas,” he said.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth in July issued a permit to Southern Mining to explore for antimony and chromium within the concession, which is located within the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary.
In August, the ministry lifted a 12-year ban on the practice of mining in protected areas, according to ministry documents.
Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary covers nearly 334,000 hectares stretching between Pursat, Koh Kong and Battambang provinces and is home to a wide variety of mammals such as tigers, gaur and the endangered Eld’s deer, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
Government officials this week reiterated that allowing the extraction of natural resources in protected areas may sometimes be in the national interest.
At an April meeting with officials from the ministries of Industry, Agriculture and Environment, as well as with provincial officials, mining company executives said they had taken samples as deep as 120 meters and found rich deposits in much of the entire depth, Pursat Governor Chhay Sareth said.
“If we take these minerals from this place for 10 to 20 years, it won’t be finished,” he said Tuesday.
Khun Kakda declined to reveal estimates of the total value of the deposits. He could not say how close his company was to extracting the ore and that it has yet to request permission to do so.
Initial plans are to mine deposits within a one-square-km area, he said. “After one year of exploration, we’ve found chromium, antimony and copper. There’s enough for building a factory here but we’re still doing exploration,” he said.
“We will mine within one square kilometer first and then we will move to another…. But it takes so long and we guarantee that our operations will not affect the environment.”
Industry Ministry Secretary of State Chea Sieng Hong said environmental conservation had to be balanced against economic development.
“We have to consider what is most useful,” he said. “If a place has trees and there are minerals [and] if we think the minerals are most useful, we must cut down the trees,” he said. “If that place is not useful, we will keep the trees.”
Environment Ministry Secretary of State Prach Sun agreed.
“We have to think about the economy to serve the people and the nation but we need to assess the environment, too.”
WWF Country Director Seng Teak said Wednesday that mining within protected areas was a worry for environmentalists.
“It’s a concern for conservation NGOs because it’s happening inside high biodiversity areas within this country,” he said, adding that while he is not familiar with the Southern Mining concession, several companies have sought permission to explore for gold in protected areas in Mondolkiri province.
Mining shouldn’t be entirely excluded from protected areas but the government should designate some important zones within them as off limits, Seng Teak said.