Dearth of Gems Turns Miners Into Farmers

Independent miners around Pailin are turning to farming as a depleted supply of gems is making it more difficult to earn a living searching for the precious stones.

Spurred by rumors of additional ruby and sapphire deposits, some miners have moved to near­by Balang in Battambang’s Samlot district, Mey Makk, Cabinet chief of Pailin, said Tuesday.

“But now most people in Pailin have stopped digging for stones and they have turned to farming because they got nothing from it for years, just malaria,” he said.

Fighting in the 1980s between Khmer Rouge soldiers and Vietnam­ese-supported troops brought an influx of Thai companies and independent Cambodian miners to Pailin’s gem lodes, the most plentiful in Cambodia.

At the time, independent miners faced the opposite challenge. Prices for the plentiful gems were too low for them to support themselves. In both situations, independent miners, who rented plots of land from property owners, had difficulty competing with the Thai companies’ mechanized shovels and sifters. But it has become difficult to find anything in the areas of approximately

5 square meters that miners can afford to rent for gem excavation.

Phon Seng, a gem dealer from Battambang province, complained that he sometimes goes days without buying a stone, a scarcity unheard of in the 1980s and 1990s. “If a gem miner gets [a stone] it is a very small piece and a cheap one,” he said.

Ta Chuon, another dealer from Battambang, said miners now find only small stones for which they earn between $10 and $20 apiece.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Phon Seng said, miners often found “good and big stones,” but he said he has not heard of a miner excavating a quality stone for several months. Even the companies are leaving, he said.

Miners whose livelihoods de­pend on finding precious stones are having trouble finding enough to feed themselves, let alone make a profit.

Sok Khon, a miner from Bat­tambang province, said he sometimes cannot afford to lease his small patch of land. “I lose a lot of money,” he said.

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