Small Miners’ Struggle as Their Tough Livelihoods Are Being Lost to Corporate Mining
sambor district, Kratie province – As the midday sun beat down on a sandbank here along the Mekong River, two miners were hard at work operating a pump and channeling sandy water down a sloping 5-meter sluice box.
Covered from head to toe in fine red mud, Trok Sokha and his wife perform the backbreaking work for many hours to trap several kilograms of fine sand in the sluice box. In this small heap of sand they hope to find gold.
In a scene reminiscent of the famous US gold rushes of 19th and 20th centuries, they stir the collected material in water in a large funnel-shaped pan and wash sand and mud over the side, gradually leaving the heavier, minuscule particles of gold behind.
This process is repeated over and over by about 30 families that toil in the stifling heat on the sandbank–a 20-hectare area about 5 km north of Sambor town, which they have turned into a ruddy wasteland of flooded pits and huge heaps of pebbles cast aside during the process.
Mr Sokha said he does the heavy work for about 10 hours a day in the dry season in order to help his family get by. “The job is hard. You’re working in the sun all the day long,” he said in an interview last month.
“The money I get is just enough to pay for food and pay off my debt. I don’t earn much, but I have no other job to do,” he said.
Mr Sokha said that each week he collects about 10 heun (about 3.8 grams) of tiny gold flakes, earning him about $150. Much of this income however, he spends again on operating equipment such as pumps, which use about 7 liters of fuel a day. The miners use no heavy chemicals to treat the gold finds.
For villagers in this part of Kratie, such small-scale, seasonal gold mining activity is a lifeline.
“Last year there was no rain. All the rice died. That’s why we came here,” said Yang Yet, 35, another miner. He said the families had come from Sambor commune and two other communes where the rice harvest had failed.
However, in recent years small-scale miners in Kratie province have encountered powerful, well-funded competition in the search for precious metals, as several mining companies, mostly from Australia and China, have obtained exploration rights from the government over vast areas of land.
As so-called “artisanal mining” is not recognized as a legal business activity under current law, villagers frequently lose access to these licensed exploration areas.
Mr Yet said villagers had to resort to gold panning along the Mekong after authorities in November pushed them off a mining site called Anlong Da, located several kilometers north, to make way for a Chinese mining company.
“Before I searched for gold at Anlong Da. Then the Chinese company came and pushed the Cambodians away,” he said, adding that mining at the previous site had been more profitable.
Around 500 villagers had been mining for gold in the area for several decades until the company received a concession there, the UN Development Program said in a recent study on artisanal mining.
There are several similar artisanal gold mining sites in northern Kratie province, according to Sambor district governor Heng Sokha. In one area near Phnom Chi–a mountain located about 50 km northwest of Sambor town–several thousand people search for gold by digging mineshafts and operating hundreds of pumps and drills, he said.
Mr Sokha explained that many unemployed villagers head to the area lured by the idea that good amounts of gold could be easily found. “But it is not. It is awfully hard work,” he said. “They go there because they imagine [finding] gold. They only end up with malaria.”
“The government doesn’t allow them to do it. This is also mentioned in the law,” he added.
But Sang Da, a gold dealer in Sandan town, said that, despite the hardships endured by artisanal miners, a growing number of them were bringing gold to her shop.
“The amount of gold [supplied] increases every year…because more and more people search for gold,” she said, explaining that she used the rough gold flakes to make gold jewelry for sale.
World gold prices meanwhile, have been hitting record heights and in Phnom Penh this week a damlung, or 1.31 ounces, was selling at $1,835.
Foreign mine exploration for gold, silver, iron and copper deposits in other northern provinces such as Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri and Preah Vihear, has also risen in recent years, sometimes leading to disputes and forced eviction of artisanal miners.
Local communities have complained too about unannounced corporate exploration activities affecting their farmland or forests used for traditional livelihoods.
In such cases, the government has backed mining companies, who often say they have exclusive concession rights and meet legal mining requirements, while small miners operate illegally, frequently using unregulated, dangerous mining techniques and environmentally hazardous chemicals.
“Illegal small scale mining is an impediment to our operations,” Richard Stanger, president of the Cambodian Association for Mining and Exploration Companies, said this week. “They make a mess environmentally.”
“It’s not a good thing for the country. It needs a large-scale deposits mining industry,” Mr Stanger said, adding however, that his association had not yet taken a position on regulating artisanal mining.
Estimates of the number of artisanal miners nationwide vary from a few thousand miners to tens of thousands, according to UNDP. Independent mining experts have said the group consists of villagers who traditionally supplement farm income with local seasonal mining and those who migrate across the country in search of shallow-lying mineral deposits.
UNDP and the Extractive Industry Social and Environmental Impact Network are lobbying the government to legalize and regulate small-scale mining, so that villagers can have a safe, local income source that coexists with the growing number of mining concessions.
“Developing a new small-scale mining policy is very important in order to give a chance to poorer miners to become licensed,” Mam Sambath, EISEI chairman, wrote in a recent e-mail.
Mr Sambath said since 2005 there had been a “steady growth” in the number of mining concessions, adding that this was “occurring in tandem with Cambodia’s expanding infrastructure and rising prices for metals worldwide.”
He said it was unclear if the growth in mining concessions had been the main reason for the reported rise in evictions of artisanal miners. Higher gold prices, Mr Sambath noted, also made it “lucrative for a local police chief to bully artisanal miners off of a good spot and then sell the rights to somebody with equipment that allows for quicker extraction.”
Glenn Kendall, extractive industries adviser for UNDP in Cambodia, said the government should create a policy that supports, not bans, small-scale mining.
“From international experience, we believe that a better approach […] would be to properly regulate the activity, taking into account the difficult economic choices facing artisanal miners in rural areas,” he wrote in an e-mail.
At a mining conference last year Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem said the government was considering legalizing artisanal mining in some cases. So far, however, there has been no announcement of new mining regulations and officials at the ministry could not be reached for comments on the issue this week.
In Throne village, in Kratie’s Kbal Damrei commune, residents experienced in recent years how far-reaching the consequences of current mining laws can be for rural populations, after a Chinese company was given a mining concession here.
Villagers said in the early 1980s they moved into this densely forested, malarial area located about 20 km northeast of Kratie City, to mine shallow-lying gold deposits and set up Throne village.
Its population of about 100 families thrived, as they developed mining techniques using dynamite and rock grinders to find gold, said villager Ben Bin, 50. “Before we could get 5 to 10 heun [1.9 to 3.8 grams] per day,” he said.
However, in April 2008 the Chinese company began exploring its 28-square-km licensed area, which covers all village housing plots and farms. Suddenly, the families were living on company premises and had to follow its restrictions, which banned mining activity and use of heavy equipment.
These days, about 60 Chinese workers live in large wooden quarters and strut around the village wearing camouflage army fatigues and safari hats. At four sites they oversee a few dozen Cambodian workers, who have constructed mineshafts, complete with railway carts leading underground.
“They are digging 200 meters deep to search for gold,” says Ngan Sam Ol, son of village chief Ngan Sam On, after Chinese workers set off a controlled explosion nearby that shakes the ground. He showed Ministry of Mines documents from May 2007 granting Zhong Xi Industrial Investment a mining concession in the area.
Chinese workers in the village could not be interviewed as none spoke English or Khmer, while taking photographs of mining activity was not allowed.
Mr Stanger said it was not uncommon that Chinese companies–instead of having a clear exploration phase–simply enter an area with promising deposits and “just dig and see they can find valuable ore and bring it up.”
He said his own Australian company, Liberty Mining International, conducted extensive geophysical surveys before deciding to start exploitation.
Sitting at a small shop, a group of villagers bemoaned the loss of income after small-scale gold mining was banned.
“We now barely make enough to survive,” said Nhot Kimleng, explaining that villagers could only farm or run shops. “We villagers just collected small amounts of gold and they want to take out kilos. Why can’t villagers get a little gold?”
Provincial authorities have permanently stationed eight military police officers in the village to enforce the company’s rules.
After the company upgraded the only road to the village early this year, residents have been forced to pay $2.50 every time a car brings equipment or fuel to the village.
“The Chinese set up a roadblock…. When you use the road with the car you have to pay,” Mr Kimleng said.
“We have to check cars carrying things for business, we charge them,” said a military police officer manning a roadblock, who declined to be named. “They spent $200,000 on [improving] the road so they want some money.”
Mr Sokha, the Sambor district governor, defended the government’s support for the company’s impositions over Throne village’s 100 families.
“When the government gives the right to the private company to control [an area], then they are entitled to decide whether or not people can work on the land,” he said. “I asked the company not to ask money for the road but people used the big trucks and caused damage.”
Villager Phoeung Sophorn expressed exasperation with the government policy of recent years that protects mining investors’ interests, while reducing the space for local livelihood activities.
“After the Khmer Rouge we could do anything we want to survive. Right now everything is illegal under the law,” he said. “All villagers have it more difficult than before. What kind of investment is this?”