Gold Mines, NGOs Fight Over the Treasures of Mondolkiri

Wildlife groups and gold companies can at least agree on this: There’s treasure in the hills of Mondolkiri province.

Where their views differ, however, is exactly what those treasures might be.

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Angkor Gold geologist conducts field work in a photograph posted to the company’s Facebook page in 2011.

Australia’s Renaissance Minerals is eager for the Mines and Energy Ministry to grant it its first-ever mining license in a protected area so the company can begin excavating the Okvau gold deposit in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, which it estimates would yield revenues between $756 million and $964 million over eight years.

In nearby Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary, an exploration undertaken by Angkor Gold last year found “the potential for a previously unrecognised significant precious metals target” of up to 31.8 grams of gold per ton, according to an August news release.

But WWF-Cambodia says the real gems of the protected areas are the dwindling populations of elephants, leopards and other wildlife that it has spent over $10 million protecting.

“Mining projects in this area are likely to have severe negative impacts on the populations of these species and it is highly likely that these projects will have a potential ‘knock on effect,’ resulting in increased legal and illegal mining throughout the protected areas,” wrote WWF country director Chhith Sam Ath in an email last week.

In the middle of the two sides sits the Mines and Energy Ministry. Spokesman Meng Saktheara said on Monday that the government had yet to grant any mining licenses inside protected areas, and any new project, no matter where it was located, would go through a stringent set of approvals under a sub-decree passed last year.

“It’s not an automatic right to go from exploration to mineral license,” he said. “They have to prove that the mineral license in any area will provide a net benefit to the country.”

Angkor Gold’s Koan Nheak license is outlined inside Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary (WWF)

Environmental law distinguishes between the “core zones” of protected areas, which are off-limits to commercial activity, and three other zones where it might be permissible. But those boundaries had not been clearly delineated, sowing confusion, Mr. Saktheara said.

He said the Okvau project was currently under review by the Environment Ministry, which would evaluate its social and environmental effects, before his ministry considered the mine’s potential economic effects.

Renaissance Minerals did not respond to requests for comment.

Speaking at a government forum last week, Delayne Weeks, Angkor Gold’s vice president of social development, praised the Mines and Energy Ministry as “forward-thinking,” but branded the approvals process as onerous and NGOs unhelpful.

“Like many developing countries, the minute you get close to permitting, things suddenly come down the tube. Perhaps from [the] Ministry of Environment [or] Ministry of Tax, because it’s an evolving nation,” she said.

Meanwhile, civil society organizations “use the extractive sector as a scapegoat,” she said. “We do not cut down trees, build fences and disallow people to access their communal lands. Hello! That is not the mineral sector.”

Reached via email on Monday, Ms. Weeks reiterated that the company could not be expected to walk away from its licenses “if the ‘borders change’” after the land was purchased.

But WWF’s Mr. Sam Ath said the company’s license always stood squarely in protected forest that had been established in 2002.

“When such investments are made in full awareness, the company cannot then claim to have environmental sustainability at the top of its agenda or this would be plain hypocrisy,” he said.

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