The Ministry of Mines and Energy issued Cambodia’s first commercial underground mining license to Mesco Gold on Monday, green-lighting the Indian company’s plans to dig some 200 meters into the granite bedrock of Ratanakkiri province.
After waiting more than two years, Mesco Gold said it received the license on Monday and was ready to begin work, having begun preparing the site in O’yadaw district on August 15.
“It’s an underground mine. If you’re going underground, you’re going to have to drill and blast,” said operations director Harsh Sharma, explaining that the company now needed to apply for an explosives license and recruit up to 80 local villagers as laborers.
Most mining infrastructure is in place, he said, and the locations of planned shafts have been marked. The explosives license is expected by the end of next month, he added.
As for the dynamite, Mr. Sharma said the company would begin by purchasing 2,000 kg from a local supplier.
Less simple, he said, will be convincing locals to work in the mine.
Mesco Gold agreed in its environmental and social impact assessment to give preference to local residents in order to improve their living standards. Mr. Sharma said he hoped to have 70 to 80 locals working for him by year’s end.
However, Romah Phanna, the company’s liaison for Pheak village, an ethnic Jarai community bordering the mining concession, said that few in the area were interested.
“We’re beginning to spread the word about jobs,” he said. “When the rains stop, we’ll walk through villages and try to find employees.”
But early attempts to recruit workers have been unsuccessful.
“As far as we can see, they’re not interested. We will have maybe just a few people, those already looking for work. Not 20. I’m not sure why. I haven’t really met with them yet,” he said.
Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the villagers’ hesitation was due to their traditions, as well as past experience.
“Speaking of traditions, indigenous people very rarely work for others, including companies,” he said, explaining the Jarai preferred to toil in the fields with their families.
Although other companies in the area have made similar promises to employ locals—many of whom belong to ethnic minority groups and suffer from significant poverty—few had been successful, Mr. Thy added.
“We don’t see any of them working for the land concession companies here,” he said.
Mr. Sharma, who plans to pay new recruits between $200 and $300 a month, said the suspicion wouldn’t last.
“If there are 10 people from a village working for me, and they bring home a salary higher than everyone around them every month for a year, we won’t have trouble finding more,” he said.