Classified as illegal, artisanal miners have few other options for making a living
In May, Industry, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem said that though the government would step up efforts to eliminate illegal mining operations in Cambodia, in some cases the government’s plans “may include their legalization.”
The announcement, made at a mining conference in Phnom Penh organized by the UN, was a breakthrough for rights groups. They say artisanal miners operating unlicensed in Cambodia have a viable potential to run standardized, safe mining operations, though the number of such miners is unclear.
But experts say the road to achieving legal stature will come with a stream of obstacles.
According to Richard Stanger, president of the Cambodian Association of Mining and Exploration Companies and managing director of Liberty Mining International, which has three concession areas in northern Cambodia, the miners face an uphill battle.
Illegal miners “have no license in the area they are operating, and they are usually operating in areas that already have licenses,” he said, adding that most illegal miners do not come from local communities and tend to move sporadically around the country to areas where shallow-lying mineral wealth is easily accessible.
The path toward standardizing illegal mines involves meeting a long list of requirements under the Law on Management and Exploitation of Mineral Resources. These requirements include using modern techniques, completing an environmental impact assessment of the area and providing occupational health insurance for workers.
All of these measures need financial resources and a professionally trained workforce, something most illegal operations simply don’t have.
“When you’re trying to explore and you’ve got guys drilling all around you, it’s a real nuisance,” Mr Stanger said.
On June 21 it surfaced that authorities in Mondolkiri province’s Keo Seima district told 69 families to move from land where Australian miner OZ Minerals is currently exploring for gold.
Officials have said that the families have been mining in the area since 2006 – before OZ Minerals arrived and announced targets of 2 million ounces of gold – and come from Kompong Cham, Kratie, Kompong Thom, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng province.
On Tuesday officials in the area said they had decided not to evict the miners, instead deciding to cut of their supply of chemicals used during the extraction process and which are extremely damaging to the environment.
Chan Phea, the wife of a miner in Keo Seima district’s Chung Phlas commune, where OZ Minerals is operating, said that after numerous notices from authorities to evict what she claimed numbered 95 families, workers have appealed to the local authorities to provide them with a proper mining license.
“The big and wealthy firms from abroad and local companies have been granted a license,” she said, “why are small-scale operations for gold and other mines prohibited?”
In total there are about 100 artisanal mining families working illegally throughout Mondolkiri province in Keo Seima and Koh Nhek districts, but nationwide figures are unknown, said Kong Pisith, director of the provincial department of Industry, Mines and Energy.
Mr Pisith said that the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy was presently working with the UNDP to decide whether or not they will be rendered legal.
“But to help them find new careers, we need to have a budget,” he said.
Mr Pisith said the fact miners are often located in very remote areas and are nomadic, hamper efforts to legalize or crack down on artisanal miners.
“They are illegally mining for gold with quasi-modern equipment and the use of chemicals that critically destroy the natural resources,” he said.
There are currently 16 companies operating gold and bauxite mining sites in Mondolkiri province including OZ Minerals, a Vietnamese company as well as several Chinese and local firms, Mr Pisith added.
Glenn Kendall, extractive industries advisor for the UNDP in Cambodia, said the conundrum for policy makers lies in the fact that while these operations are illegal and often based on already licensed sites, “the activity represents an important source of income, and may be one of few economic opportunities available to” the illegal miners.
“The number of people engaged in the activity varies over time, and probably depends on the income they can make and the availability of other economic opportunities,” he said.
Challenges in legalizing artisanal mining include the fast migration of miners from province to province as well as the use of chemicals like mercury used to amalgamate the mineral wealth, and cyanide, which is used in separating the mineral from its ore. Both damage the environment and workers’ health. Mr Kendall added that overcoming short-term solutions such as forceful eviction has proved unsuccessful around the world.
Still, Mr Kendall said that the numbers of illegal miners in the country “may be small” and located principally in Ratanakkiri, Mondolkiri, Kratie, Preah Vihear provinces.
Richard Thompson, an independent mining consultant, said the illegal mining operations in Cambodia generally fall into two different groups.
“If you cannot read, and your family has been seasonally digging river gravel and panning for gold or gemstones for maybe several generations…your point of view will be that it is not illegal but part of a way of life which enabled you to make a subsistence living,” he said.
These miners are very different to “mining of similar deposits by people coming into a community from a distance away because they have heard of a good mineral occurrence and want to profit from it.”
Generally speaking, Mr Thompson said that the former group – seasonal community miners – “should be allowed to have some land rights” and be legalized, whereas the latter group “are the real ‘illegal miner’” unless they want to comply with all the required rules from the government.