lumphat district, Ratanakkiri province – As Tou Sokha clears brush from a hill near Bai Srok village for a small rubber plantation, she must work close to her battery-powered stereo to hear her favorite Khmer ballads.
Otherwise, the rattle of a water pump used by the gem-mining operation across the valley drowns out all the sound the tinny speakers can manage.
Then there’s the scenery.
Below Tou Sokha, there used to be trees and a small river, she said earlier this month. All that remains is hectares of dried-out mud plain, while the hill across the way has been reduced to random holes, untidy dirt piles and jagged ledges.
It is as though the land itself has been filleted.
Small-time gem prospectors used to be all over it, according to Tou Sokha, but now most have moved on. There are still gems here, but only the water blasters can find enough to make a profit.
Once inhabited almost exclusively by various ethnic minorities, the recent rapid growth of the provincial capital, Banlung, testifies to Ratanakkiri being a land of opportunity for enterprising—and often ruthless—Cambodian and foreign entrepreneurs.
Plantations, land speculation and drilling for metals and minerals of all types are the means by which fortunes can be made by those willing to take a chance.
Then there’s gem mining.
Big money is unlikely to be made in trading these stones, as both the market and their quality is limited. But it’s still enough for poorer Cambodians who, with minimal equipment, can come and chance their arm on a small plot.
Cumulatively though, the environmental effect of such free-for-all prospecting is devastating, with the landscape itself in areas like this being literally washed away.
“Sometimes we can make a profit if we find a good enough stone,” said Chan Thi, who leads about 10 men involved in the mining operation across from where Tou Sokha is working.
He inherited a three-hectare cashew nut plantation from his parents a few years back, he said, but figured there was more money in gems, which he would sell to traders in Banlung or directly to Thai businessmen.
That was true for a while, he said, but not anymore.
There are still just about enough gems here to make it worthwhile for Chan Thi and his men, but they’re running out of ground.
“That plantation up there,” he points further up the hill. “I’m sure there are gems under it, but it’s not our land.”
The kind of larger-scale prospecting being done by Chan Thi is illegal, both for the environmental damage it causes and because, though you might own the land, by law the government owns what’s underneath it.
But Chan Thi said the police are a problem only to their wallets. A $250 payment is generally enough to make them turn a blind eye each time, he claimed.
“It’s hard to find a job, so this is why we do this,” Chan Thi said. “Maybe afterwards we can plant the cashew trees again.”
Lon Phon, a jewelry shop owner in Phnom Penh, is sniffy about the quality of stones from Ratanakkiri.
“Cambodians much prefer the gems and diamonds in Phnom Penh,” he said Monday. “The market for Ratanakkiri gems is mainly in Thailand.”
Ratanakkiri Governor Muong Poy said by telephone Monday the gem-mining industry was insignificant provincially.
“Mostly, people just dig on their own land to make a bit of extra money,” he said. “We do not worry about the small operations, and there are no really big prospectors here.”
Many years after the first gems were uncovered here, the ground under Bai Srok village is like Swiss cheese.
For the 5,600 families who live here, gem mining is a genuine cottage industry, and everyone wants a piece.
Outside almost every house are holes about a square meter in size dug deep into the ground. Large mounds of excavated earth lie in the streets, growing all the time.
Chheh Seah Oeun, 28, emerges covered in dirt from a hole right outside the front entrance of his house.
Another lies nearby, while a third, recently filled in, is inside the kitchen area of his house itself.
Chheh Seah Oeun has lost count of the number of holes he has dug under his home, but as far as he is concerned, each one he makes could be pay dirt.
He points to a house in the distance where a family found a single gem worth $3,000.
Producing a box with four or five finished stones, he chooses a particularly big one to show:
“They are very beautiful,” he says.
“I can make up to $200 a month, but it is very irregular,” he added. “There is no other way for me to make a living here.”
Despite four mining deaths in Bai Srok in recent months, Chheh Seah Oeun is unafraid of his house collapsing.
“We have a strong foundation,” he said.
According to Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local human rights group Adhoc, the primary problems with unregulated gem mining are the pollution and environmental destruction that it causes and the danger small-scale miners put themselves in.
“Everywhere they find gems they clear the forest all around, and then the pumping machines cause pollution in the water,” he said.
According to Pen Bonnar, the big businessmen and the middlemen traders pocketed most of the profits.
“It is the finders who risk their lives,” he said. “The environmental destruction is not worth the money being made.”
The authorities should take action to control the gem-mining operations, both small and larger scale, Pen Bonnar said, though he claimed they had no incentive for doing so. “They make too much money from bribes,” he claimed.
But Provincial Environment Department Director Chou Sopheak said his office was doing all it could to stop gem mining of all types and blamed local authorities for not doing enough.
“When we go out on the field, the people have already escaped,” he said. “They have networks.”
Chou Sopheak agreed that such mining should be clamped down upon.
“It is illegal to dig a mine like this [without permission],” he said. “The authorities have the right to arrest them.”
On the other side of the province, Bokeo district has also long been regarded as rich in gems and is still a hotbed of mining activity.
Kong Chan, the SRP provincial representative who defected to the CPP just last week, said unregulated gem mining had caused severe damage there.
“More and more people are using water to blast at the earth,” he said. “The lake is drying out, and there are complaints that other water supplies have been polluted.”
“I have complained to the authorities many times to take action,” Kong Chan added.
Just behind a makeshift Bokeo settlement, the land is pockmarked with holes and piles of earth where at least 50 separate small operations are working.
Chan Salon has mined here for two years. “A lot of people use water pumps, but I have no money so I dig by shovel,” he said.
But even here, Chan Salon said, the earth is already becoming exhausted and it may be time to move on.
“There are many rumors of an area near Banlung, which has a lot of gems,” he explained. “A lot of people here are starting to move there already.”