o’yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – More than 40 percent of Ratanakkiri province, or about 4,400 square km, has been licensed to 10 mining companies for exploration in recent years, according to data made available by Ratanakkiri provincial authorities last week.
Although the companies’ activities have been limited to exploration, some communities in the province have complained that operations have disturbed or destroyed their village lands and forest. Human rights and NGO workers now say the companies and the government need to do more to consult local communities before starting exploration.
Hun Bunthan, deputy director of the provincial mining department, said eight of the licensed companies—six Australian, one Vietnamese and one Chinese—were currently prospecting at various sites in the province in order to locate gold, copper or iron-ore deposits.
“These foreign companies are now exploring,” Mr Bunthan said during an interview Wednesday. “Mining exploration takes a long time. Until now no company has declared its intention to build a mine,” he said, adding the companies would need a new license to open a mine, which would be limited to a far smaller area than their exploration license.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said that exploration was intensifying in the province and was leading to an increasing number of disputes between ethnic minority communities and mining companies.
“The strongest reaction [to exploration] has been in 2010,” he said, adding that local communities now felt they needed to defend village lands from intrusions by mining companies as they had already lost much of their communal forest and lands to logging and land grabs during the past decade.
Mr Bonnar cited the disturbance of a mountain sacred to ethnic Kavet villagers in Veun Sai district’s Veun Sai commune and an ongoing dispute in Lumchor commune, in O’Yadaw district, as examples of disputes over exploration operations.
Jarai villagers in Ler village in Lumchor commune complained last week about exploration by Vietnamese mining company Hoang Anh Ratanakkiri, which had started prospective drilling.
The company has a license to search for iron ore in a 154-square-kilometer area in O’Yadaw and Bokeo districts and in another 160-square-kilometer area in O’Chum district.
Village chief Rocham Yeh, 51, said the company workers had showed up several months ago without notification and began digging in communal land and forest without notifying the three affected villages.
“They never contacted us and they just said they have a government license,” he said, “They dig in the village lands, on people’s land, they dig everywhere, including in the forest.”
Suy Sem, Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy, visited the villages in late June to talk to villagers and offer gifts to appease the communities. However two of the villages refused to accept the gifts and walked out of the meeting.
A visit to Ler village’s communal forest, located several kilometers outside of the village, revealed that a wide access road had been laid through the forest and a huge clearing covering around 15 hectares had been created and permanent company offices were being built on site, while test drilling was continuing in some parts.
Vietnamese workers at the site said the drilling had been postponed since June, but would resume after the rainy season. Officials at the company’s office in Banlung said they were not authorized to talk the media.
Ratanakkiri governor Pao Ham Phan denied yesterday that authorities or the company had any duty to consult the villagers about the test drilling for iron ore in the area, despite the fact the communal forest had been cleared and farmland had been dug up.
“When the company finds minerals for exploitation we will explain [operations] to the villagers,” he said.
Mr Bunthan, deputy director of the provincial mining department, also said the companies or government had no obligation to seek prior consent from communities for exploration, because “the villagers are under the government and the government gave the license already.”
He added local communities would have to be consulted if a company wanted to open an actual mine in an area.
Richard Stanger, president of the Cambodian Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, said he could not comment on exploration activities by Indochine Resources or Hoang Anh Ratanakkiri but he explained that exploration operations usually have little impact.
“Generally speaking modern companies explore with a low impact,” he said. “The communication with local communities needs to be on a high level.”
Mr Stanger said that if gold mining did begin, only a fraction of licensed areas would be developed as mines.
“The actual mining area would be very small,” he said.
Mam Sambath, chairman of the Extractive Industry Social and Environmental Impact Network, said the biggest problem surrounding exploration operations in Ratanakkiri and other provinces such as Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear, was a lack of openness from mining companies and the government towards local communities.
“I would encourage the government and companies to seek consultation with local communities and seek approval,” he said, adding that this was also required under the Law on Environmental and Natural Resource Management.
“The problem is that this rarely happens,” Mr Sambath said, adding the government lacked the capacity to monitor locally if communities were being consulted or if environmental impact studies were carried out properly.