O’kvav village, Memang commune, Keo Seima district, Mondolkiri province – They came despite the risks because they heard they could make $2.50 a day. They came because they thought their noodle shops, brothels and karaoke bars could do better business even in so remote a place. And they came, they say, because in March, RCAF soldiers and a Chinese company forced some of them to leave the place they had called home for 15 years.
Nearly 2,000 Cambodians came to the grove of O’Kvav because they heard there was gold there.
It is well known that the taste for gold can be addictive-in English, the term is “gold fever.” What may be less well-known is that in the last nine months, within the perimeter of Mondolkiri’s Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, a gold rush town of some 2,000 men, women and children has blossomed.
The jungle in the wildlife sanctuary is unimaginably quiet despite the rumblings of Daelim motorbikes that reporters used to get to the hidden gold mine.
The serenity of the towering, cathedral-like groves makes the shock of seeing O’Kvav village and hearing the blaring karaoke of the newly-constructed 200-seat tarp auditorium for movies and karaoke all the greater.
This noise accompanies the constant din of axes and saws building a blue-tarp village out of old-growth wood.
O’Kvav is much like a Cambodian version of gold-rush California in the US, or Australia in the nineteenth century. Loud gamblers, naked children, brand-new restaurants-the energy is like that of a casino except that, instead of slot machines, there is a hole that could be as long as 100 meters, lots of insects, and little in the way of the comforts of modern civilization.
In late December, four villagers died in the deep pit that dominates O’Kvav.
This month, workers interviewed were deeply scared of another mine collapse, but even more scared of the Chinese firm and its Cambodian partner, which they said together kicked prospecting villagers out of an earlier mine a few hours closer to civilization.
“We don’t want the soldiers to come and kick us out again,” said Mao Chivoan, 21, a laborer supporting a family of five in Prey Veng province. “We are all very scared that we will be killed in a collapse, it is so dangerous…. I don’t want to do this forever, just long enough to save some money.”
When the 40-meter deep pit, built without structural supports, collapsed last month, Srey Pros, 37, a prospector and general store owner, was standing on a crossbeam. He fell to the bottom of the pit and was fortunate to break only a few ribs.
“I blame the middlemen. They told the government where the gold is,” he said of the government’s decision to grant concessions to foreign investors. “We want schools and a hospital here but we don’t want the Chinese company to find us.”
Srey Pros said that he had been mining gold at the Prey Meas village mine, also in Memang commune, since 1990. But in March, the Chinese firm and RCAF soldiers forced villagers to abandon Prey Meas and find a new gold mine some two hours north into the jungle, he said.
The government had granted the company the rights to all the gold in the village, locals were told.
“This is an anarchic place, run by soldiers,” Srey Pros said. “Soldiers charge [$5] per month rent for a house, [$12.50] for a karaoke bar. There are people from all 24 provinces and municipalities here, but only a few are lucky enough to make a profit.”
Srey Pros spoke from the back of his shop, hooked up to an intravenous drip. Outside was the pit, being worked by men carrying baskets on their backs, mosquitoes buzzing around them. Many younger men sported gold front teeth. Empty cans of Carabao, a Thai energy drink, littered the area.
Tending to Srey Pros was Sao Kong, a nurse. “There are 2,000 people here, more coming everyday,” he said. “There is no school for the children. For health this is a very dangerous place-70 percent of my patients have malaria, while the rest have typhoid. I want an NGO to help me.”
The soldiers and police official’s rule is harsh on the people of O’Kvav, with its arbitrary taxation on all goods and services, Sao Kong said.
“The police are very corrupt and demand money from everyone,” he said softly. “The workers’ lives are very hard: Most of the people don’t own a stake in the pit, they are just hired for the day.”
Hem Savong, provincial police chief, said he would investigate allegations of police corruption at the village, though he added that he had not previously received such reports.
Srey Pros said he and his family can make a profit from selling cigarettes, candy and provisions to miners.
“On the path here, there are bandits who rob those who are lucky,” he said. “But only 20 percent to 30 percent of people make any money from this ore. It’s not like Prey Meas…. We are so angry that they kicked us out of Prey Meas, but what can we do? They have a license.”
Srey Pros said about 80 prospectors have died at the Prey Meas mine since gold digging started in 1990.
So far, four men have died in the O’Kvav mine, he said. This was in December and no one really knew their names-only their faces.
Sieng Hai, a 42-year-old soldier and amateur chemist, stopped gambling long enough to tell reporters that it was not mercury or cyanide-deadly known gold solvents-but potassium bromate that he used to separate gold from sandy soil brought up from the pit. “I charge $8 for each cubic meter of ore. I cannot make a good living here, though, because I have to pay the police for the chemicals that I mix. I can make only $5 out of what I charge,” he said.
As a soldier, he will obey the government when and if a foreign firm takes over the mine, he said. “I will stay here until they take over. In my own opinion, I hope they never come.”
The Chinese firm now employs 80 Cambodians who work 24-hours a day at the Prey Meas mine, using chemicals to separate granite from gold, workers from the mine said. The chemicals stain the ground a pitch black and white.
“Most of the people also look for gold on their own near the area,” said Sreng Chenda, a 25-year-old mine worker for the Chinese company. “If you work 24 hours a day, you can make $146 a month. The factory has a night shift and a day shift. Work never stops,” she said.
“We made a better living before the Chinese company came,” said Sorn Dram, 32, another worker. “We are very upset that they came.”
The firm could not be contacted for comment.
For those at O’Kvav, the dream of unfettered gold prospecting is already slated to come to an end.
“In O’Kvav, we gave a concession to a South Korean company two months ago,” said Kong Piseth, director of the provincial Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, on Tuesday. “The Shenha company has not done exploration yet; they have just signed a memorandum of understanding,” he said.
Chhith Sophal, director of the Mondolkiri Department of Environment said that the village is within the boundaries of the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary. He would not comment on the legality of operating a gold mine in the area.
Kong Piseth confirmed that soldiers drove prospectors away from the Prey Meas mine last year.
“This is an investment. We have to stop the villagers from doing exploration, otherwise investors will stop doing exploration,” he said. “I have already asked provincial authorities to prevent villagers from finding mines in Memang commune.”
But, Kong Piseth added, there are obstacles. “Soldiers are involved and they charge people a lot of taxes,” he said. “I am concerned that, when people use chemicals to separate the gold, the polluted water is going into Preak Te river and will eventually affect the Mekong river dolphins in Kratie province.”
“Already, four people have died and in the future more will die,” Kong Piseth said.
Meas Neak, RCAF commander of the sub-military region that includes Mondolkiri, said that if there were any RCAF officials involved in running the village, they were there as individuals rather than as Ministry of Defense staff. He said the ministry has no policy relating to the village.
Chea Sieng Hong, secretary of state for the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said that seeking foreign investors to develop gold mines in Mondolkiri benefits Cambodia in the long-run, regardless of what illegal prospectors working the sites say.
“The government will charge taxes on companies’ production,” he said on Tuesday. “Eventually they will establish refineries and employ villagers…. When refineries are created, a lot of jobs will be created such as guards and laborers.”
“We hope that the villagers’ living standards will be better instead of having these anarchic activities. This is the government objective: To eliminate poverty,” Chea Sieng Hong said.