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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Miners trade gems for latex

Miners trade gems for latex

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Ratanakkiri’s famed gem pits are closing as miners switch to rubber cultivation, but some fear that the rising latex sector could spark more land-rights abuses

HENG CHIVOAN

A craftsman polishes a ruby at his workshop. Officials in Ratanakkiri say the province’s gem industry is in decline as more miners switch to rubber farming.

GEM miners in Ratanakkiri province are moving to rubber farming as the international demand for latex increases, provincial officials told the Post. But while some laud the switch to a more sustainable form of industry, others worry the hunger for large swathes of land will lead to more illegal property seizures.

Some two-thirds of land in the province suitable for mining has already been seeded with rubber trees as commodity prices continue to rise, said Hem Vanthan, director of the Industry, Mines and Energy Department for Ratanakkiri province.

"Most miners have become farmers after seeing the potential for profits from rubber plantations," Hem Vanthan said.

Ratanakkiri is a major source of high-quality zircon, as well as other semi-precious stones such as garnet.

Many of the stones have been mined by small-scale operators to be exported to Thailand's gem hub, Chantanaburi.

Hem Vanthan also said that miners have been unable to find new high-quality reserves, leading to lower profit margins.

"Our gems can't compete with those from Pailin," he said. "In Ratanakkiri, miners earn only enough to live day by day. With rubber, farmers can save money and plan for the future."

Phan Sophana, chief of the Office of Tourism in Ratanakkiri, said at least 2,000 hectares in the province are suitable for gem mining, but only about 100 hectares are being actively mined by locals and foreign companies.

Soon all the

gems in ratanakkiri

will be gone.

"Interest in rubber farming is high at the moment," Phan Sophana said, adding that villagers can purchase one hectare of land for US$1,500 and expect as much as $8,000 in revenue from rubber per hectare.

The move towards a more sustainable industry in Ratanakkiri follows growing concern that gem resources could be drying up.

"Soon all the gems in Ratanakkiri will be gone," said Pen Bonna, coordinator of local human rights group Adhoc.

While precious stones are fetching higher prices on international markets, they are becoming harder to find in Ratanakkiri, fuelling the demand for more lucrative sources of livelihood in some of Cambodia's poorest communities.

A leading gem dealer in Chantanaburi said supplies of Cambodian stones have nearly dried up over the past year. "Prices are up - the problem is that there is no supply. You can occasionally find good stones, but you pay for them," said Ken Barnett, a spokesman for World Gem Importers by telephone. Pen Bonna added that environmental concerns have also contributed to a downturn in mining, as heavy machinery has left large areas of the province pocked with holes.

But the rubber industry boom has also raised concerns about land speculators profiting at the expense of local villagers. Ethnic minorities such as the Tompoun and Krueng, who rely on the province's natural resources for their survival, are also increasingly  falling prey to land grabs.

"Land is money," said Pen Bonna. "Rich investors ... pretend to be interested in rubber farming only to buy up land and sell it at an inflated price," he added.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY GEORGE MCLEOD

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