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The Riel Deal: Mineral wealth concerns

Claims of gold bonanzas made by the newest player in Cambodia’s mining sector underscore issues dragging on an industry that is crucial for the Kingdom’s economic development.

Late last month, Astra Mining, which describes itself as an Australian diversified mining company, announced it had discovered a potentially significant gold deposit in the O’Yadao district of Ratanakkiri province.

While the field results were preliminary, Astra claimed similar finds overseas, such as those in Alaska, “have been known to host greater than 3 million ounces of gold resources.”

The company also said it had “signed an option agreement to fund the acquisition of an operating gold mine … which presently has an exploration license” in O’Yadao.

Astra has touted Cambodia’s potential mineral wealth in a series of press releases, but domestic operators said they are unaware of the company’s operations here.

“We have not heard of Astra nor of the gold mining operation that is claimed to be in O’Yadao,” said Richard Stanger, president of the Cambodian Association of Mining and Exploration Companies.

The General Department of Mineral Resources has so far declined to confirm or deny if Astra has a licence to do business in the country, citing confidentiality. But the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article in May calling into question the character of Astra and its senior management.

The article, titled “Pencil-drawn map adds a touch of Indiana Jones”, claimed Astra Chief Executive Officer Jaydeep Biswas was at the heart of a previous failed deal worth tens of millions of dollars and was known for associations with convicted fraudsters, among other dubious activities.

Biswas agreed to an email interview with The Post in order to fill in the gaps. He called the article “scurrilous”, claiming the paper never contacted him for comment.

He said Astra must be “considered and careful” in what it divulges given the company is in the early stages of its work in Cambodia, though he did offer some worthwhile information.

Astra has been working through local companies but plans to open a Cambodian office “in the next three months,” he said. Astra will meet with relevant government departments soon “to define the Cambodian legal requirements for our licences.”

Also according to Biswas, Astra has been doing business in Vietnam for the past three years with a company called Petone Investments and an unnamed Vietnamese partner. It is this Vietnamese partner that holds an exploration licence in O’Yadao, not Astra, Biswas said.

Still, Biswas’ answers beget more questions.

If it is true there is an operating gold mine in Ratanakkiri, has anyone conducted and submitted the proper environmental impact assessments and feasibility studies for approval? Biswas chose not to answer that question.

One also wonders why the GDMR would allow a largely unproven operator – though Astra claims to have businesses on four continents – to explore and mine Cambodia over other more established companies, especially those with rigorous internal and external auditing standards.

Rights groups have called for transparency in the extraction industry, as it offers a path out of poverty for many Cambodians. The Kingdom’s vast mineral wealth will need to be better managed in order for that happen.



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