In the shadow of Anlong Mountain in Preah Vihear province, the whir of engines pierces the tranquil scrubland. Here, in the midday heat, a group of workers scour the earth for traces of gold.
Equipped with shovels, pickaxes, pans and a rickety stone-crushing machine, these small-scale miners work long hours to find traces of the precious metal, which are almost invisible to the naked eye. Hailing from all corners of Cambodia, they believe that praying to the “forest guardians” will bring them wealth and happiness.
“Sometimes we dig … for three days, but we can get nothing when we forget to pray. So we have to think about it in advance when we start digging for gold,” said 47-year-old San Saran, as he burned incense across from the mining area in Preah Vihear’s Rovieng district.
Mining is backbreaking – and without a licence, illegal – work, but the men say it allows them a freedom not found in many industries.
“If we do construction work, even if we are sick, we will not dare to stop. If we do, they will dock our wages,” said 27-year-old Ream Sinich. “But if we explore the gold mines, when we are ill or exhausted, we can stop when we want.”
They aren’t, however, the only ones clamouring after hidden riches.
A licence granted to Malaysian gold miner Delcom, which first began exploring the area in 1996, has slowly forced the subsistence miners further and further away from the mountain, and into land with little to extract. Previously able to comfortably sustain themselves, they now struggle to survive.
“Today, we do the business just to get by. If we don’t explore the gold mines, we cannot do anything else, because we don’t know any skills,” said Ream Veasna, who has been working in the area for seven years.
As he pointed to a tiny spec of gold at the bottom of his pan, Veasna said that even miles away from the licensed area, the miners are often forced to stop working by company representatives.
According to Veasna and other miners in the area, men claiming to be representatives of a gold mining company, who do not present licences or tell them who they work for, come with the backing of the military.
Yun Tha, a 22-year-old from Takeo province working in a nearby mining site, said that ethnic Chinese representatives come to the area every couple of months to stop their work.
“We do it away from the company, but they still don’t allow us to do it. We need to stop whenever the bosses come or, [if we don’t], the company security guards in police, soldier or military police uniforms shoot into the air when they hear the sound of the machines,” he said.
According to local media reports, two men were shot by police in 2010 for allegedly trespassing and stealing gold on land occupied by Delcom. One of them was killed.
Miners at the foot of the mountain said that nearly five years on, little has changed, as they are faced with the stark choice of existing in poverty, or risking their lives for gold.
Tha, who works in a group of three men from 7am to 5pm every day, said the company’s presence in the area means the gold stores are depleting.
“We pump or find mines by hand, while the companies use excavators, so they can get much more. People could also get more, if we were allowed to dig in Anlong Mountain,” he said.
When asked how much they earned, a fellow miner, who identified himself as Sinich, laughed.
“We have nothing left at the end of the month. We take loans for food when we cannot get gold, so when we get it, we will sell it to pay off the debt,” he said.
Meng Saktheara, secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said Delcom has a licence to mine 1 square kilometre on Anlong Mountain. That licence expires in September.
Saktheara said the ministry’s field inspectors have reported that the company employs a number of Chinese nationals. He was unsure of Delcom’s links with the military, but said it is likely “they employ some military for defence, [as] the area has some problems with illegal mining”.
Post reporters were blocked earlier this month from visiting the company atop Anlong Mountain by military protecting the area.
The officers confirmed that they were working for Delcom but declined to comment on the company’s activity or the alleged attacks on small-scale miners.
A company representative, whose contact details were provided by the security guards, refused to answer questions earlier this week, saying that reporters had contacted the wrong number before hanging up the phone.
E Sarou, Rovieng district governor, said that Delcom was acting legally to protect its licensed area.
Mout Chantheany, of the Extractive Industry Social Environmental Impact Network, said the small-scale miners in Rovieng were operating in the area long before the company’s initial exploration.
But Saktheara of the Ministry of Mines and Energy said that without licences, it is hard to back claims to the gold.
“We do understand; it’s not commercial, just subsistence activities. But they are required by law to apply for a licence,” he said.
Saktheara added that the ministry had increased efforts to grant the country’s traditional miners licences, while punishing those who continue to mine without permission. To do this, he said, communities across Cambodia were being educated about the necessity of the licences, and told how to apply for them.
This is no small task. In mid-January, Saktheara returned from a tour to Ratanakkiri province in the northeast, where he described an “uncountable” number of illegal mining operations.
Small-scale miners who are digging less than 5 metres into the earth are eligible for “artisanal licences”, while those operating on a bigger scale are being encouraged to form a community organisation to apply for full mining licences.
“Doing mining the way they do now does not get them out of poverty,” Saktheara explained.
And the poverty extends beyond the miners.
Metres away from the miners, a house on the side of a dirt road displays a sign that reads “Buying Gold”.
Inside, the homeowner, who gives his name only as Sophal, weighs small nuggets on a dusty pair of scales. But his business is floundering.
“I think my business as a gold buyer and the [business] of the gold explorers may not last long, if the Chinese [company representatives] are still strict and ban people,” he said.
“The area is richest in gold ore, but recently it seems to be decreasing day by day, because … of companies doing large-scale mining, which is different from people who mine by hand. The companies dig 300-400 metres down and the mountain is cracking.”
Back at the foot of the mountain, 30-year-old miner Chha Chhorn said his future is in the balance.
“If they continue to ban people [from mining on the mountain], sooner or later we will be starving.”