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Gem haven loses its lustre

This area doesn’t have many gems because of the thai people. they used big excavator trucks to dig....

Pailin’s shrinking supply of rubies and sapphires leads hunters to abandon weekends of hard work and inconsistent rewards.

Pailin Province
ON a recent Saturday morning, Inn Chhoeun, 29, placed 100 empty charcoal sacks in a truck he had borrowed from his neighbour and drove the 10 kilometres from his home to Boryakhar commune.

He worked until lunchtime, using a shovel to fill each sack with dirt. In the afternoon, he drove to a bridge spanning the O’Chra river, where, after placing the sacks on the riverbank, he spent the rest of the weekend sifting through their contents, searching for rubies and sapphires amid the plant roots and gravel.

The results on this particular weekend were less than encouraging.

“In all those 100 sacks,” he said, “what did I find? I’ll tell you. Nothing.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But I don’t have another job on the weekends, so I will keep looking.”

Inn Chhoeun, a farmer, has passed weekends this way since 1993, when the prospect of gem riches prompted his family to move from Battambang to Pailin. For decades, gems had been one of Pailin’s signature products, supporting, among others, the Khmer Rouge cadres who turned the province into a stronghold after falling from power.

At first, the move seemed to have been a smart one. “Sometimes, there were only one or two gems, and some days the sacks were empty, but most of the time we could find a gem in every five or six sacks,” he said.

With middlemen paying an average price of 3,000 baht (US$90) per stone, the 20 or so gems found on a good weekend could fetch $1,800 — more than enough to cover the family’s short-term living expenses.

In the past few years, however, the number of gems in Pailin has fallen off sharply, precipitating a decline in amateur gem hunters like Inn Chhoeun.

“Recently, we don’t have nearly as many people panning for gems as before, because they can’t find anything anymore,” said Lim Sam At, deputy chief of the provincial Department of Industry, Mines and Energy.

Though talk of a drop-off began around 2000, the gems have all but disappeared since 2006, and never before have so many gem hunters given up in such a short period of time, Lim Sam At said. “They’ve all started to farm all the time instead,” he added.

The trend has come as no surprise to Som Sopheap, 37, Inn Chhoeun’s next-door neighbour and herself a former amateur gem hunter. Like Inn Chhoeun, she began looking for gems after moving to Pailin in 1993. And like Inn Chhoeun, she had some early success. She made about 100,000 baht in the first five years, but she quickly became frustrated with the tiresome work and inconsistent rewards, and by 2000 she had stopped completely.

Asked if others would soon follow suit, she said it was probably inevitable. “If they cannot find any more, they will stop,” she said. “They will not want to spend such a hard day digging if they can’t find anything.”

An industry withers
Gone with the amateur gem hunters are many of the middlemen who bought the gems and sold them in markets in other provinces or across the border, as well as the shops that polished and shaped the gems in Pailin town.

Many of the now-shuttered storefronts on the town’s strip of National Road 10 were once occupied by such businesses. Sheak Chhan Dara, the owner of one of the few gem shops that remain open, said half of the 20 shops that were operating in 2006 have since closed.

Even facing depleted competition, business for Sheak Chhan Dara is difficult. “There are no gems and diamonds, so I cannot earn much income,” he said.

On the right side of his shop, a glass display case contained the earrings, bracelets, rings and necklaces he hoped to sell to Thai tourists making quick trips across the border and merchants making the rounds of exhibitions in Phnom Penh. As the industry in Pailin has declined, he said, an increasing amount of that jewellery has come from Cambodia’s other gem-heavy provinces, including Takeo and Kampong Thom.

“For people here, looking for gems is not important now,” he said. “In the future, if no one can find diamonds in this province, it will seriously affect my business. I will not close, but I will need to start buying from collectors or something.”

So where have the gems gone? A range of theories were provided in interviews, but for many, the villain in this story is a familiar one.

“The Thais have come and taken all the diamonds away already,” Som Sopheap said, voicing a claim repeated throughout Pailin town.

“This area doesn’t have many gems because of the Thai people,” said Lim Sam At, the provincial mines and energy official, who added that the Thais first came looking for gems in Pailin in the late 1980s.

“They used big excavator trucks to dig up the gem areas and take the gems back to their country, so our people, who use only the traditional hand-sifting method, can no longer find anything.” The government banned the use of excavator trucks in 2003.

But the Thais weren’t the only ones blamed. Both Lim Sam At and Sheak Chhan Dara allowed for the fact that Cambodian gem hunters might share responsibility for the depletion of Pailin’s gems. Sheak Chhan Dara noted that as the area has become more developed, there has been less unclaimed land on which to dig.

Whatever the reason, Sheak Chhan Dara seemed resigned to the fact that things would never again be as good as they were in 1996, which he said was the peak year for his 22-year-old business. “There were so many diamonds back then. I didn’t have enough capital to buy all the ones that were brought to my shop,” he said.

For some, though, the thrill of the hunt makes up for the diminishing rewards. Towards the end of the interview with Sheak Chhan Dara, Chhoun Khoun, a 25-year-old newcomer to Pailin from Kampong Chhnang, came in with his finds for the day: five blue and black stones, each smaller than a thumbnail, that Sheak Chhan Dara purchased for 10,000 riels ($2.40).

Asked why he had moved to Pailin, Chhoun Khoun said he had been motivated by the lack of job prospects at home.

Low earnings aside, he said he was happy with his new life and planned to stay for at least two years. “Here, even though I don’t make very much money, I have a fun job looking for diamonds,” he said. “It is like an adventure for me.”

{smoothgallery folder=/images/stories/news/onlineedition/091117_Gem&width=558&height=430&sort=asc}

Photo By Heng Chivoan

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