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Gems in the rough in Ratanakkiri

Refined blue zircon ornaments are displayed for sale at a jewellery shop in Banlung.
Refined blue zircon ornaments are displayed for sale at a jewellery shop in Banlung. VIREAK MAI

Gems in the rough in Ratanakkiri

“These are the best quality stones,” Lat Yun says with a grin. Nestled in his outstretched hand are three unassuming rocks. “I don’t know what they’re called, I just know they’re the best.”

The gemstones of Ratanakkiri are a mineral called zircon, but in Cambodia, they have no name – even in jewellery stores vendors refer to the sapphire-blue drops simply as t’bong Bakeo, or Bakeo gems.

“One hundred fifty dollars,” Yun says, pointing to one.

In the mines of Bakeo district, fortunes can, occasionally, be made. But the work comes at high personal risk. To retrieve the valuable stones, miners climb a dozen metres down holes the width of a man, before heading into the underground tunnels criss-crossing this land. Every miner here knows of at least one or two people who have died from cave-ins.

“It’s an interesting job; you can earn a lot,” says Yun. “But it’s very dangerous. You have to take care.”

Yun’s mine, like those of a hundred or so ringing the edges of a cassava plantation, is a sparse affair. A miner in the pit fills buckets of red soil, which are hauled up with a homemade wooden hoist and discarded until the holes are clear and smooth. The most cautious miners prop up their tunnels with squares of wood dropped down the shaft – most don’t.

Tucking his bushy hair beneath a headlamp, Yun, who at 9am is already caked head to toe in red, scrambles down, using notches carved into the side as foot holes. In less than five seconds, he’s invisible, just a low and distant voice.

“I was a farmer before, but this just is much better. If you’re lucky, you can earn $1,000 in a day. I eat much better than a farmer,” the 44-year-old told us before scaling down.

A teenage miner climbs down a mineshaft in Ratanakkiri province’s Bakeo district.
A teenage miner climbs down a mineshaft in Ratanakkiri province’s Bakeo district. VIREAK MAI

From 7am until 4pm, miners working three to a pit tap the veins in the hope of hitting pay dirt. They have complete access to this two-hectare land and don’t pay a riel of rent. In exchange, however, they can sell only to the broker who holds the lease, leaving them severely undercut and earning staggering profits for the middleman.

“After one year, this will all be depleted [of gems],” says Kim Phal, the broker. Phal paid $9,000 to rent these two-hectares of land for a year.

Asked how much he could earn in a month, Phal, clad innocuously in shirt-sleeves and toting a badly worn purse, demurs.

“Perhaps $500 to $1,000,” he finally says. Standing nearby, hawking coffee to a steady stream of miners, Hoy Houy – the landowner – lets out a sharp laugh. “Don’t speak a lie! It’s more like $10,000,” he interjects.

As Phal glowers, a young man wanders over clutching a plastic tea bottle full of rocks. Barely looking up, Phal pours the stones into his hand, sneers and returns them to the bottle. Back it goes to the miner along with 5,000 riel ($1.25) Phal has fished from his purse – lunch money for a near-destitute.

Miners here boast of the thousands they can make. They eagerly speak of how, just two days earlier, a miner found a stone worth $7,000. However, this is the exception.

Make no mistake, these men are poor. Big payouts come infrequently and are balanced by long periods of little to no success. This is no salaried job; if a miner finds nothing in the course of the day, he earns nothing.

Even when the wealth comes, it does not stick around. Boys as young as 14, who spend hours hauling heavy buckets of dirt up from below, take the job to support their family. The older men, meanwhile, have a tendency to take out a large group of friends and blow all their money in days-long benders.

“She’s the only one with money here,” a miner quips, gesturing at their drinks vendor, Mao Srey Em.

“When we find money, we go to karaoke in Banlung. It’s the reason we can’t be rich.”

A broker uses a gem-testing instrument to determine the quality of a mined gemstone in Ratanakkiri  province’s Bakeo district.
A broker uses a gem-testing instrument to determine the quality of a mined gemstone in Ratanakkiri province’s Bakeo district. VIREAK MAI

Life in the trenches
Tiep Bouty doesn’t look up from his work as he speaks. Deep below ground, an uncle fills a five-gallon pail with soil and tugs on the rope. Bucket after bucket is pulled up by Bouty and dumped along the edges of the mine.

Dressed in a tattered shirt and jeans, he looks far younger than his 17 years of age.

“Today, we haven’t found anything, we’re just trying to link to another hole for air,” he says. “But we find almost every day – some times a lot, sometimes a little.”

Is this a good job?

There is a long silence as the bucket drops down the shaft.

Is it?

“Yes,” he finally says. “It’s a good job. I can earn over $1,000 in a month. I take the money to pay for my family’s farm.”

Bouty has been working with two uncles in mining for three years now. Ttylhe middle of seven children, all the money he earns goes home. There are no dangers, he tells us, though malaria is rampant.

Pointing to a pile of wooden blocks, Bouty explains how his group takes special precautions.

“If we make a tunnel and it appears to not be secure, we prop it up with wood. For my group, we have never had a problem.”

Last year, on the land the miners occupied before the broker moved them to this patch, a collapse killed two people.

Srey Em, the coffee vendor, has been following the miners from plot to plot for three years now and estimates that there’s been between one and three deaths each year.

“When the land falls in, the miners try to dig all the way from the edge down in order to find the bodies,” she says.

Nearby, a group of boys who don’t look much older than 15 squint at the screen of an antiquated cell phone which is playing a kung-fu movie.

Miner Lat Yun holds semi-precious natural zircon gemstones in his hands at his mine in Ratanakkiri province’s Bakeo district.
Miner Lat Yun holds semi-precious natural zircon gemstones in his hands at his mine in Ratanakkiri province’s Bakeo district. VIREAK MAI

“It’s dangerous, of course,” continues Srey Em, “but it’s up to the people. If they take care of themselves, it’s fine.”

At the coffee stand across the field, miners trickle in to meet with the broker Phal. A Jarai man who appears to be in his 50s pours a small bottle full of stones into his hand. Phal has to be talked into looking at them but finally pulls out a flashlight, the head of which has been removed.

Pressing the bulb against the stone, Phal scoffs.

“Take a look, it’s not very good. I’ll give you 20,000 riel,” he says. He picks up another one.

“Four dollars,” he yells at the miner, who has begun to fight back, calling for $6.

“Look at it! It’s not very good.”

Dejected, the miner storms away, refusing the money. Eventually, however, he’ll have to take it. He can’t sell to anyone else.

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