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A man winches up a bucket of dirt from a small mine shaft in Ratanakkiri’s Bakeo district in July
A man winches up a bucket of dirt from a small mine shaft in Ratanakkiri’s Bakeo district in July. Vireak Mai

Illegal miners tread carefully

In a remote part of Ratanakkiri, Lan Yorn ekes out an existence mining for gems.

In his quest to provide for his family, Yorn engages in highly dangerous work illegally digging mines as deep as 12 metres with only the most basic of equipment.

“I have no choice. I have to do it,” he said yesterday, adding he has a family to support in Bakeo district and no other source of income. “My job is very dangerous. If you dig carelessly, the ground will collapse and crush you to death.”

That was the fate that befell a 31-year-old man in Battambang province on Monday, who was killed when a gold mine, also illegally dug, collapsed.

Government officials say that unlicensed mining in search of minerals is a problem among rural villagers desperate to make money.

Those villagers, the authorities say, lack the training required to handle the dangers that come with mining.

But that hasn’t stopped dozens of people from rushing to Yorn’s district in Ratanakkiri. At last count, he knew of 50 individual miners in the area.

In his time mining, Yorn has known of others killed. When that happens, fellow miners are left to retrieve their bodies.

“The authorities don’t come and tell us not to mine here. We ourselves know we have to take care.”

Chhay Sarath, a former director of an organisation that monitors the mining sector, believes villagers have the right to mine for a living and deserve assistance from the government to help make their work safe.

“Many don’t have a choice and must mine to make [a living],” he said. “And I personally think they should have access to natural resources.”

As it stands, though, many lack the training and equipment to ensure their practices are anything but dangerous, he added.

Rather than keep individual mining illegal, Sarath said, it should be reclassified as informal employment.

“The government tries to track down illegal miners, but they do not give them any other options,” he said. “The government should give them basic training.”

Combined with the government’s encouraging miners to form joint ventures that could help them collectively buy better equipment, the training would greatly improve practices, Sarath added.

In Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district, Oung Sam Oeun, 54, mines for gold with family members.

More often than not, they are left to do their work, but it doesn’t always play out that way.

“The authorities don’t come to tell us not to mine – they just come to get money from us,” he said.

A benefit of working together is that the family has been able to buy equipment that enables them to pump mud, meaning they don’t have to dig as deep as they did in the past.

It has also greatly reduced their risk of injury, Sam Oeun said, meaning that for now, they can carry out their work with less fear for their safety.

Officials from the Ministry of Industry, Mining and Energy could not be reached yesterday for comment.

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