Generations of marble miners and carvers in Pursat have quarried the province's mountains, but a company with ties to the government could block future access
Photo by: ELEANOR AINGE ROY
Marble carver Suom Chivoan concentrates on his work in Pursat province last week.
Working the marble
seams in Pursat Province
The marble that the residents of Pro Ngil village in Pursat province carve is sourced from the Kra Vanh and Borkeo mountains, which are a three-hour motorbike ride from the village. It is work for the strongest of men, says 30-year-old Suom Chivoan, chief of the carvers in the business he runs for his wealthy boss. The “marble men” travel for six to eight weeks to bring stone down from the mountain. They risk illness and injury, carrying heavy loads down to their carts and enduring frequent bouts of malaria. “Before we had the oxcart, the trip was even more strenuous. People have been working here since 1956, though we stopped during the Khmer Rouge regime. I went to study in Phnom Penh for six months but I didn’t need any more training than that, as I grew up watching my father. I like this job, and that’s lucky because there is nothing else I could do. I have no other skills, and I wouldn’t know how to acquire them.”
Photo by: ELEANOR AINGE ROY
Residents of Pro Ngil village carve marble last week.
THE sound of steel on stone echoes from one house to the next in Pro Ngil village, situated about 30 kilometres from Pursat provincial town and banked at the horizon by the distant Cardamom Mountains.
Along the side of the road, flimsy blue tarpaulins flap in an afternoon breeze as groups of men cluster beneath them with chisel and hammer in hand.
The marble trade has sustained Pro Ngil for more than 50 years, but its existence now hinges on access to the Kra Vanh and Borkeo mountains that have for decades provided these men with high-quality stone said to be the best in Cambodia.
At a distance of 80 kilometres from the village, the Kra Vanh and Borkeo mountains do not give up their treasures easily.
The marble lies five metres below ground, and the villagers dig it up without the aid of modern machinery. Then, they carry it down the mountain on their backs - loads vary between 50 to 100 kilograms - and transfer it to oxcarts for the long journey home.
"This work is hard. Only the strongest men can do it," said Suom Chivoan, 30, who has carved marble for more than a decade. "The marble diggers constantly suffer from malaria in the mountains, and the trip takes between four and six weeks."
But the mining rights to these mountains now belong to the Float Asia Friendly Mation Co, owned by one of Prime Minister Hun Sen's most senior advisers, Long Viksakcha.
Sixty percent of Pro Ngil's 404 residents earn their living from the marble trade, and village chief Yim Bunly described the fear that has gripped his people since news of the sale broke last year.
"The whole village was terrified. Without our marble trade, we would all die, as we have no other means to support ourselves," Yim Bunly said.
The company had initially prohibited villagers from quarrying the marble and said they would instead "sell it to us, and then we could carve it and sell it back to them. It was a bad deal. They sold the marble at a high price and bought it back at a low one," Yim Bunly said.
The arrangement was short-lived, and villagers soon renewed their quarrying, against the orders of the company. In early 2008, they threatened to take their dispute directly to Hun Sen.
THE WHOLE VILLAGE WAS TERRIFIED. WITHOUT THE MARBLE TRADE WE WOULD ALL DIE AS WE HAVE NO OTHER MEANS TO SUPPORT OURSELVES.
"The company got very nervous when we threatened to bring the authorities in. They did not want Prime Minister Hun Sen to find out," Yim Bunly said.
Eang Sok Nay, general manager of Float Asia, said his company stopped their mining operations because of the rainy season and not because of the community's threats.
He added that the company has a 40-year licence to quarry the mountains, and that the company charges high prices to cover the cost of government taxes.
Float Asia's plan was two-fold: to employ villagers to quarry unprocessed marble for export, and to sell them marble to produce carved souvenirs that would then be sold in a shop in Phnom Kra Vanh district.
"Our business here will help the villagers. We are constructing a road to the mountain, and they will be able to use it too," Eang Sok Nay said.
"Our plans at the moment are only to sell locally, and to begin with, we will only open one shop. I do not know when that will be," he said.
Sok Bunny, chief of the Mine Resources Department at the Department of Mines and Energy in Pursat province, said Float Asia was granted a mining licence in 2006 and will not be encroaching on land from which villagers mine.
He added, however, that the villagers have no official licences from the Ministry of Environment to quarry for marble.
"The conflict between the company and community arose when the company banned the villagers from travelling on the road to the mountain. I cannot say who is right or wrong in this disagreement," Sok Bunny said.
Yim Bunly has lived in Pro Ngil all his life and says his people will fight Float Asia to keep their access to the mountains and the rich supply of marble that has sustained their community for generations.
But he fears the completion of the company's road leading to the mountains later this year. That, he said, is when the trouble will begin again, as the company starts full-scale production.
As dusk falls, the marble men of Pro Ngil put down their tools and file toward the river to wash the coloured dust from their bodies.
"We may not have the means, but we will fight regardless," Yim Bunly said.
"We have to. We have been doing this work for the longest time, and it is all that we have."
But for now, an uneasy peace governs the village's relations with Float Asia.
"They have changed their minds now and said we can continue to dig for marble. There is peace presently, but I don't know how long it will last. This is the biggest threat to our way of life that we have encountered," Yim Bunly said.