THE road to Pursat province’s Phnom Kravanh town is dotted with examples of the ornate stonework on which many area residents base their livelihoods. Religious statues and water jugs with detailed patterns etched in relief stand in the front yards of the stilt homes that sit off the asphalt; underneath the stilts, polished stone glasses and bowls rest on tables or in piles on the ground.
The abundant deposits of marble in the Cardamom Mountains near Phnom Kravanh have supported many locals who mine the raw material or carve it into crafts for consumers. But as a mining company granted a licence to explore in the area has cornered the local marble trade, villagers say they are increasingly being squeezed out.
Phorn Bunthear, 24, said he had worked as a marble carver since he was 12 years old, gathering the stone himself to be carved at his home.
Since 2008, however, he said officials from Float Asia Friendly Mation Co – which watchdog group Global Witness has linked to Om Yentieng, the newly appointed head of the government’s Anticorruption Unit – had prevented him and other villagers from transporting marble themselves, forcing artisans to buy the stone at inflated prices.
“If we dare to bring the marble from the mountains to our homes, they will fine us and confiscate our marble,” Phorn Bunthear said.
Prior to Float Asia’s arrival in the area, villagers who gathered the marble sold it to carvers for 1,000 riels (US$0.24) per kilogram, said 31-year-old Hean Sophan, who runs a carving business out of her home in Phnom Kravanh district’s Prangil commune. But by forcing villagers to sell any marble gathered in the area, Float Asia has since been able to set its own price and drive many locals out of the business, she said.
“They pay only 400-500 riels per kilogram to buy marble from local people, but for people who want to buy from them, they sell it for 1,500-2,000 riels per kilogram,” Hean Sophan said. Many former miners and carvers from the area have moved on to seek work in Phnom Penh or concentrate on farming, she said.
Huy Sahong, Float Asia’s company representative at its marble depot in Phnom Kravanh, denied that the firm had been fixing prices or forcing villagers to sell their marble.
“We do not force them to sell to us – they can sell anywhere they want,” Huy Sahong said. “We sell marble for just 700 to 1,200 riels [per kilogramme], and all the people who buy from us buy on credit.”
Huy Sahong said Phnom Kravanh residents engaged in the marble trade stood to benefit from Float Asia’s presence in the area, as the company was in the process of linking the mountain marble quarries by road to the district town.
Sok Bunny, chief of the mine resource department in Pursat’s provincial Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, said Float Asia obtained a licence to explore for marble in Phnom Kravanh district’s Rokat commune in May of 2006, and commenced operations in December 2007.
Ministry of Commerce registration documents identify Float Asia’s owner as “Ching Kimnguon”, though Global Witness alleged last year that the company was controlled by Om Yentieng, the Anticorruption Unit head.
“Who said that I am involved?” Om Yentieng said yesterday when asked about Float Asia, rejecting any association with the comapny. Huy Sahong said he was unsure of who controlled Float Asia.
In its report Country for Sale, Global Witness accused Float Asia representatives of enlisting Cambodian soldiers to confront Ministry of Environment rangers who, in March of 2008, had confiscated some of the company’s equipment, saying Float Asia was operating in the area illegally.
In a submission to the Pursat provincial court describing the incident, the Ministry of Environment said that the soldiers had threatened to shoot the rangers, but the case was never investigated, Global Witness said.
Yim Bunly, chief of Phnom Kravanh’s Prangil village, described an incident in which company representatives had burned a truck owned by local residents attempting to transport marble without Float Asia’s permission. Yim Bunly estimated that 60 percent of residents in his village were involved in the marble trade, but said the incident was part of a pattern of disputes that have forced many to find alternative employment.
“Villagers have had big problems with the company,” he said.
Mam Sambath, chairman of the NGO Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, said the government needed to balance the interests of larger exploration firms like Float Asia with those of local communities that depend on small-scale extractive activity.
“We should support [local miners], because they could make the money to support their homes and function,” Mam Sambath said. “We’re supporting communities to hopefully have long-term economic activity.”