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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pailin find sparks ‘gem rush’

One of the men who has rented a tiny plot of land from a Pailin province farmer to mine for precious stones is seen panning for gems in an undated photo. Photo supplied
One of the men who has rented a tiny plot of land from a Pailin province farmer to mine for precious stones is seen panning for gems in an undated photo. Photo supplied

Pailin find sparks ‘gem rush’

An indebted farmer in Pailin province may have struck it rich after local villagers and police extracted precious stones allegedly worth up to $70,000 each from his 40-metre-by-100-metre property.

Chou Thy, 63, and his wife were $5,000 in debt to a microfinance institution after a recent drought destroyed their farm’s crops and made it impossible to sell corn and cassava. But their luck changed when, several weeks ago, neighbours discovered precious gems in the soil on their property in Pailin’s Sala Krao district. The couple decided to rent the land to neighbours who wanted to mine for gems and use the money to pay off their debt.

“I was worried about not being able to pay back my loan, but suddenly my neighbour asked if he could mine my soil for $20 per cubic metre,” Thy said, adding that his family is very poor and that he and his wife have 14 children – 10 of whom are unmarried and still dependent.

The family had been tilling the soil for years and had never found precious stones, he added. Thy’s neighbour, Chhorn Kea, 32, said that he decided to mine the property after discovering a purple stone worth $500 as he walked across the land. But Kea’s activities sparked a wave of excitement through the neighbourhood, prompting a mini gem rush.

“After I continuously found stones, other villagers and the police found out and also began to rent the land and mine for stones,” Kea said. “Someone found a good stone worth $70,000.”

Kong Norn, deputy police chief of Sala Krao district, said he rented 10 cubic metres of Thy’s land and found a huge stone, but it was only worth $1,800 because it was covered in cracks.

“So far, I’ve only mined around 3 cubic metres out of the 10 that I rented, so I hope I will find another good stone in the rest of the soil,” he said.Hoem Koeun, an official at the provincial police station, was the lucky neighbour who found the purported $70,000 stone, Norn added.

Koeun said yesterday that he had yet to sell the gem, but boasted, “My stone is seven carats.”

Despite the profitability of the flurry of activity, farm owner Thy said now that he’s paid off his debt, he and his family will stop renting the land to neighbours and will begin mining it themselves.

Pailin province is historically known for its precious gems and periodic illegal mining activity, and officials from the provincial Department of Mines and Energy paid a visit to inspect the site on Monday.

But Van Sira Ne, director of the department, said the activities on Thy’s property would not be banned as they are happening on a small scale on private land and not impacting the environment.

Meanwhile, Thy said he and his children have already found stones they believe are worth thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, he said they are not ready to give up their old way of life.

“I did not tell my children to quit farming,” he confirmed.

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