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Young men sift through dirt that was excavated from a nearby mine shaft
Young men sift through dirt that was excavated from a nearby mine shaft for precious stones in Ratanakkiri province in 2013. Vireak Mai

Ratanakkiri site of informal mining boom: official

Thousands of locals and migrant workers are engaged in illegal mining in Ratanakkiri province, a senior official with the Ministry of Mines and Energy said yesterday.

Having returned on Tuesday from an official inspection tour of the province, Meng Saktheara, a secretary of state at the ministry, described a rampant climate of entrepreneurial – and illegal – mining activity.

“We notice uncountable mining businesses run illegally; the villagers will go and extract from the mine wherever they know there is a mine,” he said, adding that everything from metal to precious gems, gold and sand for construction is being sought in the great rush. “[So many] thousands of people haphazardly run this business seasonally across the province that we cannot [stop] all of them. Some places are on hundreds of hectares.”

The districts most affected are O’Yadav, Bakeo and Andong Meas, according to Saktheara, who also pointed out that the middlemen, not the miners themselves, are profiting most handsomely.

“In fact, the poor person becomes the victim. The middleman earns more from the business. Sometimes, the businessman has his own team, but the villagers keep digging to sell and they take risks,” he said.

Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that businesses could not operate without the cooperation of local authorities. Thy said Adhoc will study the problem more and ask the ministry to take action.

Saktheara and his inspection team met with local authorities and said they were trying to combat illegal mining, but efforts were “not so effective” since the sites were so remote. Also, he said, once a crackdown occurs, illegal miners simply run away, hide, and return when the coast is clear.

National and provincial authorities have agreed to a “soft but strict” approach, he said. Under the measure, the government will make it easier to obtain mining licences while simultaneously going after illegal activity and sending cases to court.

Moeung Sineath, public affairs chief for Ratanakkiri Provincial Hall, said mining operations are down to less than 100 holes and the authorities have educated illegal miners and prevented operations from continuing as well.

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