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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - SNC Mining Ban Hangs Over Rattanakiri Gold Rush

SNC Mining Ban Hangs Over Rattanakiri Gold Rush

PREAH MEAS, Rattanakiri Province-Deep in malaria-infested jungle in northeastern

Cambodia, many kilometers from anywhere, more than a thousand fortune seekers are

risking their lives in the hopes of striking it rich.

The lure is gold and miners are digging it up every day with simple hand tools.

Forty-two kilometers south of National Route 19 and about 10 kilometers from the

Vietnamese border, Preah Meas (Gold Mountain) is drawing Cambodians from as far away

as Kratie, Takeo and Kompong Speu, and Vietnamese by the hundreds from Pleiku, Dalat

and other provinces across the border.

A rabbit warren of 10 to 20 meter deep trenches crisscross a two kilometer square

area as miners dig into the rugged terrain, following gold veins in all directions.

Huge piles of tailings litter the landscape.

Ramshackle cardboard and bamboo huts have sprung up giving this boomtown what could

be considered a "main street." Vendors in twenty or so makeshift shops

sell packaged noodles and coffee from Vietnam, canned sodas and Kendo from Thailand,

Tiger beer from Singapore and injectable antibiotics from France to fight off the

rampant incidence of malaria.

Exact figures on how much gold is being taken out of the crudely carved open trench

mines are hard to come by, as is a precise number of how many people are actually

digging for gold.

The Khmer bosses are nervous. There are rumors that the mines will be closed. As

most of the Vietnamese have probably slipped across the border illegally, coming

to the mine sites on narrow jungle paths that snake from Vietnam through an area

devoid of human habitation, they too are wary of prying outsiders.

"All the Vietnamese went home," said one Khmer gold seeker. "They

left because the election is coming up and were nervous to be here."

"We haven't found much gold," said a Vietnamese miner from Pleiku. "We've

been digging for one week but haven't had any luck. Only a little gold."

The miners concerns are well-justified as the operation has come under the scrutiny

of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) since the Supreme

National Council of Cambodia (SNC) passed a moratorium on the commercial extraction

of mineral resources and the export of minerals on February 10 of this year.

Whether or not the Preah Meas mines come under the SNC's definition of "commercial

extraction" is still open to debate. UNTAC officials in Rattanakiri have visited

the mines and a team from Phnom Penh is expected to travel to the remote site in

the near future.

What is certain is that any gold "exports" from the mines are not on the

State of Cambodia's (SOC) books. UNTAC says that legal gold imports into Cambodia

were more than five tons in January alone. Figures for gold exports were given as

none.

"We will have to look at (Preah Meas) further," said one UNTAC official

in Phnom Penh. "We have to determine if its a family-type of operation that

benefits the community surrounding the mine."

"Our main target is the Pailin operation," the official added. "Pailin

is the only place using heavy equipment, bulldozers and high-powered jets that damage

the environment.

The Thai companies there are taking whole hills across the border." But since

the moratorium applies nationwide, UNTAC will take a close look at all mining operations

in the country, including Preah Meas.

While UNTAC decides how to proceed, teams of miners dig away feverishly in the tropical

heat. In thick, damp air at the bottom of a 20 meter trench the hammering at hard

rock goes on daily and sweaty miners can readily point with a smile to the gold rich

vein they are chipping away at blow by blow.

One 60 meter-long trench had a crew of over 150 Vietnamese spread out along its length,

all of whom were reported to be working for one "boss."

The teams work in groups of three to five, with one man in the bottom of the trench

digging loose the ore, another carrying it to a bucket on the end of a rope, and

up top, two more men winding up rocks and dirt on a primitive pulley system where

the ore is carried to a waiting truck. Loads of one ton each are then shuttled to

a generator-driven rock crusher which breaks down the ore and sifts out the heavier

gold using water sluices.

A Khmer fortune-seeker from Rattanakiri's provincial capital of Ban Lung explained

how he had come with three of his friends and spent ten days in Preah Meas.

"We just picked a spot that looked good, one in line with some other existing

mines and started to dig," he said.

The four Khmers hired six Vietnamese to do the digging. No fees are paid to district

police who, apparently only charge generator operators and shopkeepers to run their

businesses. The Vietnamese were given provisions in advance: food, cigarettes and

some beer. It was said that the local police don't allow Vietnamese to "manage"

a dig.

For each truckload of ore taken to a crusher a fee of one chi of gold was paid (one

chi equals 3.75 grams). Seven Chinese-made generators are scattered throughout the

site.

After 10 days the team had produced 100 chi of gold which was about 80% pure. The

gold is divided 50/50 between the Khmers and the Vietnamese.

When the profits are split up the expenses paid in advance to the Vietnamese are

deducted, which in this case was about 10 chi worth.

A chi of gold at the mine site was valued at between riels 70,000 and 75,000. Many

shopkeepers near the mine have scales set up to weigh gold nuggets. Small groups

of men huddle around dealers as they juggle weights back and forth to determine a

piece of gold's exact worth.

The four Khmer "investors" returned to Ban Lung with "about $1,200"

worth of gold between them, an amount per person that is roughly twice what most

Cambodians make in a year. The Vietnamese either sell their gold at the site or carry

it back home.

"I plan to return here after I buy some rice in Ban Lung," said the Khmer.

"I didn't have a job before I came here. This is good money." He added,

"I heard that in a hole near the mine one guy found four domlung (5.3 ounces)

of gold in one rice bag of ore. This mine produces hundreds and hundreds of chi of

gold every week."

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