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
"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 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"
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
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."