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Miners risk all in paydirt quest

Phit Dara, 28, (left) is one of many miners in the village of Bokheo who risks his life each day underground in the quest for precious and semi-precious gems.

I think, in the future, work on plantations will be better than digging for gems

THE hole that Sam Nong emerges from is about one metre in diameter. He has spent the previous five metres searching for zircon, while his partner waits at the surface. After a cigarette break it will be his partner’s turn to descend the 10-metre shaft.

“Today I found nothing, yesterday I found nothing,” says Sam Nong. “I did find something about four or five days ago.”

The land around the village of Bokeo is strewn with holes similar to Sam Nong’s. Small children play around the edge of some of the shallower ones, while their fathers eke out a precarious living from within.

The people of Bokheo have mined here for the past 60 years. Despite the inherent danger involved in the work, such mining is unregulated.

“We don’t go and ask anyone,” says Sam Nong. “It is the habit for the Bokheo people. It is state land.”

Sam Nong himself came from Kampong Cham 11 years ago hoping to strike it rich. Although he did once unearth a stone worth US$5,000, he is no wealthy man. The periods where he comes up empty handed far outweigh the times that he strikes the big payload.

“It is difficult, but we are poor,” he says. “We don’t know what else to do.”

The work is not just difficult, it is also dangerous. On our visit several miners informed us that a few weeks previously two tunnels collapsed, killing three people.

“I am not scared. I am an experienced miner,” says Sam Nong.

“The people who died were younger and more aggressive than me.”

Nevertheless, Sam Nong might be the last of a dying breed.

Theng Dara, 43, started trading gems from his store in the centre of Banlung in 2010.

“Back then the miners could dig anywhere and gems were easy to find,” he says.

“But now business people have bought up the land to plant rubber. There are less and less gems.”

Despite their scarcity, Theng Dara still trades about $100,000 worth of zircon each month, mainly exported to Thailand.

Eng Srah, 20, sells gems from her roadside hut in Bokheo while her husband mines. It supplements her main trade which is selling snacks to passers-by. She receives commission for each gem she sells from one of the traders in town. On a good day she makes $25.

Her friend Phay Sreay Neang, 23, works on rubber and cashew plantations. She is waiting for the cashew-nut picking season to start when she will earn 15,000 riel per day. Her husband also works on the plantation. Most miners supplement their income with work on the plantations.

“I think in the future, work on plantations will be better than digging for gems,” says Eng Srah. “On plantations we know that every year we earn money, but with gems, some days we have something, other days we have nothing.” TRANSLATION BY RANN REUY

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