For four years now, this mineral-flecked land deep inside the Prey Lang forest has drawn thousands of small-scale seasonal miners. As the rains pick up and the roads turn into near-impassable rivers of mud, the families drift in. They spend hours, even days, making their way to this prime location, where they’ll drop their gear, erect their homes, and – on hands and knees – start turning the soil into gold.
Fortunes rise and fall here, power is made and lost. And then, just as quickly as it starts, it vanishes. Whole villages abandoned, miners returned to their farms, pockmarked ground the only indication of what was once here.
In the dry season, you can drive for hours past these ghost villages without seeing another soul. Until, at last, you crash through the brush and stumble on one village, two, more – sparse and nearly empty – where a handful of miners have stuck it out.
Of the thousands who during the rainy season pour into this prime gold-mining territory along the Kratie-Kampong Thom border, less than 100 stay year-round.
Harvests and families beckon, the remoteness of the area closes in, and, without an abundant supply of water, profits dwindle.
The dry-season miners are the heartiest and the poorest. They are tough old men who have travelled from mine to mine for decades, picking up and moving whenever the payload dries. They are boys taking a gamble on something besides farming. They are families who had tried and failed in all other endeavours and have found themselves with no other recourse.
Standing on the edge of a broad pit, 25-year-old Yin Pheakdey keeps an eye on his brothers-in-law – both are standing metres below him in shin-deep water, feverishly adjusting the mine’s pump.
The trio spent a week digging the 10-x-10-metre mine by hand, and over the next 10 days will man a gas-guzzling pump that sends the muddy contents of the pit careening down a handmade sluice.
“During the rainy season, I worked for others, and we could make 150,000 riel in one day. After I did that and saw it was easy, I decided to give it a try,” said Pheakdey.
While miners jockey for space during the wet season, land is ripe for grabbing now. When Pheakdey finishes extracting from his current mine – a process that will leave behind a desiccated hole incapable of yielding more gold – he can simply pick up and start again elsewhere.
There are perks to working the dry season: space is one, avoiding the unofficial “taxation” system is another.
For years, development agencies have urged a sweeping licensing scheme to help monitor and regulate the small-scale mining sector. Though it is required that artisanal mines be licensed under the Law on Management and Exploitation of Mineral Resources, the reality is that few, if any, are.
While the legal framework is solidly in place, the UNDP wrote in a 2011 briefing paper on small-scale mines, “this legal clause has not been developed as an active policy tool yet.”
“New policies should be developed to allow [Artisanal and small-scale mining] ASM workers and companies to work together to facilitate sharing of resource access as well as to provide equitable treatment and opportunities for ASM workers to acquire licenses,” the authors urged.
Instead, as large-scale mines proliferate, the government has ignored regulation of small mines in favour of focusing resources on the big payout. In Sandan, as in many areas rife with small-scale mining, that lack of management has created a vacuum, allowing local power-players to profit handsomely.
Of a dozen miners interviewed, each, to a man, said the biggest headache of the profession was dealing with the soldiers.
Once a month during peak season, soldiers appear to collect what is essentially a fee for turning a blind eye to illegal activity. The prices are uniform: $50 from those who mine with machines, 25,000 riel from those who pan by hand.
Coupled with exorbitant bank loan rates (most miners interviewed pay 35 per cent interest on loans used to purchase pumps and petrol), the fees turn a lucrative business into something barely above sustenance level.
Even after supplies and petrol, a mining family operating a small machine pump can earn $2,500 a year. Nearly all of that, however, will wind up at the bank or in the hands of soldiers. It’s the latter, however, that most rankle miners.
“Without a doubt, the main problem is the soldiers,” says Srey Oun, 41, who has lived with her family in the area for three years now.
“June through December, they come by. They claim they come to protect the people here, but they don’t protect, they just threaten. If you’re one day late – just one day – they’ll come to your mine and shut it off.” As Oun speaks, her husband, 44-year-old Loun Veasna, wanders over from the couple’s mine, located a few metres from their home.
Dressed in a sopping shirt and trunks, Veasna lights up a cigarette and nods in agreement as his wife speaks.
“Why do the soldiers take the money? They say it’s for the government, but I don’t think so,” she says.
Calls to provincial RCAF officials went unanswered this week, while officials with the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy could not be reached for comment.
The push and the pull
When Chan Chirin grins, chips of caked-on mud fall from his cheeks. A pro amongst pros, the 45-year-old ticks off some of the places he has lived in recent years.
“Mondolkiri, Pailin, Shong On, Phnom Chi, O’Takeo.”
“It’s not difficult at all during the rainy season. And if we can’t find gold, we just move to another place,” he says. Behind him, a small machine pumps out water steadily. Further back, hole after hole dot the ground – most contain a miner or two, dropped to their haunches, swishing water out of a conical pan until only faint gold flakes remain.
“Most people here pan by hand,” says Chirin. While many settlements in the area resemble villages (albeit spare), the land where Chirin works is nothing more than a haphazard collection of tarpaulin tents. Even Chirin, who can afford to mine by pump, lives in the most temporary of temporary shelters.
“If during two days I can’t find 35,000 riel worth of gold, then I can’t afford to support my family and I have to find another place to mine,” he says. “I’ve been following people from mine to mine since I was a child. It’s a good job for me. Some people own farmland, but I don’t – so I stay in mining.”
Despite the bravado, Chirin admits the job is far from easy. In addition to the soldiers (“the main problem,” he says), health issues are rampant. In the year since he moved here, he’s had near-constant stomach issues.
Like his fellow miners, Chirin drinks the same water that floods his mine and rarely bothers to boil it.
The far bigger problem, he and others agree, is malaria. Everyone interviewed said they or their relatives had contracted the mosquito-borne illness at least once. Most said they suffered multiple times a year.
“I’ve had it twice,” said Chirin.
A neighbour pipes in: “It can be quite bad. If you don’t get to the hospital in time, you will die.”
During the rainy season, it can take upwards of six hours to drive from these villages to the nearest town with a clinic, but a doctor roams the area. In the dry season, the trip is shorter, but malaria still abounds and there is no doctor.
“This place,” Chirin says, puffing out his chest, “even if you think you’re strong, spend two weeks here and see how strong you are.”
But such difficulties do little to tamp down the eagerness. After all, look at this land, deep in the forest, where gold springs from the ground and there’s plenty for all.
Less than 50 kilometres away, the soil is rocky and minerals can be extracted only with corrosive acids that leech into the ground – destroying the environment, and bringing with it a slew of health issues. Miners there find themselves under near-constant threat from encroaching Chinese- and Korean-owned companies: large-scale operations that employ hundreds who previously mined the land on their own terms.
By contrast, for all the legal ambiguities, the clashes with authorities and bouts of malaria – this land is near-Eden for miners.
Peering down a small hill leading into a mining shantytown, Oum Chana, a travelling vendor who follows miners from site to site, considers the future.
“Doing business with these people is better then what I could do in my homeland,” she says, pausing to shoo away a drunk miner who’s come to beg money off a reporter for another litre of rice wine.
“I’ve already done this for three years, following the gold miners. Everything I get, I sell for double, since it’s so far from the market. And if they have no money, it’s no problem: they can give me the gold in exchange.”
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected],
Abby Seiff at [email protected]