Seven gold mine shafts in Kratie province’s Sambo district were dismantled and filled completely on Wednesday following a complaint from a Chinese-owned mining company.
Provincial mines and energy department director Sok Kiriroth said the shafts in Kbal Domrey commune legally belong to Xing Yuan Kanng Yeak, which holds a government-issued gold mining licence.
He said villagers in the area carried out illegal mining operations in the shafts despite repeated warning from authorities. The dismantling was facilitated by a provincial court prosecutor.
“We had told the villagers to stop illegal mining in order to end a dispute with the company. But some villagers secretly continued to run the illegal mining operation, so we had to act on the company’s complaint by dismantling and filling up the shafts,” he said.
Kiriroth said mining department officials started an investigation on Thursday last week after the company and local authorities reported that villagers had secretly excavated the shafts to extract gold ore.
The officials found 11 gold mine shafts, six of which were small and located underneath the villagers’ farmland. The other five shafts were larger and located within the company’s economic land concession.
Kiriroth said villagers were given one week to stop their operations but they did not fully comply with the directive.
O’tron village chief Sok Khoeun said four of the six shafts underneath the villagers’ farmland were filled before the deadline, but five other families continued to excavate and extract gold ore in the company’s adjacent shafts.
He said their action prompted the firm to file a complaint demanding the dismantling of all the shafts including their own.
“In fact, the villagers’ mining operations are small-scale family businesses and do not affect the company’s interests. They just excavated soil inside the old shafts and threshed for gold ore to support their families,” Khoeun said.
Khin Leng, an O’tron villager who was among those who excavated the company’s mine shafts, said they dug for gold ore solely to support their families.
“I dug for gold ore just to support our daily living expenses. Some villagers sought work in the company as mine workers,” he said.
Leng said some villagers had tried to dig shafts under their farms for gold ore after learning that gold mines exist underneath.
“In some locations under our cassava and cashew plantations, if we dig down about five to six metres, we may spot a gold mine. But it is very difficult because we do not have enough equipment to extract gold,” he said.
He said after the company found out that villagers had secretly extracted gold in the area, it threatened villagers with legal action. It said the land belonged to villagers but gold mine belonged to the company.
“[The company] said we have the right to control only the land and crops, while the mine underneath the land belonged to the firm. They said if we continued mining activities, they will send us to court,” he said.
The company’s representative could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Kiriroth said the company’s mining operations ceased for a year after the collapse of a mine shaft which killed four people in September last year.