Uncontrolled gem mining at Ratanakiri is stripping the forest and degrading water sources.
t 15 meters below surface level in his narrow slit tunnel, what Puy fears most is
that the feeble flame of the candle he carries will go out, leaving him alone in
the stifling darkness.
In January, 18-year-old Puy and his family left behind the swidden agriculture chamkar
plots of their nearby ethnic Tampuon village to make their fortunes in the gem fields
of Chum Rum Bei Srok, a kilometer-long swath of red dirt hacked out of the forest
of north-eastern Cambodia's Ratanakiri province.
Attracted by a promise of free land, fast cash and a break from the toil and poverty
of farm life, Puy ruefully recalls the stories he'd heard that in Chum Rum Bei Srok
they'd find gems littering the ground at their feet.
Instead, Puy spends up to 12 hours underground each day, burrowing deep, narrow tunnels
into the soft soil which his family then sifts through carefully in search of the
bluish gem stones that brought them here.
Puy admits the reality of the gem fields of Chum RumBei Srok has been disillusioning.
"It's hard, dangerous work and sometimes we work all day and don't make anything,"
he said. "This is not what we expected."
Puy and his family are one of an estimated 300 families from points as distant as
southern Svay Rieng and neighboring Vietnam that have converged on this forest boom
town in the hope of a better future financed by the gems they might pull from the
Huddled in small groups around tunnel entrances, women and children comb through
piles of the dirt hauled up from below on crude but effective wooden pulleys. The
dirt is then passed to men standing waist-deep in specially dug pits of water, where
the soil is rinsed to find the tantalizing flash of precious stones.
Trees and vegetation have been completely stripped from the gem seam that extends
from the edge of the road to a border of rapidly receding forest a kilometer away.
Those with the means erect makeshift umbrellas to protect themselves from the relentless
afternoon sun. Those who cannot do without.
At the sight of visiting westerners, a refrain of "Brap quat tieng tboung khnom"
("Tell him to buy my gems") ripples from the knots of miners. Men and women
stop work and produce small cloth and plastic bags filled with pebble-sized gems.
"Look at my gems," people call. "Good quality and good price..."
Vin Se, a Tampuan villager from Ratanakiri's Vonsai District, has been at work with
his family in the gem fields of Chum Rum Bei Srok since 1999.
When Se first arrived, gem miners were still working next to the road and the stretch
of restaurants, pool halls and brothels that line the town's "main street"
was still just a glimmer in a gem trader's eye.
Se admits that over the past two years he's had one or two "million riel days",
but warns that the increasing number of new migrants coming to dig in the area is
diminishing the returns for existing miners.
"People who come here are like garment workers, looking to make a better life
for themselves," Se said of the forces fueling Chum Rum Bei Srok's steady expansion.
"But most people who come here only make enough for daily survival."
To the diggers the spoils - gemstones
Recent migrant Sok Youen, 30, of Kampong Cham admits that life in Chom Rom Bei Srok
is hard and the returns minimal.
But the alternatives, she insists, are even worse.
"Gem mining is still better than farming," she said. "At least here
we can make enough to feed ourselves each day."
Both Sophat, Chum Rum Bei Srok's Chief of Police is in charge of tallying the human
toll that the influx of migrants tunneling for a quick route to wealth is taking.
Sophat says that one miner a month has suffocated in collapsed tunnels since the
police post was established in January.
"Deaths happen when people get lucky and find gems and forget about their safety
at the bottom of the tunnel," Se said of the unlucky miners. "If you are
careless here once you will never come out of the ground."
But the push-pull dynamic of poverty and possible riches that have made Chum Rum
Bei Srok the second largest town in Ratanakiri behind the provincial capital of Banlung
has implications far wider than the safety of the miners themselves.
Tampuan tribal people in the nearby village of Kaleng are concerned of the effect
the rapid increase in population and the degradation of land which their people have
sustainably exploited for centuries will have on their efforts to protect their traditional
way of life.
"We are very worried that our forest and natural resources will be destroyed
by [gem miners]," Tampuan villager Pyuong Moeng told the Post. "They are
also destroying our wildlife and our water falls."
The waterfalls, fed by the nearby O'Jelloy and O'Sieng Le Rivers, are within two
protected areas that are the centerpieces of a community-initiated project to develop
the area for eco-tourism.
Gem mining requires keen eyesight and high hopes.
According to Jeremy Ironside, a Ratanakiri-based consultant with the NGO Non Timber
Forest Products (NTFP), the spreading environmental damage wrought by the gem mining
in Chum Rum Bei Srok could well derail the eco-tourism plan.
"There's no regulation on anything going on there...it's just mass destruction,"
Ironside said of the gem mining area. "The mining is now going into a Protected
Forest Area above the waterfalls so anything [gem miners] do will affect the rivers."
Ironside says that the wet season practice of the miners of pumping water from the
tunnels has already caused erosion damage to nearby streams and affected the water's
"If the gem mining could be controlled in some way, it would be okay,"
Ironside said. "If the government is serious about developing eco-tourism in
this area, something has to be done about this."