Until recently, the illegal mining community at the remote village of Poutung did their digging at risk of arrest. They have since become the first to be given official sanction. But operating under the law has its own challenges
Until a month ago, Poutung village was a community of criminals.
Located inside the vast woodland of Chung Phlas commune, the tiny village is completely isolated – an arduous, five-hour motorbike ride from Mondulkiri’s provincial capital Sen Monorom.
Despite lacking many amenities, the majority of its inhabitants come from elsewhere in the country, all attracted by one thing – hidden riches.
Better known as “the forest of gold”, Poutung is home to dozens of mines, and hundreds of miners desperate to profit from them.
Entering the village, you are greeted by the monotonous whirr of drills and sporadic pounding of hammers.
Around the mines, semi-permanent camps have been established: makeshift wooden shelters erected beneath tarpaulin covers; clothes laid out to dry in the afternoon sun; empty tin cans strewn across the ground.
One resident, 40-year-old Heng Sambath, recalled giving up his job as a horse-cart driver in Kampong Cham province after hearing rumours of buried treasure.
When he arrived in Poutung three years ago, Sambath found work at an artisanal mining site where he endured long hours in his search for traces of gold.
After breaking his back for years as a small-scale miner, in 2014, Sambath became the boss of a mining site employing about a dozen workers from across the country.
With profits of between $5,000 and $6,000 a month, business was booming. But Sambath lived in constant fear of closure, fines and imprisonment.
Along with hundreds of other treasure hunters, the well-trodden path to Poutung had led Sambath to the wrong side of the law, as he lacked the necessary licence to legally extract the area’s precious metal.
He knew before arriving there that mining without a licence was illegal, “but many people did it, so I did too”, he said.
Strolling around the rented 1,500 square-metre mining site on Monday, Sambath explained that his business was blighted by bribes.
In fear of being reported to the authorities, he would give food and money to mysterious officials who would show up regularly on unannounced visits.
“They were high-level officers, but I didn’t know them well … It cost up to $100 every time,” he explained.
But, he said, smiling broadly to reveal two gold teeth, “now everything is OK”.
Miners in Chhung Phlas have become the first in the country to be awarded a “community mining licence” under a landmark government initiative to reform the sector.
“Some countries have used force to crack down [on illegal mining], but no countries have had success with this. So instead of cracking down, we decided to legalise their activities,” said Meng Saktheara, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
“It’s part of a strategy we have for the mining and oil and gas sector, which aims to reform the sector into something more sustainable and responsible. To do that, we have to deal with people in illegal mining activities.”
To be eligible for the licence – which was awarded in late June – more than 30 mining sites in Chhung Phlas joined forces to become one community, even holding elections to vote for a leader and deputy leader.
At another mining site on Monday, a bell fashioned out of tin cans rang above a 12-metre pit.
Moments later, 36-year-old Te Kim San, the site’s boss and newly elected deputy chief of the community, emerged from the hole inside a barrel, hoisted up on a metal wire.
Sitting down later to drink tea, Kim San said he was “very pleased” that his work was finally being recognised by the government. “Before, we used to dig without a licence, so we did it in secret. We were threatened [with closure] because of this, and people felt uncomfortable,” he explained.
Having moved to the commune in 1996, Kim San has spent much of his life mining illegally.
“In 20 years, this is the first time we have had a licence to mine,” he said.
Despite only just becoming licensed, it is clear that Kim San’s intricately crafted machinery is the result of years of labour. A wooden rail track runs across the length of the sprawling site, across which a small cart transports piles of rubble back and forth.
Men file up and down two well-dug mine shafts in barrels manoeuvred electronically. Wooden structures tower over the ground, offering sleeping quarters to the miners.
Workers at the site, hailing from all corners of Cambodia, this week celebrated the decision to legalise their work.
“It’s good here,” said one young miner from Kratie province as he devoured rice and soup following a day underground. “Now that we have the licence, it’s more comfortable”.
Forty-one-year-old Chheang Sourn, the chief-of-staff at the site, said the licence had spelled an end to monthly bribes and pauses in production.
“We are not afraid of anyone now,” he said. “Paying [bribes] to those [corrupt] officers is much more than we will now pay to the state, and without the licence we had to stop a few times every month due to crackdowns. It was difficult.”
Kim Natacha, executive director of local advocacy group Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency (CRRT), said the community licences provide “fair opportunities for Cambodians to make a livelihood from their skills and local knowledge”.
It “also encourages them to come forward and be formal, recognised mining groups, which could reduce risks of conflicts with other licence holders and with landowners.”
But while the scheme has been widely lauded, going straight is likely to present its own challenges.
Saktheara of the Ministry of Mines and Energy said the community will now be expected to function as a fully fledged business – providing quarterly reports and revenue to the government, and improving their techniques and safety measures.
The community will also have to cooperate with any companies awarded licences in the area.
“Hopefully if they can comply with all the requirements … they can [also] start working on a commercial scale,” he said.
But Kim San, the deputy chief of the community, said the transition from being outlaws to law-abiding citizens had so far been “complicated”.
“Some members understand what we’re doing, but others don’t.”
Un Chheang Lim, the newly elected leader of the community who scored a landslide victory in the secret ballot, said there had already been pushback to some of the changes.
One mining site, he explained, had defied rules stating that community members were required to go through him if they wanted to buy explosives.
“This is a challenge. He did not ask me about that, he did not work together, [but] we are solving the problem,” he said.
With much at stake, Chheang Lim said he was determined to keep the community on the right side of the law.
“I will do everything I can to make it run smoothly. Before, it was disorder. Now we have the law on our side and will contribute money to the state.”
And it is not just the miners who stand to lose out if the community fails.
Spreading the wealth
Metres down the road from the mining sites, 48-year-old jewellery broker Ek Samady said the licence had transformed her business.
The Kratie province native was drawn to Chhung Phlas 20 years ago by promises of the precious metal, and quickly established deals with the local miners to buy their goods.
“Before, sometimes they used to be closed [because of crackdowns] and sometimes they were at work. It was hard to know what to do. But now they are always open, and I buy a lot from them,” she said. “Business is better.”
If the miners manage to make the community a success, Saktheara said the scheme will be “rolled out across the country”, transforming the lives of thousands of artisanal miners currently regarded as criminals.
Natacha of CRRT said that doing so would give mining communities “a source of income that is recognised by the state”, and offer them their “fair share of the extractive sector wealth”.
As he walked reporters out of the mining site on Monday, Sambath said he hoped all artisanal miners in the Kingdom could be welcomed into the law.
“I think all other communities should have a licence like we do," he said.
“It’s easy to do and we feel comfortable – and it helps the nation too.”