An enterprising heart: Gold fever grips the Cambodian jungle



The scavengers, a dozen men, women, and children, wait all day in the slim shade of two trees, hoping for an opportunity to grab an armful of stones from the mountain of broken rock cast off by the Chinese mining company that came to Prey Meas – literally “Forest of Gold” – two years ago.

Today Prey Meas, which lies within the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, is less forest than gold.  Its river runs gray and great pools of rust-colored water have settled onto the parched earth.  Locals say that last month one villager drank some and promptly died.

The trick, scavengers say, is to scramble up and down the pile without getting pelted by a security guard from Zhong Xin Industrial company.  They point to their swollen heels and scuffed cheeks, hard evidence, they say, of the risk.

The Chinese say they didn’t take anything at all. They say they bought the gold in Prey Meas and have the mining license to prove it. They also insist that they don’t throw rocks at anybody, even robbers.

“There are a lot of people coming in the mine site to steal petrol, electrical wire and rocks.  Our guards don’t do anything to these people,” a man at the company’s Prey Meas headquarters, who would identify himself only as Mr. Wong, said in Chinese, through an interpreter.

Either way, there’s still money in that rock, small capillaries of gold, and it’s worth everything to the scavengers, worth the wait, worth the occasional stoning, worth, on a good day, about $2.50.

Leam Phal, 45, holds a rock he filched. “I survive by this rock,” he said, raising it in his fist. “The Chinese took it all.”

The jungles of Mondolkiri have seen successive waves of displacement, a cycle of ownership that promises to intensify as foreign companies, drawn by Cambodia’s growing stability and the rising global demand for commodities, deepen their investment in the country.

In the last year, two Australian companies -- Oxiana, which runs the huge gold and copper Sepon mine in Laos, and mining giant BHP Billiton – have started to explore for gold and bauxite, respectively, in Mondolkiri.

Government and company officials, as well as many environmentalists herald this as the beginning of the end of an age of destructive mineral anarchy in Cambodia. 

But some fear that the emerging world order will bring with it new costs: Some villagers worry they will lose their meager livelihoods as companies take over and some environmental officials say that Cambodia’s legal framework is not strong enough to ensure that the nation’s natural resources can be developed without destroying nature itself.

Teak Seng, Cambodia’s country director for the World Wildlife Fund, said that 80 percent of the nation’s protected areas, which together cover nearly one-fifth of the country, do not have proper management programs in place. He argues that it’s unwise to sell off mineral rights before fully assessing an area’s environmental value.

“You need to do zoning based on biodiversity first,” he said. “Mining is not a bad idea, but you have to look at priority zones first. You have to manage mining,” he added.

About a third of the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, which WWF helps manage, is covered with mining concessions, Seng said. That’s troubling, he added, because Cambodia has yet to adopt a law on protected areas, despite the fact that work on the legislation began back in 2000.

Today, there is no prohibition on mining in protected areas, though companies are required to perform an environmental and social impact assessment before they begin extractive work.

For companies like Oxiana, Cambodia is an unexplored frontier, cut off by years of war and instability. “Cambodia is changing and opening up and offering opportunities to foreign investors,” said Peter Albert, the executive general manager of Oxiana Asia. “Cambodia sits within a region which has a lot of geological prospectivity. As an unexplored frontier, it becomes attractive,” he added.

In theory, publicly listed international companies like Oxiana and BHP Billiton stand to do less harm to local communities and the environment because they are more accountable and technically proficient than small mining companies and the many individual prospectors who head into the jungle with little more than hope and hard labor. 

In addition, companies, in theory, contribute to macroeconomic growth by boosting GDP, exports, and the tax base. 

“The resource industry has the potential to add significant fiscal inputs to the economy rapidly. As long as those are channeled and used appropriately, you can use that as a springboard to strategic sustainable development for the country,” Albert said.

But as the scavengers of Prey Meas know all too well, wealth does not always trickle down.

The gold of Prey Meas was first discovered by the Phnong, who for years sold it at the market in Mondolkiri’s Sen Monorom provincial town. 

By the early 1990s, the jungle, scarred by years of warfare was, if not entirely safe, safe enough for men like Sok Hem, 43, who in 1995 followed the Phnong from the Sen Monorom market back to their source, three hours by motorbike into the jungle.

There were hundreds like him.

“The Phnong got fed up with all the Cambodians,” he said. “They decided to move out.”

Today, Prey Meas reeks of spent fever. People dug under their own homes, hoping for a strike; one house is nothing more than a wooden frame yawning over three dry pits. There is a constant chug of engines grinding rock as people try to squeeze the last of the gold from the dirt.  It is a hot moonscape of holes.  Andy Maxwell, a WWF project manager, said the environmental damage at Prey Meas is nearly too severe for salvage. “It’s almost like a sacrifice zone,” he said.

Sok Hem said he pays ten men $2.50 a day, plus food and medicine, to work the two holes he controls. He said he followed one vein up under his home, digging out a 250 meter tunnel in the process. 

“The gold here is very good,” he said. He said he’s seen chunks of gold as big as his forearm. But those days are over. 

He and other pit owners said that after Zhong Xin came, in 2005, locals were prohibited from blasting any deeper into the earth. Today they are left to scavenge for surface gold, and as the supply dwindles, so too do their incomes.

Sok Hem said he used to pull out 5 or 6 dumleng every day, equivalent to 50 to 60 grams; now, he gets only 7 or 8 hun, which is less than a gram.

The town seethes with quiet resentment. “The Chinese took all the Cambodian opportunity,” said Tum Sorn, 45, who owns a pit but says he only makes $2.50 a day after he pays his workers.  He said he’s afraid to work for the Chinese company.  “Deep die,” he said, referring to rumors he’s heard that Chinese workers have died in the company pit. (Mr. Wong said no one has been killed.)

Klek Rei, 30, a worker, said his brother used to mine for the Chinese, who paid about the same as Cambodian pit owners, but he says he’ll never do the same. “I only want to be a slave for my own people,” he said.

Mr. Wong said Zhong Xin employs 10 Cambodians and 30 Chinese, who live in a walled compound.  Workers said on condition of anonymity, as a guard with an AK-47 slung across his back walked by, that the company actually employs about 300 Chinese and 40 Cambodians.

Mr. Wong said he’s aware of the tension, but that the company has every right to the gold in Prey Meas. “I know domestic people don’t like this company. I know they don’t want this company to come here because they have no jobs to do,” he said. But, he added: “The company has a license.”

After Zhong Xin arrived, many miners left Prey Meas, seeking their fortunes four hours deeper in the jungle, in a patch of forest called O’Khvau.

Today, a town has grown up around the deep orange pits that dominate the landscape of O’Khvau.  A market appeared in the last year, offering Alain Delon cigarettes, kites, cookies from Vietnam, milk from Thailand, and flashlights from China. There are dozens of new wood houses, and more are being built.  There are plenty of children, but still no school.

A simple logic reigns at O’Khvau: If you got there first, it’s your hole.  Some holes are worth nothing; others yield upwards of $10,000 a year. No one’s quite sure how many holes there are these days. Some say 100, others 200.

Today, O’Khvau is the focus of Oxiana’s exploration work in Cambodia. A field office -- not much more than a dozen blue tarpaulins stretched over sticks -- lies just outside the main settlement, and on February 15th, the company was granted exploration licenses covering 439 square kilometers of Mondolkiri. Their concession includes a large swath of Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.

Exploratory drilling, Oxiana’s Albert said, has been “fairly encouraging,” based on the results of about 10 test holes.

On a recent afternoon, Sao Kong, 37, a doctor, stood at the bottom of one of the pits at O’Khvau, pounding rocks with a long metal pole. The heat was blistering.

“I’m broke,” he said. He says his patients never paid; then ten self-proclaimed doctors moved to town, swamping him out of the market.

In a good month, he said he can make $200 digging.  “Some days we find gold,” he said. “Some days we don’t.”

“I’m concerned the new company will take over our jobs,” he added. So far, though, nothing has happened. “Maybe we’ll have to leave, but now it’s not a big deal,” he said.

Albert maintains that Oxiana’s operations will not suffer the problems of Prey Meas.  He said locals in O’Khvau have welcomed Oxiana.  The only thing they fear more than Oxiana finding gold is Oxiana not finding gold, he said.

“They’re keen for us to find something because there are potential jobs for them,” he said. “We are not making any promises – we aren’t in a position to do so – but if something happens for us, there would be opportunity for local people.”

Oxiana, he added, has done nothing to interfere with the surface mining done by locals, and he anticipates that by the time Oxiana is ready to extract gold – if indeed the company decides to do so – the surface deposits will already be tapped out.  “By the time we do something, that material will be gone,” he said. “I think there would be little conflict.”

His deeper belief is that what is good for Oxiana is good for the people of O’Khvau.  “We would refute in the strongest terms any suggestion that our operation would be detrimental to the poor,” he said.

For evidence, he said, look no further than the roads, mobile phone carriers, satellite dishes, solid homes and electricity that have grown up around Oxiana’s Sepon mine in Laos. 

“The wealth they have on a per annum basis is equivalent to urban areas of Laos,” he said.

O’Khvau lies in the Phnom Prich wildlife sanctuary, beside the O’Te river, which runs directly into the Mekong. Villagers drink from the stream, bathe in it, and fish it. Downstream lie important wetland biodiversity sites, home to the rare giant ibis, Sarus crane, and lesser adjutant stork, according to WWF’s Maxwell.  He said he worries what could happen to the river if large-scale mining operations at O’Khvau do commence.

Oxiana’s Albert said his company takes environmental issues seriously, and has done a lot of work to protect the Nam Kok river, which runs through their Sepon concession. “Our operations are built to the highest standards,” he said.

For the moment at least, the anarchy continues at O’Khvau, but local miners already wonder where they will fit in the promised new order. 

Nop Sakun, 47, a gold merchant, said he left Prey Meas after the Chinese came and opened a shop – little more than a large metal scale and a few pick axes -- in O’Khvau early this year. “I’m really worried Oxiana will take my opportunity away, and there will be no more business for me,” he said.

If his business collapses, he says he’ll move on again. “I will find some other place to live in the jungle, where people explore for minerals,” he said. He’s not sure where exactly he’ll go. But he figures the land must somewhere hold riches enough for a man like him with able hands and an enterprising heart.