The gemstone dealers in Ban Lung, the dusty capital of Ratanakiri province, Cambodia, work in a ramshackle group of storefronts scattered along the wide main street. Outside of one, a woman sits on a woodem platform and sucks snails out of their shells, discarding the shells onto the ground. Motorcycle taxis cluster in front of the marketplace.
Ratanakiri, which translates as “gemstone mountain,” has long been known for producing high-quality blue zircon. However, the general consensus around town these days is that times are hard for the mining industry. The dealers and miners agree that gemstone production, both quantity and quality, is on the decline. Added to this is the arrival two years ago of a Korean-owned mining company, which bought up some of the prime zircon-rich land. That company is now charging independent miners a fee of US$25-$30 per hold to dig. That’s nearly a month’s income for many in this area, and the locals used to be able to mine for free on the public land.
On my second day in this dusty, remote province in northeastern Cambodia, I contacted a young guide, Hao, who spoke reasonably good English. For the next several days, we visited mines and wandered about town talking to the dealers.
We visited the Bokeo mine first. Hao told me that this mine is currently the most active in the area, and is where most of the good stones are being found. Hao skillfully navigated his motorbike over roads with chuckholes the size of small canyons and around huge rocks that jutted up out of the middle of the road. Fine, red dust billowed over us, and within minutes the scarf I used to cover my nose and mouth had turned as brown as the ground.
After a two-hour drive, we reached the Bokeo mine. Bokeo is on public land, so the local miners don’t have to pay to dig. The mine is spread out over an area of about 10 acres and consists of several mounds of tailings with tattered tarps to protect the miners from the hot sun.
“We are very poor,” one miner told me. “And with few choices. We work here in the dry season. We plant rice during the rainy season. Sometimes we have to trade stones for food. Other times we have to borrow from the store. We find lots of broken stones, but not many that can be sold.” He opened a plastic aspirin bottle and shook out the finds from that week: a few pieces that looked like they might be cut to one- or two-carat gems, and many fragments of broken rocks.
Many of the miners were there with their entire families. Husbands, wives, and young children could be found sifting through the fine soil in hopes of a prize stone. The majority of the miners were Khmer, many of them people from other provinces who had come to Ratanakiri to try their hand at gemstone mining. Some of Ratanakiri’s tribal people also mine, and occasionally residents of Vietnam and Laos cross the border to join the others.
We wandered around the area and spoke to a number of the miners. At the entrance to one hole were a stick of incense and a boiled egg. “It’s for the spirits,” Hao told me. “The people are mostly Buddhists, but they also practice animism.”
“Why the egg?” I asked.
“The egg represents wealth. They hope to make the spirit of the earth happy so it will bring up the good gems.”
One man caught my eye. He squatted on top of the mound wearing a wide-brimmed hat, orange pants, and a clean beige shirt. He introduced himself as Soum Choun, a broker who lived at the mining village but sold to the stores in town.
“I’ve been in Ratanakiri 20 years,” Soum said. “Not only at this mine. This mine is new, only about five years old. It’s true that production is down, but we are still finding some good stones.” I asked him about buyers from other nations. “Thailand is our biggest buyer. From Europe come mostly French, then Swiss and German. In Asia, aside from Thailand, we also have buyers from China, Vietnam, and Korea.”
This set off a number of comments from the miners about the Korean mining company. “When a big company comes in and takes over, like they have done near the Sean Lae mine, it is very bad for the miners. Here, at least, they can work for themselves,” said one miner.
“This is how the process works,” Soum said. “I live here. I’m part of the community. I buy directly from the mines and take the stones into town. There, I sell to the jewelers. They burn, cut, polish, and sometimes set the stone. Then foreigners come and buy from the jewelers.”
One of the miners said something, and Soum laughed. “He says that Thailand is very greedy. It is true. They have mined so much of their land that now [they have] no more gems. So they have to come to Cambodia and buy from us. Thailand often buys the raw stone and takes it back there to cut and polish. Then they sell it as Thai diamonds and say it came from their country. So if you buy gemstones in Thailand, you may never know what you are buying.”
We left the mining area and visited the village at the base. The homes were basically poles with tattered plastic tarps stretched between them. The kitchen was an open pit. Hammocks for sleeping were strung between the poles.
A little girl of about 10 ran up and greeted me in English. When I asked her what her name was, she giggled and hid behind her mother. I asked where she went to school, and her mother pointed down the road. “There is a school,” Hao said. “Sometimes they go. But often they stay to help the family at home or in the mines.”
The next day we visited the Sean Lae mine, south of Ban Lung. We had three flat tires along the way. Several hours were spent pushing the motorcycle along dusty jungle paths, so it gave me a chance to more closely observe rural life in Ratanakiri. After the third flat, I sat on a rock while Hao soaked the tube in a pan of water, trying to find the leak. A young mother and three naked little boys squatted on their haunches offering advice. Chickens pecked in the dirt, and a skinny dog lay basking in the sun. I asked her if she or her husband did any mining.
Hao translated and shook his head. ‘No. They are not miners. She says mining is too unpredictable. They oversee the cashew orchard here.” He nodded toward the trees with green crescent fruit just starting to ripen. “But sometimes the miners come here to pick the cashews when things are not going well in the mines.”
I had noticed many groves of both cashew and rubber trees during the past few days in Ratanakiri. Hao told me that while mining used to be the main industry, rubber and cashews are now moving to the forefront. Many local residents, though hopeful about growing Ratanakiri’s economy, are also concerned about the jungle foliage being chopped away to lay out tidy orchards of cash crops. Mining has also taken its toll on the environment.
With the tire repaired, we moved on to Sean Lae. This area is one of the most heavily mined areas in the region. We passed chasms of scarred and blackened earth that reminded me of a dead planet. Deserted homes lay tumbled in forlorn heaps. I felt like we were passing through a land of ghosts.
However, when at last we reached the current gemstone village, it actually seemed more lived-in and permanent than the one at Bokeo. The wooden houses were built on poles, with living quarters above and livestock underneath. There was a small café and a school. This village was near a gorgeous waterfall, Seven Step Falls, which cascades over seven large boulders into a crystal pool at the base. Unlike the Bokeo mine, which is an alluvial mine where the miners sift through the dirt in search of the zircon, Sean Lae is a placer mine that gets its water from the falls.
We spoke with one of the miners, Sok Met. “Five years ago. there were many gems. We would have basketfuls in not a very long time at all. For the past two years, it has been decreasing steadily.” Nevertheless, he told us that just last month he sold a stone for US$1,000, which is a year’s wages in that part of Cambodia.
All of the miners told similar stories: There are significantly fewer gems now than in years past. Still, they are hopeful that things will change, as most of them prefer mining over farming.
That evening, I spoke with some of the local gemstone dealers. Most of them said that Thailand was the main buyer. However, Lim Hong, who worked in his parents’ shop and spoke fluent English, told me that he has had more buyers from Europe, particularly from France, in the past couple years.
Lim agreed that production is down. “This year there was probably about 50 kilograms of zircon from the main mines. Five years ago, we were pulling out twice that much.”
Although zircon remains the main gemstone coming out of the area, most of the miners are also finding some onyx, and in the Tompeang Krohomg area of western Ratanakiri there is purple amethyst.
Lim sells all local stones — blue and yellow zircon, onyx, and amethyst — in his shop. Depending on quality, the blue zircon can be sold for anywhere from $20 to $50 per carat. The amethyst, which Lim says is “nice, but not the best quality in the world,” goes for $3.50 to $15 per carat, and the onyx sells for about $1 per carat.
Lim also offered another view on the Korean mine. He claimed that they keep some land in reserve for native Cambodians to continue mining. Although I tried to contact representatives of the company, I was not able to speak to anyone while there. When Hao and I rode past, there was no visible activity. We saw no people, just the unused mining equipment behind a chain-link fence.
While a few local jewelers are attempting to design necklaces or rings, the results are generally unsatisfactory, and most buyers prefer the unset stones. Nevertheless, in spite of hard times, Ratanakiri’s zircon trade continues to be the pulse of this dusty province.