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Mining in Cambodia: Community contradictions

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Small-scale miners look for gold near Romtom. Photo by Chris Hufstader
Small-scale miners look for gold near Romtom. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

If you go to a meeting in the community of Romtom, don’t be surprised if you hear some contradictory information about the effects of industrial mining on the indigenous Kuoy people here.

A foreign-owned company is moving in to mine iron ore on nearly a thousand square kilometers of land, and taking up community-held land used for growing rice, as well as small-scale gold mining. The Kuoy people here are also concerned about the loss of forest land. The “spirit forest” is an integral part of their culture as well as an area where they gather nuts, fruit, and other products they can sell.

“So far we’ve had some issues between the company and community,” says So Sea, the commune chief and an ethnic Khmer. “But these have been resolved. Presently there are no problems.”

One minute later Ouk Kong, one of the elders of the Kuoy village here paints a different picture. “One area where we used to pan for gold has been lost to the company, and in another area we can’t plant rice anymore. It’s making life very difficult here.”

Oxfam is supporting a coalition of 56 organizations called the Extractive Industry Social and Environmental Impact (EISEI) that is helping local communities negotiate with the government and mining companies, to reduce the problems related to industrial mining in Cambodia. Svey Pheoun works for the Community Peace Network, one of the nine members of EISEI’s steering committee. He says that the indigenous people are trying to understand what to do in the face of powerful forces. “Companies are coming to this area with soldiers and police to force them out of areas where they farm and pan for gold. By law there is supposed to be consultation with communities but in reality there is no consultation at all.”

Ouk Kong speaks at a meeting with Oxfam staff. Photo by Chris Hufstader
Ouk Kong speaks at a meeting with Oxfam staff. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

Cambodia has laws on the books protecting the right of indigenous people to their community lands, but there are also laws that encourage investment. Which law is being respected, and which is being violated, depends on your perspective and your agenda. Most major decisions about development are made in Phnom Penh, the capital. Local leaders  are not consulted, and are expected to side with the more powerful government and military.

I’m in Romtom with a delegation of Oxfam staff working with communities affected by oil, gas, and mining issues in about a dozen countries. We listen to the community leaders, and take a short trip into the forest to see an area where local people are mining for gold, which the Kuoy people say they have done for hundreds of years. These days they excavate areas from which they pump mud through a sluice to separate the heavier particles of gold. The artisanal miners sell the gold-laden sand to small-scale refiners in nearby towns. It’s incredibly tough work in a hot and dirty environment, we see workers up to their waist in mud and water, digging away the soil and pumping the mud up to their sluices.

We encounter three men who had recently lost their entire rice harvest to flooding over the summer, and are desperately mining for gold to try to make up for their losses. “I think we can get some gold and buy food for our family,” one says. If they are lucky, he says they can earn between $20 and $35 per day, which is a pretty good income in rural Preah Vihear province. If they are excluded from mining in this area, rice farming alone may not sustain them in the future.

At the community meeting in Romtom. Photo by Chris Hufstader
At the community meeting in Romtom. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

Circumstances seem stacked against the indigenous Kuoy people, but they are just beginning to learn the skills they need to address their problems in Romtom.  I’ve seen similar situations in communities affected by mining in Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal. When communities get the right training, and can understand their rights and how to defend them, they can negotiate access to the resources they need to survive, and get fair compensation for their losses.

I always try to relate positive stories about these other cases, so the community members and their leaders do not lose hope. So I was pleased that my colleague Moussa Ba from Senegal encouraged the community members to keep working with the Cambodia Peace Network, and keep talking with the local officials and the company representatives. “If you keep the dialogue going, eventually they will recognize your rights,” he says. “Be confident, and don’t ever close the door to negotiation.”

“The authorities need to remember that you are more precious than anything else.”

On a good day, miners can make $25 or $35. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
On a good day, miners can make $25 or $35. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

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