Poor villagers are increasingly looking for gold in a remote province of Cambodia following the recent skyrocketing price of the precious metal. But in their rush to find this buried fortune, they are at great risk of dangerous chemical exposure and malaria.
Phon Pheak and a few of his family members came to dig for gold here in Phnom Pang mountain in the village Prey Meas, or Forest of Gold, some 90 kilometers from Ratanakkir province’s Banlung city, with the international price of gold continuing its ascent.
The 24-year-old man, from Oyadav district, about 30 kilometers away, says he’s looking for gold to support his family back home.
“On lucky days, we could get get 1 gy,” or about 3.8 grams, he told VOA Khmer recently. “On other days, just 4 or 5 hun,” about 1.9 grams, “or even just 1 hun on unlucky days.”
Miners here say hundreds of families from various regions in the province have come to the area since last year, seeking their fortune in gold rather than farming.
“It’s up to luck,” said Hu Chhun, another miner. “We just keep digging. Sometimes we get a lot, sometimes less. It’s uncertain; it lies underground.”
In their search, however, the miners expose themselves to the risks of dust, mercury and other chemicals used to purify gold. They are also exposed to malaria.
“There’s a lot of malaria here,” said Hu Chhun. “And now the season for the disease.”
Pen Bunnar, local coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said Cambodia needs institutions to train would-be miners “and make sure they are well aware of the impacts resulting from their mining activities.”
However, local officials say the mining is in fact illegal and is destroying the environment. Better for the villagers to stay at home, they say, and farm.