The Gemstone Mines of Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.
Above Photo: Semi-precious gems dug up by the miners we visited in Bokheo, Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.
Because gemstone mining in Ratanakiri Province actually plays a part in my novel BACK, I wanted to see a gemstone mining operation first hand, which is how I found myself riding on the back of a clapped-out motorbike for many hours on dirt roads full of billowing, choking red dust, trying to find where a village of nomadic artisanal miners had recently shifted to, deep in the bush and rubber plantations.
In remote locations, Cambodian miners live in temporary, easy-to-dismantle shacks of rattan, bamboo and plastic sheeting, much as artisanal miners do in Africa, as they dig deep into the earth looking for zircon and amethysts.
Their mines consist of small holes dug just wide enough to allow a small Cambodian miner down them, as they tunnel sometimes as deep as 30 metres into the red earth.
When a vein of mineral-bearing rock is reached, the miners tunnel horizontally through it until it stops. One miner told me they are so adept at digging, they can put down a shaft to a depth of 15 metres in one day.
They use home-made wooden winches to bring up buckets of earth from the digging, and they empty out the contents on the ground, making small tailings dumps, before sifting through the earth by hand, in the hope of finding gemstones.
I asked why they didn’t sieve the dirt in water, and was told the stones they were currently mining were of such low value that using water to sieve for them would be too time-consuming, logistically difficult, given the scarcity of water nearby and very expensive.
One miner showed me his day’s haul – a large black-looking stone that changed colour when washed in water, and when a light was shone on it.
There’s no formal market for much of their output, except in low grade jewelry made locally. One man said Indian buyers will take the better stones they find.
The rubber plantation owners allow the digging so long as all holes are filled in, and their rubber tapping operations are not disturbed, although I saw plenty of abandoned, unfilled holes dotted around the area, and almost walked into one covered by vegetation.
It was interesting to see how spiritual the miners were.
Every day the miners pray and light joss sticks to the spirits of earth and water at the mine site. Outside their houses I also noticed rows of basic corrugated iron-covered shrines to the same deities.
I bought some of the uncut stones from the wife of a miner.
I have no idea what they are. It was more as a memento of my visit than an investment in Ratanakiri’s semi-precious gemstone market.
It was a visit made all the more interesting having seen Tanzanian artisanal operations around a diamond mine at Nyangwale, not far from Lake Victoria, although there they were finding some high quality diamonds and achieving high prices on the spot, unlike their Cambodian counterparts.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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