By Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan and May Kunmakara
Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia, October 11, 2016
An insurrection led by ethnic Jarai villagers against the Kingdom’s first commercial underground gold mine, to be operated by Indian-owned Mesco Gold (Cambodia), looms over the green, serene remote hamlet of Plung, a few kilometers from the Vietnamese border, in Ratanakiri’s O’Yadaw district.
About 140 Jarai families live at the edges of the forest there that are still teeming with wildlife and home to the much sought after Siamese rosewood. Chainsaws and bulldozers have spared these jungles, unlike the neighboring forested land that has been decimated and converted into mammoth rubber and cassava plantations.
“This Indian gold mine would destroy the environment by their dynamiting and the chemicals they use to extract the gold underground will poison our land,” Romam Davit, a 28-year-old Jarai villager, told Khmer Times.
“Our forests are also sacred to us. We have our spirits here, where we can make sacrifices to our ancestors. If all this is taken away, we will have nothing to pass on to our children,” he said.
“If the company doesn’t agree to stop mining and leave our land alone, we will stop them by using force if necessary,” warned the villager.
Last month the Ministry of Mines and Energy issued Cambodia’s first industrial mining license to Mesco Gold, with a 30-year concession, to start operating a 12-square kilometer underground gold mine in Phum Syarung in O’Yadaw district.
“With the grant of the first fully approved mining license in Cambodia to Mesco Gold, a new stage in the evolution of the mining industry in the country has begun, which so far was limited to exploration only,” JK Singh, chairman of Mesco Gold’s parent company, Mesco Group, said in a media statement.
Mesco Gold (Cambodia) is a subsidiary of Indian steelmaker Mesco and purchased the rights to develop and mine the Phum Syarung prospect from Canadian exploration company Angkor Gold Corp in 2013.
Angkor Gold holds six exploration licenses in northwestern Cambodia, and sold its rights to the O’Yadaw license to Mesco Gold for $1.9 million. Angkor Gold also negotiated a net smelter agreement of between two and 7.5 percent that will see it receive a share of any gold extracted.
The forests and its surrounding land in O’Yadaw district are valuable to the Jarai of Plung village, and they claim Mesco Gold is already preventing them from gathering fruit, medicinal plants, rattan and bamboo from the jungle and working in their small upland rice fields.
“The gold mine does not allow us to go into our own land to farm, and we can’t go into the forest to gather plants and fruits and also hunt small animals for food,” said 34-year-old Romam Char.
“The gold from our land is mined by the company and taken away. Nothing comes back to us, and to insult us further we now cannot even have access to our own land and the forests.”
Rajeev K Moudgil, director of Mesco Gold, in an interview with Khmer Times said the notion that gold mining gives high returns to companies “is based on wrong perceptions.”
“Projects of this nature require major investments and payback periods are usually long, due to the complexity and uncertainty in gold mining, and even when profits come they are very nominal,” said Mr. Moudgil.
Commenting on the lack of access of the Jarai in Plung village to their farmland and forests, Mr. Moudgil said: “The project will not prevent in any way access to farms and people’s normal life will continue without interruption. Mesco Gold is operating according to the laws of Cambodia and it will support programs for development of the villages near its operations.”
“If any land is needed for the mine infrastructure then following a due process of consultation, adequate compensation shall be paid to the existing land user in a transparent manner,” he added.
Last March 18 Jarai families in Pheak village, at the fringe of the Phum Syarung gold mine, occupying an area of 40 hectares, were paid $1,500 per hectare compensation by Mesco Gold.
“The amount of compensation was well above the market rates. On this piece of land, mine construction and the process plant will be commissioned,” said Mr. Moudgil.
The Mesco Gold director also stressed that no damage to land or soil will take place due to the mining operations.
“It is to be noted that these are standard processes and are approved in countries like Australia, US, India and elsewhere. It would cause no damage to land or water,” he pointed out.
Meng Saktheara, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told Khmer Times that the ministry had been working closely with both Angkor Gold and Mesco Gold (Cambodia) and conducted feasibility studies over the mining area before granting a mining license to Mesco Gold to start their mining operations in Phum Syarung.
Mr. Saktheara clarified that though the mining license was for a 12-square-kilometer concession, mining at the moment will start in a one-square-kilometer area.
“There is no argument with local villagers on this area. However, for the other 11 square kilometers the company [Mesco Gold] has yet to do its own feasibility study and an environment impact assessment,” he said.
“Later on, they [Mesco Gold] will work on other 11 square kilometers if they think it has mining potential. If it doesn’t have mining potential, the company can decide not to work on it.”
Mesco Gold’s Mr. Moudgil said the project will create jobs, generate tax revenue for the government, provide training skills to those who want to work in the mining projects besides assisting local people for their development.
But the prospect of being reduced to a day laborer, earning a pittance on a gold mine and needing cash to buy food that previously came from the community through farming, bartering and hunting is just too harrowing for 45-year-old Jarai villager Sow Lit.
“I would not work for Mesco Gold even if they offered me $30 a day. We, the Jarai people, live off the land and we depend on the land. Nature doesn’t need us but we need nature,” said Mr. Lit. “Without our land we would die.”
“We need help to fight this mining company. Please help us tell our story to the outside world,” he pleaded.
Mr. Lit’s plea resonated with Greg McCann, an environmentalist and field coordinator for Habitat ID, an NGO that works in Ratanakiri’s Virachey National Park bordering Vietnam.
“From a bio-regional perspective, the mine is insane. The project epitomizes everything that is wrong with big decisions being made from afar by people who have no connection to the landscape,” said Mr. McCann who is also the author of “Called Away by a Mountain Spirit – Journeys to the Green Corridor” – an ethnographic travelogue based on Cambodia’s remote northeast.
“The Jarai of O’Yadaw have every right to be fretting about the ecological impacts of this mine. It will be an environmental disaster, there can be no doubt about it. In a sense it’s almost like someone detonating a tactical nuke in their terrain, leaving them with a mangled and permanently contaminated landscape,” he added.
The Jarai, Cambodia, and the world would lose the forests, the animals, and the free-flowing freshwater sources, said Mr. McCann. “But we will lose more. The landscape becomes ‘de-storied.’ The legends, the myths, the oral histories, and animist beliefs will dissipate in the smoke of chainsaws and bulldozers.”
Mr. McCann concluded: “I really hope they [the Jarai] do not resort to violence. I don’t want to see anyone hurt or killed and the sacrifice would probably not help them achieve their aim.”