Bor Keo district, Ratanakiri province – about 30 kilometres down the road east of Ratanakiri province’s Banlung town, about 10 gemstone miners from various provinces were digging a hole deep inside a rubber plantation several kilometres from a concrete road in the centre of Bor Keo district.
Before reaching the mining site, two gemstone brokers were waiting at the entrance to the site along the concrete road. Their job is to bring any visitors to the site and persuade them to buy their own gemstones.
The brokers know clearly where miners are digging for gemstones. The miners often change locations after an area of land has been mined.
“If you want to know where the next mining site is, you can contact us because these miners always change to different areas. The location is usually far removed from the road,” said Ms. Sophy, one of the two brokers.
She said there are normally visitors, both Cambodians and foreigners, who visit the mining site and buy raw gemstones from the miners or brokers like her as the price is probably lower compared with those found on the market.
On part of a 30-hectare rubber plantation not far from Bor Keo market, four holes ranging from 10 to 15 meters deep had been excavated. Each hole was looked over by two to three people, while several other holes previously mined were left behind.
One of the miners was seen getting inside a hole to dig it deeper or tunnel toward another hole. Another miner was at the mouth of the hole pulling up soil using a bucket and hand crank supported by a wooden structure.
A small altar containing food and burning incense stickswas placed near each hole as the miners believe the nature of mining is uncertain and mostly depends on luck and superstition.
Pulling up soil along one of his partners, Chheun Chhean, a high school dropout from Kampong Speu province in his early 20s, said mining mostly depended on luck from day to day.
“It is hard to find gemstones now – it depends on luck. We also light incense to wish for luck. We actually don’t have any way of knowing if there are gemstones down there, the only way is to just give it a try,” he said.
“My partner goes down there and I am here to pull up the soil.
“If a tunnel has not yet been dug toward another hole, only one person can go down in it. It takes about one hour to get in and get out again mostly depending on how long they hold their breath.”
“The depth is around 14 meters. We spent about two days digging it. After removing the soil, we use our hands to sift through it to see if there are any gemstones,” he said.
When asked how much he could earn from mining each day, Mr Chhean said, “It always varies. Sometimes we get nothing and some days we get $25 or even $100.”
According to Sophy and another broker named Heng, the miners have recently moved from Bor Keo district to Chum Rum Bei Srok district as it is now harder to find gemstones at the Bor Keo site.
Both the miners and brokers at the mining site said the land on which the mining is conducted costs roughly $10,000 per hectare per year in a deal between the rubber plantation owner and a gemstone businessman who they referred to as the “boss”.
“We bring them to the boss because the boss rents the land from the land owner. The boss recruits the miners who need to sell to the boss when they find the gemstones,” he said.
Despite previous accidents happening mostly during the rainy season as the soil becomes too soft and is prone to collapse, Mr Chhean said it was not really a concern as a tent is set up to make a shelter over the hole.
“We mine all year round even during the rainy season by simply making a shelter with a tent. We just do the mining in addition to farming in our hometowns,” he said.
Climbing up the 10-meter hole was another miner named Veasna who put his feet into holes that had been dug into the sides of the mine to rise to the surface.
Clad in a shirt stained yellow from the soil, he said he was making a tunnel at the bottom toward another hole to increase the flow of oxygen.
Mr Veasna said the job was flexible and he could work as little or as much as he wanted as long as he sold the gemstones to the land leasee.
“We can start mining at any time, it’s up to us. Anyone who wants to dig the land for mining purposes can contact the boss. Normally the boss comes in the evening to buy the gemstones from us,” he said.
“While we sell the boss a bunch of gemstones we have collected at an overall estimated price, the boss sells to customers by the carat.”
When asked if he could secretly bring the gemstones he found to the market himself, he said there was no benefit from doing so. “Normally we want to sell to the boss because he has more understanding than us and gives us a better price.”
The raw gemstones shown by the brokers and miners are of different colors with the blue ones said to fetch the highest prices.
Internationally known as zircon, the light and dark blue gemstones are the most expensive. The dark blue stones are said to be more expensive than the light blue ones, according to Banlung market vendors.
Several vendors interviewed admired the quality of the gemstones in Ratanakiri compared with those bought elsewhere, such as Phnom Penh or Thailand.
After collecting and buying the raw gemstones, the boss then brings them to his workshop for polishing before selling them back on the market.
One vendor of a shop called Selling Natural Gem Stones, which has its own workshop, said her shop collected gemstones from miners who work in Bor Keo district and in Chum Rum Bei Srok in Lumphat district.
“We collect gemstones from our miners and design them ourselves as we have our own workshop,” she said.
“We even wholesale to customers from the capital as well as customers from Thailand’s Chanthaburi province.”