Gold mining persists in protected forest, residents say

Government crackdown looks unlikely to target a controversial Chinese mining company.
By RFA Khmer
2024.05.15
Gold mining persists in protected forest, residents say A view of the gold-mining operations of China's Late Cheng Mining Development Co., Ltd., in Cambodia's Kampong Thom province, in an undated photo.
Citizen journalist

A recent directive issued by the Cambodian government to crack down on illegal gold mining has not prevented a Chinese mining company from moving ahead with its project inside a protected forest, according to local residents and activists. 

On May 4, the Ministry of Mines issued a statement saying it would “end illegal anarchic mining activities,” in order to promote legal mining. The statement underscores the danger of illegal mines that use chemicals and explosives and rely on deep wells dug without proper techniques.

But residents living near the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie and Kampong Thom provinces in central Cambodia said large scale mines continue to operate unimpeded, though their impact on the protected forest has been long recorded.

Residents who visited gold mines this week said security guards continued to patrol the area and the mines were running as usual.

"More and more Chinese are building roads everywhere, not just on a small scale, but on a large scale,” said Chan Sorya who lives in Kampong Thom province's Sochet commune.

Late Cheng Mining Development Co., Ltd., a Chinese company, received a license from the Cambodian government in March 2020 to explore more than 15,100 hectares (37,300 acres) in Sochet commune of Sandan district in Kampong Thom province for gold deposits. 

The area lies partly inside the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and near Phnom Chi, a mountain tourist area.

Report questions legality

A report published late last year by international environmental watchdog Bruno Manser Fonds questioned the “general legality of gold mining development in wildlife sanctuaries.” 

It highlighted a number of “environmentally-destructive activities” taking place in and around the Late Cheng mine, including the use of cyanide which has “well known environmental and human health risks.”  

The Bruno Manser study found that no Environmental Impact Assessment was ever made public, despite being legally required. 

A report from Mongabay noted villagers said the company had been mining gold long before their extraction license was granted in 2022, while CamboJA detailed polluted streams, dead fish and a badly damaged ecosystem surrounding the mine.  

Svay Song, a Prey Lang activist, told RFA that his community had long been petitioning for greater transparency on the impact of the mines. 

“The villagers learned about companies through their actions but they don’t know what they are doing here. There is no transparency about the company for any of the villagers in the area. They don’t know who authorized them to explore the mines,” he said.

Pen Bonnar, an officer for local rights group Adhoc, said the government should do more to go after large companies that damage the environment 

"Where there is gold and gems, there are illegal acts, corrupt officials and corrupt tycoons destroying natural resources,” he said.

Company representatives could not be reached for comment, nor could Minister of Mines and Energy Keo Rattanak and Minister of Environment Eang Sophalleth.

Protected forests imperiled elsewhere

Meanwhile, in southern Cambodia, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) away, residents living in a pair of community forests in Kampong Speu province have called on the authorities to do more to protect illegal land clearance. 

Chea Hean, an independent investigator, said unknown individuals had illegally logged more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of protected land inside Udom Sre Puos Community Forest and Ko Dauntey Community Forest in Trapeang Cho Commune.  

Hean, who heads the Anti-Corruption Organization for the Prevention of Natural Resources and the Protection of Civil Rights, said he filed a complaint with police and was waiting to see the result of their investigation. 

RFA could not reach Kampong Speu Provincial Department of Environment Director Chan Thet Thanarak and Kampong Speu Provincial Governor Vei Samnang for comment on May 13.

Neth Mary, the head of the Ko Dauntey community forest, said much of the 5000-hectare forest had been lost to illegal logging and accused authorities of conspiring with traders to encroach and clear the community forest land and then sell it off. 

"We request the Minister of Environment to help return the land in the Ko Dauntey Natural Area to the community so that they can use the land as collective land,” she asked.

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Abby Seiff and Malcolm Foster.

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