In a remote Cambodian province, children as young as seven risk their lives mining for a shiny blue rock
Hundreds of miles from the karaoke bars of Phnom Penh and the famous ruins of Angkor Wat lies Ratanakiri: a remote northeastern Cambodian province of lush tropical forests and abundant wildlife that once served as a base for the notorious Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Only a few diehard travelers venture to this mountainous terrain near the border with Laos and Vietnam, which is a bumpy 560-mile overland ride from Phnom Penh. And when they do they are often enticed into buying blue zircon – an increasingly rare, semi-precious gemstone. The blue zircon found in the Ratanakiri’s Bokeo district is said to be the finest in the world. But few visitors realize that this gemstone is mined at great risk by impoverished locals, including children as young as seven.
The Khmer name of the province loosely translates as “Mountain of Gems.” There has been some form of gemstone mining in the area since the middle of the nineteenth century, when the region was controlled by what is now Thailand. According to the locals, gemstones found in the region were used to fund Pol Pot’s regime. Today, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Indigenous people from the Tampuon tribe are attracted to the mines by the opportunity for regular pay and steady employment. While Cambodia continues to be primarily an agricultural nation, the rice fields offer only seasonal work and very little money. Widespread land evictions have left families without land or employment; many laborers come to the mines seeking a new life after being forcibly removed from their homes.
In Bokeo there are about 400 miners – men, women, and children who labor in one of three mining sites. Known as the kamakor tbong, or “precious stone workers,” the miners literally carve out a living, manually digging narrow, two-foot-wide, 30-to-40-foot-deep holes in the ground using iron rods and handheld shovels. It takes about two days to dig a mineshaft and chisel multiple footholds all the way to the bottom. From there the kamakor tbong dig sideways for about 16 feet in order to connect to a secondary mine shaft. The horizontal tunnel is claustrophobic, just large enough for a crouching miner to dig in near darkness, aided only by a paltry headlamp.
The kamakor tbong spend up to four hours underground at a stretch, digging through the hard-packed earth and excavating bucket-loads of heavy soil. The buckets are winched to the surface by a second miner operating a wooden pulley, called a “rovey” in Khmer. On land, the buckets’ contents are dumped out and meticulously sifted through for gems. The zircon collected from the miners is sold to gem brokers in the provincial capital, Ban Lung, where the stones are heat-treated to obtain the much-valued bright blue color. Afterward, they are cut and set in elaborate jewelry arrangements that sell for thousands of dollars in Cambodia and overseas.
Meanwhile, back at the mines, despite dreams of finding “the one gem,” none of the miners have struck it rich. Rather, in return for the permission to mine a piece of land, the kamakor tbong must hand over their finds at cheap rates to wealthy landlords who lease the sites for as much as $10,000 per hectare to foreign and Cambodian landowners. The miners lack the skills to distinguish a stone’s value and only receive a fraction of the gems’ true worth, typically earning between $100 to $200 a month. The kamakor tbong get paid only for the stones they find, and they frequently go for days without finding a quality stone. The constant presence of the landlord makes it difficult for the miners to sell their finds outside of this heavily controlled market, while the lack of other employment opportunities forces people to continue mining despite the risks involved.
According to local miners, about three to five people die every year at the mines. Last November, five adolescent boys were killed simultaneously after the mines they were working in suddenly collapsed. One of the boys lost his footing while trying to scramble back up the mineshaft and fell backwards. His body was found impaled upon his mining rod. Safety standards and regulations are nonexistent, nor is compensation for death or injury provided to the miners. Rather, families are thrust further into poverty from the loss of income after their loved ones are killed.
Cambodian law allows children as young as 12 to work in “light domestic service,” provided that they are going to school and are not subjected to hazardous working conditions. The minimum age for hazardous work is 18. But clearly, as in other places in the country, the law doesn’t hold much sway at the mines. According to a 2012 International Labor Organization report, nearly 430,000 Cambodian children between the age of five and 12 work out of necessity in order to contribute to their family’s survival. Of these, more than 236,000 work in dangerous conditions: at the mines, in various industrial and commercial sectors, or as sex workers. It is estimated that the actual numbers are probably much higher.
During our time at a mining operation in Bokeo we met many children like Kane, 12 and Ping, 11 who come from the Tampuon hill tribe. Like most ethnic minorities, Kane and Ping can neither read nor write. The majority of Indigenous people have never attended school nor do they speak Khmer, the official Cambodian language. While there have been a handful of initiatives to increase literacy among Indigenous children, there are very few schools that offer bilingual instruction. The lack of a common language not only segregates the ethnic hill tribes from their Cambodian neighbors, but is also a barrier to accessing employment that is not dangerous and exploitative.
The Indigenous inhabitants of Ratanakiri, who make up about two-thirds of the population, traditionally migrated throughout the province to hunt, collect forest products, and farm. Today they face many challenges. Many are quickly losing their access to land as a result of widespread land grabbing and, consequently, their way of life, traditions, and customs. For the last 20 years the region’s spectacular old-growth forests have been sold off to investors who are awarded 99-year concessions on huge land parcels by the Cambodian government. Hardwood forests are being cut down and replaced by monoculture rubber and cashew nut plantations. Logging – both legal and illegal – and mining operations are depleting the region’s natural resources. The landscape is rapidly becoming barren and scarred.
Lacking official land titles, Indigenous people and Cambodians alike have little legal recourse in the face of this onslaught. For many families, mining is one of the few livelihoods they have left. The younger generation is growing up in the mines with no future prospects, education, support services, or medical care – a grim consequence of the economic and social realities facing desperate families. The majority of child miners are likely destined to work the mines for the rest of their lives.
Jennifer Meszaros and Gabriele Stoia form the perfect marriage as a writer-photographer duo. Based in Southeast Asia, they are always on the hunt for extraordinary stories not yet told. To learn more about their ethnography work around the globe, visit: www.gabryandjenny.com