In Khmer, Prey Meas means Gold Forest. It’s also the name of a vibrant community inside the southern boundary of Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary (PPWS).
Although technically illegal, it pre-dates the establishment of the sanctuary and so, realistically, it’s here to say. In some ways it’s like many other small rural communities in Mondulkiri, with its small wooden houses, its own pagoda (with monks), corner eateries and bustling market – but at the same time there is a slightly ‘frontier’ type feel to the place.
The market sells the normal everyday items but there is a strong emphasis on mining equipment. Buckets, spades, hawsers, generators plus a whole host of tubes, gadgets and other hardware that I don’t recognise at all. All this equipment is brought in from elsewhere, despite the community lying at the end of the worst roads I have driven along since coming to Cambodia.
Actually, road isn’t the right word – and even ‘track’ is being overly generous. A good measure of how difficult any journey here is can be gauged by the cost of a taxi. To come halfway to Prey Meas – a journey of about 90 minutes – costs the same on the back of a rickety motorbike as a very comfortable seat in a car for the 6 hour drive to Phnom Penh. The bottom line is that people have to make a real effort to get to Prey Meas.
Until the 1980s, when infrastructure was almost non-existent, the region was largely inaccessible. But when 7 new gold deposits were discovered across north-eastern Cambodia, a gold rush of artisanal Khmer miners was started. Even now, the area is dominated by artisanal – meaning family-level – mining; although there is also at least one large company doing larger scale (and deeper) mining.
It seems that each and every house has sunk a shaft into the ground. These are 20-30 metres deep, or even more, into which the miners are lowered. Someone at the surface keeps an eye on a small engine that pumps fresh air down in to the deeps but it all looks horribly ramshackle and worn. It’s impossible to walk around the town without regularly coming across piles of rock waiting to be processed.
This ore is ground into a powder using rock crushers, then mixed with water and sluiced, over a bed of ‘Welcome’ door mats that catches the heavier particles. Panning this residue retrieves the gold concentrates. I stopped and watched a group of young boys doing this final swilling and they showed me the result: a single tiny grain of gold, so small it was more of a suggestion than something real.
Although it is hard to get a sense of how lucrative a business this is – it’s clear that all involved see this as the promise of future riches. It may sound slightly romantic – the notion of people hacking gold out of the ground, creating wealth through sheer determination and muscle power – but there is nothing romantic about the reality.
Much of Prey Meas is a wasteland. The grey heaps of spoil, the pools of chemical sludge or scummy residues alongside the simple houses, the uncontrolled and constant burrowing. I don’t know what chemicals they use here but elsewhere small scale miners use mercury and arsenic to help separate out the gold.
Prey Meas does hold out the tantalizing hope of a good income – but it comes at a high price both for the environment and for the people. From the higher ground it is easy to see how the community is spreading further and further into the forest – clearing trees needed for the supporting timbers in their subterranean tunnels; leaving yet more puddles of polluted waste on the land and clearing land for newcomers drawn by the lure of ready money.
Prey Meas is here to stay. Gold will always attract and it would be naïve to think that this could be stopped. However, we can try and make this as safe as possible. This year, WWF will start its first survey to try and understand the processes involved – not to stop them but, eventually, to work with the miners to try and reduce the amounts of chemicals used; to use them in as safe a manner as possible; to keep the groundwater safe for consumption; to protect the surrounding forests. To protect their families.
This is something of a departure for us but, having been there and seen this with my own eyes, there is no doubt in my mind that this is something we should be doing.