Rubber Trees and Zircon Mining in Cambodia—All in a Day’s Work

In this second instalment describing a recent fieldtrip to Cambodia with Australian mineralogist Dermot Henry, Paula Piilonen journeys to new mining sites and others she had visited two years earlier—and reflects on the challenging lives of miners that rely on the sale of gemstones for their livelihood.

Arriving at the Mekhong River crossing after a dusty, long drive from Tbeang Meanchey, Preah Vihear province, Cambodia, was a definite feeling of relief. The Mekhong at Stung Treng is quite wide—a lazy, grey vastness stretching north to Laos and south through Cambodia and Vietnam before its final destination, the South China Sea.

There is no bridge to cross the river to Stung Treng on its eastern shore, so we had to put the van into the queue for the ferry and wait for the next one. Waiting gave us a chance to walk around the market area, and watch the efforts of some of the locals who were unloading a truck carrying bricks that had become stuck in the river.

A long truck partially submerged along the bank of the Mekhong River.

A truck carrying bricks sunk into the bank of the Mekhong River. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After boarding the ferry, we had a relaxing ride across the river to Stung Treng, after which we set off for the last leg of our trip—a three-hour drive to the town of Ban Lung in Ratanakiri province where more zircons awaited us.

View of the street in downtown Ban Lung.

Downtown Ban Lung, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

View of the market in Ban Lung, where gems are sold.

The market in Ban Lung where both real and fake gems can be bought – buyer beware! Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The last time I had driven down this highway, two years ago, it was not paved, so the presence of a smooth, paved surface was quite a surprise. What I was not happy to see was the extensive deforestation that has taken place along the highway—as far as the eye could see, the native, hardwood forest has been cut down, and in its place regular lines of small rubber trees have been planted. Rubber is one of the main industries in this part of Cambodia and more and more of the natural habitat is being disturbed to make way for rubber plantations. It’s possibly a short-sighted endeavour that does not take into account the long-term environmental damage to the natural habitat—rubber trees only start producing at three years of age, and the average productive lifespan is 20 years, after which they must be cut down and new trees planted. The fragile lateritic soil, which is held tentatively in place by the native forests and vegetative cover, is exposed and washed away with every successive planting, depleting the ground of important nutrients. The destruction that had taken place in a mere 24 months was shocking.

View of abandoned mines at Phum Throm with rubber trees now growing.

The mines at Phum Throm have been abandoned and young rubber trees have been planted among the waste piles. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Image of abandoned mine, now a simple hole in the ground.

Abandoned mine at Old Phum Throm – watch your step! Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unfortunately, the profits to be reaped from harvesting rubber for latex are exponentially higher than those gained by mining for zircons. As we were to discover, two of the main mining communities in the Ban Lung area, Phum Throm and Bo Loei, have been overtaken by the main rubber company in town and the miners have been evicted.

Our first morning, Dermot, Votha (our translator and Cambodian gem guide) and I set out to visit Phum Throm, 30 minutes to the east of Ban Lung. Two years ago, two to three dozen miners and their families were camped out under tarps and you had to watch your step for fear of stepping into a 10-metre-deep hole. Today, the only evidence that mining activity existed were the regular piles of mine waste, vacant holes (many of which were starting to cave in) and, in between, newly-planted rubber trees.

We wandered around the area, hoping to find at least one miner, but to no avail. We were forced to head back to the village of Bokeo and search for the miners and the “new” Phum Throm. Mining is too lucrative of a business in this region—they would not simply abandon the zircon deposits entirely.

View of ground where new mines are active.

The “new” Phum Throm mining area nestled among an active rubber plantation. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sure enough, we discovered that they had moved to the other side of the highway, directly across from the old site. Happy with this information, we decided to stop in Bokeo and check out what the miners there had for sale. No sooner had we sat down at a bench than we were surrounded by a horde of villagers, miners and family and friends of miners alike. The tourists have arrived! The tourists have arrived!! And of course, every single person came carrying a small grubby bag or plastic vial containing zircons of all sizes, colours and quality.

Crowd of people stand around a table where zircons are examined.

Dermot Henry (Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australia) and translator Vothua Un examining rough, uncut zircons in the town of Bokeo, Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

If you have never experienced this type of mineralogical circus, it’s a bit overwhelming. Miners and their friends and relatives put a handful of rough stones in front of you and wait for their turn to name their opening price. Prices this year were much higher than in past years—what I paid $2 for two years ago has jumped to $25. But negotiating is part of the game of, course. If you don’t come back with a counter-offer, they are offended. Even if you do not intend the buy the stones, you must name a price for the seller to save face. Additionally, most sellers will withhold their best material until the end—for instance, you may see three or four different assortments of stones from the same person, the quality increasing each time the hand is opened in front of you. It is best to simply settle in, grab a cold drink and enjoy the experience.

Closeup of two zircons laid out on an open hand.

Profits from a morning of mining – two small zircons from 30 buckets of lateritic dirt. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

For the most part, 75% of the asking price was about what I was aiming for. It was also important for Dermot and I to explain to the villagers, using Votha as an interpreter, that we were after zircons that actually contained flaws, or were not perfect or usable as gemstones. We explained that we really wanted the material that they would likely throw away at the end of the day.

Mineralogists are like that—we want the discards! I think the miners find it amusing, but buying this material serves two purposes: first, it provides us with zircons for our research and national collections, and second, it puts money directly into the hands of the miners and their families. As rough stones are moved upwards from the miner through to gem dealers and gem cutters, prices increase exponentially.

Away from the villages in downtown Ban Lung, we were offered one kilogram of rough gem-quality zircon for $3,000! You can be guaranteed that the miner did not receive near this value initially. All the more reason to buy directly at the source and support the local economy.

A zircon miner man stands beside a wood machine used to raise buckets from a mine hole.

Zircon miner at Bokeo Clas. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

After lunch, we headed off to visit some of the miners still remaining in Bokeo Clas. Mining zircons is hard work, no doubt about it. And it is dangerous work—the holes are 10 metres deep and very unstable , collapses are common and miners are buried alive. Miners work fully exposed to the sun in the 35 to 40 °C heat for more than eight hours a day.

Paula Piilonen stands by an open hole and turns a crank to life a bucket.

Paula Piilonen trying her hand at zircon mining. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

One of the miners we talked to showed us his haul for the day to that point—two small zircons after more than 30 buckets of dirt hauled to the surface and sorted through by hand. Physically, most of us would never be able to handle this sort of work—it’s dangerous, back-breaking and exhausting. I asked if I could attempt to haul up one bucket (silly foreigner wanting to do his work for him!) and even that one bucket weighing about 40 lbs had me breaking a sweat. Two small zircons for every 30 buckets? I couldn’t do it.

Paula Piilonen and colleague Dermot Henry stand beside a wooden crank used to raise and lower buckets for mining.

Dermot Henry and Paula Piilonen at Bokeo Clas. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

I was happy to pay him $10 for his morning’s efforts—by Western standards, a small price to pay for scientific research material. Considering that most Cambodians earn less than $100 per month, it is not hard to see why zircon miners will risk their lives to produce stones to sell to gem dealers—it’s a lucrative business and provides for their family in ways that no other jobs will.

Next stop on our geological journey, Yeak Lom, a lake in the centre of a volcanic crater!

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

About Paula Piilonen

A mineralogist with the Research Division at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
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