Chhun Karim started mining gems when he was 17 years old. Over the last 45 years, the Pailin province resident has traded gems and is somewhat of an expert in identifying precious stones.
“Pailin province is really important for gems, especially rubies,” he said, or red gems in Khmer. “After that are sapphires.”
In the 45 years that Karim has mined gemstones, Pailin, which was previously part of Battambang province, has seen dramatic changes.
The Khmer Rouge, which came into power in 1975, had its strongholds along the western border with Thailand. Gem mining was one of the major contributors to the regime’s revenue, enabling them to buy weapons and materials from other countries.
Following the downfall of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Thai mining companies were allowed to mine the area in the 1990s. Residents since then have said gemstones are harder to find and that the sector is fast dying.
Media reports from the late 2000s had Pailin officials telling residents to move away from the business and embrace agriculture to make ends meet. In the last 10 years, provincial residents have made rare discoveries, sparking renewed interest in the sector but to little reward.
Karim said there were no more gems in the province and claimed that areas with gems were being protected by the government.
“Now there is nothing left. If the government still allows [mining] like before, people can continue these jobs. But currently, the government has forbidden it,” he said.
Ung Dipola, deputy director-general at the Mines Ministry’s department of mineral resources, said gem mining required high knowledge and technical skill, putting miners at high risk for small returns.
“There are a lot of risks. Sometimes they couldn’t find it as expected. They spend more time and money,” Dipola said.
Dipola encouraged the few remaining people mining for gemstones to switch to agricultural work as a way to make more money.
Teang Tep Vey is one of Pailin’s residents who have given up on gem mining. The 64-year-old farmer said he had long abandoned gem mining to grow vegetables. Gem mining was not as lucrative and very strenuous work compared to agriculture, he added.
“It is never easy to get a lot of rocks. We used our power to lift the rock so that we could get to the minerals. Now I can’t get anything and have changed to doing plantation work,” Tep Vey said.
He said it would take a couple of days of work to make between $10 and $25, that is if one were lucky enough to find the gems.
“We stopped because we couldn’t find it anymore. We would have continued if we still could find it,” he said.
Morale is low among the holdouts, but for some gem miners, this is the only job they have the skills for.
Kiem Ly, 67, lives at the Yat mountain in Pailin province and moved there from Kampong Speu during the Khmer Rouge regime.
At the time, there were a lot of gems in the area but now there were hardly any miners in the province.
“It will be gone for the next generation. They will only hear about it but not see the reality as the old generations did.”