The unmistakable sound of a child’s voice reverberates ten metres up a crudely constructed mine shaft, escaping to the surface of dry, pockmarked earth. Moments later, a young boy, slight in stature and layered in sweat and soil, emerges deftly from the 60-centimetre-wide hole. He swiftly plants two feet on the ground and bears a victorious grin. Two small, unremarkable stones lay bare upon his outstretched palm. The boy promptly produces a container from the pocket of his threadbare trousers and slides the stones in before disappearing back into the darkness of the shaft once more.
Ly Kimheng is 13 years old and one of the many children who toil alongside adults, mining for zircon in the Bokeo district of Ratanakiri, a mineral-rich province in northeastern Cambodia. Tucked off the main road and concealed by rows of rubber trees, approximately 400 people – men, women and children as young as seven – mine for zircon, all of them lured to the area by the prospect of finding the one gem that will rescue them from poverty.
Known as the kamakor tbong, or ‘precious stone workers’, the miners are Cambodian, Vietnamese and from the indigenous Tampuon tribe. Propelled by land evictions and poverty, as well as a lack of education and alternative opportunities, the kamakor tbong literally carve out a living for themselves, digging to depths of ten to 12 metres using an iron rod and a handheld plastic shovel in search for gems.
“There are many children working the mines,” says Ly Kimheng. “We all want to find the big stone. We all want to help our families.”
Ly Kimheng has been a kamakor tbong since he was seven years old. He labours alongside his 12-year-old brother, Ly Kineng, and his two sisters, Ly Aoun, 16, and Ly Kimtha, 19. Their father, Ly Mon, recalls the first time he coaxed Ly Kimheng down a mine.
“He was just a little boy, he didn’t want to go,” Ly Mon says. “He cried so much. He was scared to follow me into the darkness. It’s difficult for young children, but eventually they get used to this life.”
“I don’t like mining, but we are very poor,” Ly Kimheng admits. “We all work together, we have no choice.”
The kamakor tbong chisel multiple footholds into the mine’s walls, improving accessibility to the bottom, where they connect to a series of horizontal mine shafts that measure just 50cm in height. Once below the surface, miners labour in complete darkness aside from a paltry headlamp. Buckets of heavy soil are then filled and winched to the surface by a second miner operating a wooden pulley. Above ground, the buckets are dumped and meticulously sifted for gems.
“I dig, my brother works the pulley. The mines scare him, but it scares me too,” Ly Kimheng says.
Families such as Ly Kimheng’s often transition from the rice fields to the gem mines, motivated by higher pay and steadier employment, despite the risks.
“It is a better job than farming,” Ly Mon explains. “We can mine throughout the year, except during heavy rains, and if we are lucky we can make up to $5 per stone. This is good money. Farming is seasonal and keeps us very poor.”
No one has struck it rich. Of the many mining stories told in Bokeo, none of them feature a kamakor tbong finding that one life-changing stone. The miners only receive compensation for the gems they unearth, typically earning between $100 and $200 per month. It is not uncommon for miners to go days without finding a gem.
“No stone, no eat,” a young kamakor tbong says before descending back into the suffocating space that plunges deep into the dry earth. The miner has not had a meal in three days.
“The broker only wants good quality stones, otherwise we don’t get paid,” confirms Ly Kimheng.
The kamakor tbong are required to sell their finds to foreign and Cambodian businessmen who lease the area for approximately $10,000 per hectare. The zircon is then sold to brokers in the nearby provincial capital of Banlung and overseas, where the stones are cut and set in elaborate jewellery arrangements that sell for thousands of dollars.
The miners receive a fraction of what the gems are truly worth; they lack the skills necessary to distinguish a stone’s true value, while the constant presence of landlords and brokers makes it difficult for miners to sell their finds outside of the heavily controlled market. Rubies, amethyst and gold are excavated elsewhere in the province, but only the privileged few profit, making gem mining a highly lucrative business.
“Sometimes I make $100 a month selling zircon and refilling abandoned shafts,” Ly Kimheng says. “It takes about one month to mine a hectare but it’s very hard work.”
His father agrees. “It’s a difficult job,” Ly Mon says. “Every day we risk our lives.”
Ly Mon and his children are well aware of the dangers. Last November, five adolescent boys were killed after the mines they were working in collapsed. In an attempt to reach the surface, one youth lost his footing and fell backwards – his young body was found impaled upon his mining rod.
Ly Mon notes that the victims’ families have all since moved from the area, returning to the rice fields and hurtled further into poverty from a loss of income. According to local miners, three to five people are buried alive every year in this business.
“There are no safety standards or regulations,” Ly Mon explains. “Families do not receive compensation from the landlord if a loved one is killed. I pray for my children’s safety but we are all worried. We knew these boys, we knew their families. It can happen to any one of us.”
The threat of death lingers constantly over these adults and children who labour from dawn until dusk, spending up to four hours at a time underground. Yet with no future prospects, the kamakor tbong are resigned to their fate, believing they will work the mines forever.
“I am scared of dying,” Ly Kimheng confirms adamantly as he digs a mine that will take two days to complete. “But I don’t know anything else.”
Like many miners, the affable teen cannot visualise a different life, yet Ly Kimheng is luckier than most. When not searching for gems, he attends school part-time – a rare luxury for a young kamakor tbong. A part of Ly Kimheng’s monthly profits goes towards paying for books and school supplies for the grade-six student.
“My dream is for all my children to finish school, but it is very expensive,” Ly Mon says. “Ly Aoun has already dropped out, but Ly Kimtha is finishing grade 12. Right now, we do not have enough money to send her to university. I want my daughter to get a good education. I want her to have a better future.”
Illiteracy is prevalent in Ratanakiri and many miners can neither read nor write. Children from the indigenous Tampuon tribe are at a particular disadvantage. Land evictions have propelled them to the mines, where they work segregated from their Cambodian peers. They are additionally cut off by a lack of common language.
“Most of these children will never attend school, especially the Tampuon,” Ly Mon explains. “They grow up without learning Khmer. The choice is the mines or the fields. This is the life.”
Escaping poverty is difficult for miners, and dreaming of an alternative life is rare.
Small-scale mining operations have existed in Cambodia for centuries, most notably in Pailin province. Many men and women in Ratanakiri have been mining for more than 20 years, which has created a legacy for their children to follow.
“This is my future,” says Ly Kimheng as he disappears back down into the darkness of the mine shaft. “I have no dreams.”