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Cambodian villagers accuse Chinese mining company of infringing on their land

About 200 families in central Cambodia say they are in danger of losing hundreds of hectares of farmland – with or without compensation – to a Chinese gold mining company expanding its excavation area.

Late Cheng Mining Development Co., Ltd., received a license from the Cambodian government in March 2020, to explore more than 15,100 hectares (37,300 acres) in Sochet commune of Sandan district in Kampong Thom province for gold deposits. The area lies partly inside the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and near Phnom Chi, a mountain tourist area.

In August 2022, the government granted the company commercial exploitation rights, allowing mining in protected areas if regulations such as an environmental impact assessment were followed, according to a report by the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

The US$13 million project is expected to create 300 jobs and yield 180 kilograms (400 lbs) of gold annually, starting this year, and to provide the government with US$250,000 annually in royalties, the report said.

Late Cheng also has begun to clear and occupy the land without publicly disclosing its environmental impact assessment, the report said.

The company has opened five mines in the villages of O’Pha Av, O’Phro Huot, O’Khvav, Sre Pring and Snong On, which will encroach on potato, cashew and mango crops. The communities are inside or near the Prey Lang Forest.

Most of the villagers are indigenous and have lived in their communities for generations, so they unlikely have land titles for their property.   

When land concessions are granted to companies, villagers who live in the concession areas must forfeit their agricultural land but usually keep their homes and small rice fields, the article said.

Pressured to sell

Keo Mony, a resident of O’Pha Av village, Sandan district, said Late Cheng has already damaged his three hectares of potatoes. 

He said a company representative pressured him to sell one hectare of land for US$3,000 and threatened to take it if he refused.  

“They said they would hunt down wherever the gold is located and take it,” he told Radio Free Asia. “They asked to buy the land, and said if we refused to sell it, we would lose it.”

Some Cambodians hired by the Chinese company to mine the areas said residents of Sre Pring and Snong On villages have not yet received any compensation. 

The workers also said they fear for their and the villagers’ safety because dirty, contaminated water from the mining operation has drained into nearby streams, so that residents can no longer use them. 

Furthermore, company security forces forbid locals from entering the area.

Another resident, Toun Mao, who has privately mined for gold nuggets in Sre Pring village, said villagers who search for gold on the side have had to stop because Late Cheng and Cambodian authorities have ordered them not to mine on the company’s land.

“It affects our business because the Chinese take all the places that have gold mines,” she said. “So, this makes it difficult for us. They have equipment to find [gold underground], while we use our hands to find it, so there’s no way we can beat them.”

Sre Pring village chief Vong Hoeun said Late Cheng dumped wastewater into natural streams, causing local people to fall ill. 

He asked relevant authorities to address the problem, but nothing has been done, he said.

Vong Hoeun also questioned the safety of the mining operations because four workers had died in a pit near the river, though the company did not disclose the deaths, he said.

Radio Free Asia could not reach Late Cheng for comment. Calls to Ung Dipola, director general for mineral resources at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and to Sok Hay, the Kampong Thom provincial hall spokesman, went unanswered.

Losing land

Sandan district resident Seng Naroth said he worries that if the company continues to encroach on land, nearly 200 families will face severe poverty.

“People need the land to cultivate,” he said. “If the authorities do not talk to the company or if they take the side of the company, then people’s land can be lost.” 

Am Sam Ath, deputy director general of human rights group Licadho, said he believes that studies must be conducted to properly assess the impact of land, people and the environment before the government grants concessions for mining or other activities. 

Companies also must resolve compensation issues before starting operations, and authorities must investigate any work-related deaths, he said.

Although the mining company is a foreign company, Cambodian law applies, Am Sam Ath said.

“If there are dead people at the company location, and there is no clear reason, it creates suspicion, so that the authorities must open a thorough investigation to seek justice for the dead,” he said.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.