Demands grow for clarity around Cambodian gold mine

  • Earlier this year, residents of Tropeang Tontem in the province of Preah Vihear submitted a petition to the government Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. It complained about their treatment by local officials and a mining company.
  • According to Cambodian media, the petition was signed by 56 families. It states that government and company officials “forced us, coerced us and cheated us into thumb-printing a document that stated that we were farming on part of the company‘s land.” The petition requests that the document be “annulled in its entirety.”
  • Residents are also concerned about the intensive chemical processing of the gold ore in the open environment, a process that uses highly toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury.
  • A representative from a Cambodian NGO said the organization will be opposed to the mine until an environmental impact assessment of its operations is conducted, and until there is more clarity regarding mine activity.

A gold mine in the remote northern Cambodian province of Preah Vihear is being opposed by local people who claim they have lost their land and are being manipulated by authorities acting for the mining company.

On January 12, residents from the affected village of Tropeang Tontem in Rovieng district submitted a petition to the government Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. It complained about their treatment by local officials and the company allegedly responsible, Delcom Cambodia Pte Ltd.

According to the Phnom Penh Post, the petition statement was signed by 56 families.  Translated from Khmer to English, it states that government and company officials “forced us, coerced us and cheated us into thumb-printing a document that stated that we were farming on part of the company‘s land.” The statement requested that the document be “annulled in its entirety.”

The mine site near Tropeang Tontem. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

According to local reports, the mine has been expanding since Delcom first obtained a license in 1994. Residents say encroachment on village farmlands and forest by the mine escalated in 2015.

“We are completely opposed to this mine continuing its operations until there is a detailed, impartial and independent investigation of the alleged human rights abuses that continue to occur there – which include land-theft,” Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, Director of watchdog organization Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), said in an interview with Mongabay.

Local residents tell of heavy-handed tactics used by Delcom when, in 2011, they say its security forces cleared small artisanal miners out of the site who had flocked to the area to make their fortunes. Residents say one miner was killed and several injured by mine security during the removal. Direct clashes have now given way to simmering discontentment as mining operations have scaled-up but land disputes remain unresolved.

“Some other families have land titles but right now a lot of families are still arguing about their land,” said Hun Vannak, an activist with MNC. Fresh out of jail for his video activism, he visited the mine site on three occasions last year resulting in the release of a campaign video. He explained that he and a colleague were stopped by security, including Cambodian soldiers, three times while visiting the area.

After release of the MNC video last July, officials made efforts to resolve the land disputes by convening a meeting and inviting two of the affected families to negotiate. One family was awarded alternative land near the site: “They measured that the land was 12.5 hectares belonging to Chet Yi’s family. The provincial head asked the commune head to make the land title,” Hun Vannak said.

The assertion by local people that mine security is provided by military units stationed in the area is supported by press reports. Sun Ta* a member of MNC who made three visits to the area in 2017 told Mongabay, “I saw a motorbike with an army number plate.”

A motorbike sporting a military-issued license plate reportedly seen near the mine site. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia
A pickup truck with a military license plate reportedly observed near the mine. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

“I am sure. I am not just saying that without knowing about it. It [the mine] is related to H.E. Hing Bung Heng, as those based here are all soldiers, members of his bodyguard unit. I see it every day, they are all from the bodyguard unit,” said village elder Tuy Chenng when he was interviewed by MNC for their video in 2017.

General Hing Bun Hiang is reportedly the commander of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit. The General has neither confirmed nor denied the rumor despite questions that have circulated in the Cambodian media concerning his involvement.

“At 6pm I heard the noise of blasting,” said one activist who preferred not to be named, explaining that there are two work shifts at the camp and the blasting takes place at night. She claimed that of the thousand or so workers, most are Chinese with very few Cambodians working there. Above one tower on site the Chinese flag can clearly be seen flying.

Representatives from Mother Nature Cambodia report seeing this Chinese flag flying above a drilling rig at the mine site. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

Villagers are also concerned about the intensive chemical processing of the gold ore in the open environment, a process that uses highly toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury.

“Chet Yi’s 13-year-old sons found the containers outside the fence [of the mine site] and brought them to the house,” said Hun Vannak, explaining the photos he took in the affected community last June. One shows a 50-kilogram barrel with a label describing the contents as 98 percent pure sodium cyanide manufactured in Anhui, China. Another shows a plastic beverage bottle appearing to contain mercury.

“It does suggest use of potassium or sodium cyanide to dissolve and thereby extract gold from heaped or piled up crude ore,” Richard Harkinson, a mining expert and consultant to the London Mining Network, said in an email to Mongabay.

An empty 50-kilogram drum of sodium cyanide that was reportedly recovered from the mine perimeter by community members in 2017. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia
A child from the village neighboring the mine site shows a plastic beverage bottle that appears to contain mercury, which he says he recovered from the perimeter fence at the mining site. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

Aerial drone footage captured near the mine by activists shows what appears to be the heap leaching process whereby the gold rock ore is first crushed before being moved into mounds onto which cyanide or mercury is poured to extract the gold particles.

The leftover contaminated mine waste slurry called “tailings” are generally stored behind holding dams. Failure of these often poorly constructed dams has been widely identified as the primary cause of numerous international mining disasters. For example in November 2015 the Samarco Mineracao tailings dam in Brazil collapsed, releasing more than 30 million cubic meters of mining waste into a nearby river.

Heaped piles of crushed ore are visible in this drone photo. The gold is extracted by pouring cyanide and/or mercury onto the piles of crushed ore. This produces toxic waste tailings, which are stored in ponds behind small holding dams. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

“Relatively low concentrations of cyanide can be highly toxic to people and wildlife,” states the website of the Cyanide Code, continuing: “Cyanide is acutely toxic to humans.”

The Cyanide Code was set up in 2000 with support from the United Nations Environment Programme as a voluntary mining industry response to repeated spills of cyanide at mine sites. “Spills and other incidents involving cyanide solutions at gold mines such as the January 2000 incident at a Romanian gold mine demonstrated to the gold mining industry‚ governments and the public that better management of cyanide was needed,” its website states.
None of the gold mining companies operating in Cambodia are listed as signatories of the Cyanide Code.

“The most significant risk from the use of cyanide solutions in gold mining is the possible leaching into soil and groundwater,” states a European Commission report on cyanide. It explains that fish are especially at risk: “Cyanide concentrations of 1 microgram (one-millionth of a gram) per liter of water can be fatal to fish.”

“Due to risks to people and the environment a number of countries such as Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic have banned cyanide in mining,” the report explains.

Evidence suggests that Deleum Berhad holdings, a Malaysian company, is still majority owner of subsidiary Delcom Cambodia. The Malaysian company has so far denied any involvement. Deleum’s main business is services to oil and gas industries. The gold mine operations were not directly discussed in its 2016 Annual Review, but the review did mention Deleum’s role as majority owner of Cambodian subsidiaries.

Deleum Berhad’s report for 2016 indicates that its wholly owned company, called Deleum Services Holding Limited, owns 60 percent of two companies with similar names to that of the company in charge of the gold mining and processing site in Rovieng: Delcom Power (Cambodia) Limited and Delcom Utilities (Cambodia) Limited.

Two government mining licenses support this. One is an agreement between the Cambodian government and Delcom Cambodia Pte Ltd. signed in March of 1994, for mining exploration, development and exploitation in an area covering 216 square kilometers. In 2004 the exploration license was renewed by Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy. However press reports indicate that the exploitation license lapsed in 2016 and is in the process of renewal.

A backhoe clears land to expand the mine site onto land claimed by villagers. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia
A fortified perimeter fence surrounds the site, which local residents claim has been built on their farmland. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

One of the co-signatories of the 1994 contract is a “Mr. Vivekannathan S/O M.V. Nathan,” acting as the president of Delcom Cambodia Pte Ltd and managing director for Delcom Services Sdn Bhd. The latter assumed its present name of Deleum Berhad in 2006. Deleum Berhad’s website lists, as a member of its board of directors, a Malaysian national by the name of Datuk Vivekannathan a/l M.V. Nathan. He is listed as the group’s current non-executive deputy chairman, having held other positions in the group in the past, including that of managing director and president.

However, Deleum’s current ownership of the mine is disputed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party National Assembly member Thavy Nhem, formerly Managing Director of Delcom Cambodia. On August 4, 2017, the Phnom Penh Post reported that he denied Delcom was involved. “But that company is no longer there,” he said. “We don’t know who is there.”

The report also supported statements by community members and mine workers that one of the mines belonged to Hun Seng Ny, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s youngest sister.

Although Delcom has had a license to explore and exploit gold, The Ministry of Mines and Energy stated in the Khmer Times that the first officially sanctioned gold mine was the more recently established Mesco Gold.

Mother Nature Cambodia director Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson says this raises questions about the nature of Delcom’s mining license. “The information on the status of the license was not clear,” Gonzalez-Davidson told Mongabay during an interview. “There is hardly any information at all on what are they officially doing: are they prospecting? Are they extracting?”

Gonzalez-Davidson says the organization will be opposed to the mine until there is, “an assessment on the environmental impacts the mining and extraction is creating, and until Cambodians get to know how much gold is being extracted out of the area.”

Neither Delcom Cambodia nor Deleum Berhad responded to multiple requests for comment for this story, nor did Chea Sophara, Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. The Ministry of Mines and Energy also declined to comment.


*Name changed on request to protect the anonymity of the person interviewed.

Banner photo: A drone photo shows the gold mine site and surrounding forest and farmland near the community of Tropeang Tontem. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia

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