Finding the nomadic gem miners in the wild eastern Cambodian province of Ratanakiri is a challenge. After talking with the locals we were led to their current site, a small area of churned up red soil with 12 meter deep holes punctuating the landscape. Miners with a mix of soil and sweat caked on their skin surround the mines, some working and others resting with a cigarette after safely re-emerging from deep within the earth.
The miners are searching for semi-precious stones including zircon, amethyst and onyx. The atmosphere has a 'gold-rush' buzz, but the frantic search for the next big gem is evened out by the relaxed Cambodian nature of the miners who welcome us with warm smiles and the occasional nervous laugh. The women surround us with their husbands wares, cut or uncut. With a few minutes of haggling you can be the proud owner of two glistening aqua blue zircon stones for just $10 US dollars.
Mining for gems is a three man operation. The men take it in turns descending into the ladder-less mines. They spend up to an hour below ground digging and filling buckets of earth to be sent to the surface. The second miner turns a makeshift rope mechanism that brings the soil above ground to be hand sifted by the third team member.
Mining the lose loamy clay makes for dangerous work. The same day we visited two men had suffocated in a cave-in at another mine site nearby. The miners dig two holes alongside each other to provide life-giving airflow for those who venture underground, however, this adds to the instability of the mine site and increases the risk of a cave in. It is rare that the miners who fall victim to a collapse can be pulled out in time. Even with the significant risks involved these men chose a life of mining rather than working the rice fields because of the glimmer of hope of a higher income, taking a gamble on what the next bucket might hold.