Chinese gold miners ‘illegally’ tearing up Cambodian wildlife sanctuary

An NGO report and complaints by villagers allege a Chinese company has been mining gold inside one of Cambodia’s largest protected areas years before it was license to do so.Late Cheng Mining Development was awarded an exploratory license in March 2020 spanning 15,100 hectares (37,300 acres) inside Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, and an extraction license in September 2022.Local villagers say the company has likely been operating in the region since early 2019; villagers who spoke to Mongabay requested anonymity, citing fears of reprisals from the authorities.A report by the Bruno Manser Fonds and testimony from locals also allege the company’s mining activities risk contaminating waterways that villagers rely on.

*Name changed for the security of sources who feared retributions from authorities

KAMPONG THOM, Cambodia — “The company operates as they please. We’ve asked the authorities for help, but they won’t do anything for us,” said Bunnarith*, a lifelong resident of Snang An village in the densely forested province of Kampong Thom. “The people living in Snang An live here in misery.”

Nestled inside Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) inside the boundaries of the protected area, is a Chinese-owned gold mine to which Bunnarith can trace his misery.

On March 23, 2020, Late Cheng Mining Development was awarded an exploratory license spanning 15,100 hectares (37,300 acres) across Kampong Thom’s Sandan district, engulfing Snang An village.

Since then, the gold mining operation has only grown after being granted a license to extract gold in September 2022, clearing more forest within Prey Lang, which is home to 55 threatened species of wildlife and estimated to house 80% of Cambodia’s most endangered indigenous tree species.

Spanning nearly 490,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) and rich in a diverse range of fauna and flora, Prey Lang has long been targeted for its bountiful natural resources, to the point that the ecological integrity of the supposedly protected area is now threatened by illegal logging that continues to ravage the forest.

Authorities have struggled to rein in the often politically connected networks behind the destruction, which have exploited Prey Lang’s supply of timber, limestone, marble, gold and precious gems through extractive operations that often overlap as mines give cover to loggers.

Late Cheng is just one of the many stress factors pushing Prey Lang to the brink, but residents of Snang An alleged that the Chinese-run gold mine is encroaching on traditional farmlands and contaminating waterways.

These allegations were revived in a report published in October by Bruno Manser Fonds, a Swiss nonprofit focused on tropical rainforest conservation, which alleged that Late Cheng’s mine violates numerous laws and accused the Cambodian government of ignoring destructive gold mining operations inside Prey Lang.

“From an ecological perspective, open-pit mining is one of the most destructive extraction industries that exists,” said Ida Theilade, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen and one of the report’s authors. “The environmental threats of open-pit mining are well known. Environmental destruction is not limited to the mining area itself — it includes roads fragmenting a fragile rainforest ecosystem.”

The leaching ponds at Late Cheng’s mining site in Sochet commune, Kampong Thom province, pose a contamination threat to the waterways inside Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.
Cyanide usage in a ‘fragile rainforest ecosystem’

Speaking to Mongabay, Theilade detailed the report’s findings: that poisonous soil heaps and cyanide leaching ponds run the risk of contaminating the Porong River, posing a threat to the health of humans and wildlife alike.

“In case leaching ponds are breached, for example during heavy rains, this could have detrimental effect to aquatic life in freshwater streams and rivers downstream,” Theilade said. “It would cause serious health issues for villagers depending on downstream river water for irrigation, livestock or households. The diversion of streams through the mine exacerbates this threat.”

Residents helped reporters to collect water samples from streams that have been diverted by Late Cheng. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

Besides serving at least five nearby villages with water for drinking, bathing and cooking, the Porong River also flows into the Chinnit River, a tributary of Tonle Sap Lake, one of Cambodia’s most important freshwater ecosystems.

When Mongabay visited Snang An in October, huge mounds of dirt were visible where the streams had been redirected. Residents said they were now wary of using water from either the streams or the river that they flow into.

“They have changed the flow of the water in canals to use it for chemical processing in the mining sites,” Bunnarith said. “The chemical substance flows to the Tracht and the Da [streams]. Both of these streams flow into the Porong River.”

The gold miners have achieved this, Bunnarith said, by diverting streams such as the Tracht and Da to flow through the mining site, where the water is mixed with cyanide as part of the gold leaching process.

This has prompted major concerns among residents of Snang An and the neighboring village of Srae Pring, where residents blamed a mass die-off of fish in the Porong River last year on Late Cheng’s mining activities; Mongabay was unable to verify these claims.

In October, reporters acquired water samples taken from both the Tracht and Da streams, which were then taken to a laboratory in Phnom Penh to be tested for cyanide and arsenic — another chemical often used by artisanal gold miners. Neither samples tested positive for arsenic, but while the sample from the Tracht stream came back negative for cyanide, the sample from the Da stream was found to contain 0.01 milligrams per liter, well below the 0.2mg/l set as an allowable limit by both Cambodia and the  Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.

A technician from the lab where the samples were analyzed noted that heavy rainfall around the time the samples were taken could have diluted the streams, but cautioned that there were many factors at work and that the sample results from October did not indicate the water was dangerously contaminated.

The expansion of Late Cheng’s gold mining operation inside Prey Lang has brought with it widespread destruction and degradation in the protected forest, as well as an ongoing conflict with the residents of Snang An village. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.
Commercial quarry in legal quandary

While the contamination risk remains difficult to quantify, the Bruno Manser Fonds report consistently calls into question the legality of Late Cheng’s mining operations inside Prey Lang.

The 2008 Protected Area Law outlines that mining is permissible in demarcated sustainable-use zones within protected areas. However, there’s no such zoning inside Prey Lang.

The law also stipulates that, if Late Cheng were operating within a sustainable-use zone, their mine would need to help contribute to conservation of the protected area as well as promote the standards of living of local communities.

Few in Snang An say the mine has contributed to improving the communities’ standards of living.

Residents say that access to the village has been limited since it was engulfed by Late Cheng’s mining operations. Initially, they say, roads built by the company were off-limits to villagers.  Now, they’re able to use them, but there are two checkpoints — one manned by Ministry of Environment rangers, another operated by a mix of rangers and local police — to tightly control access to both the mine and the village.

The restrictive environment endured by Snang An residents since Late Cheng began operations in the village has left many on edge. Few hold land titles recognized by the national government, and residents who did speak to Mongabay said they fear their homes and farms could be destroyed if gold is discovered on their property.

Meanwhile, the search for gold has seen more forest churned up each year.

“While a logged forest can regenerate, post-mining landscapes are most often left apocalyptic, devoid of vegetation,” Theilade said. “This is in sharp dissonance to the intentions of protected area law.”

Late Cheng has diverted streams for cyanide leaching at the mining site, but these streams flow into the Porong River, which itself flows into the Chinnit River – a tributary of the Tonle Sap Lake. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

The rerouting of streams and use of natural water resources for mining purposes may also be in breach of Article 41 of the Protected Area Law, which forbids “[d]estroying water quality in all forms, poisoning, using chemical substances, disposing of solid and liquid wastes into water or on land.”

If Late Cheng had conducted an environmental impact assessment that showed minimal damage to Prey Lang’s ecosystems or highlighted ways in which the company would mitigate environmental problems linked to their mine, this would likely fit with Cambodia’s legal framework. However, as the Bruno Manser Fonds report notes, no such study has ever been made public.

“And the EIA, if one was produced at all, is clearly inadequate given the environmentally-destructive activities that have already taken place within the concession area,” the report reads. “Thus, the legality of Late Cheng’s mining concession is open to challenge.”

Late Cheng Mining Development did not respond to detailed questions submitted by Mongabay in a letter to staff in the company’s Phnom Penh office. Phone calls to numbers listed on the government’s business registration site went unanswered, although one woman who did answer claimed not to work for Late Cheng and insisted that she had never heard of the company.

Reporters visited the provincial department of mines and energy in October, where a desk in the foyer was adorned with a large lump of gold ore. Staff confirmed that the ore was from Late Cheng’s mine, but nobody was willing to answer questions about the potential environmental impact an expanding gold mine could have on a delicate ecosystem like Prey Lang.

When reached by phone in November, director of the department, Lim Chantha, said he was unaware as to whether an EIA had been conducted. “There might be an independent company that conducted the [environmental impact assessment], but I can’t say, it’s not my field,” he said.

Chantha said he was aware of villagers’ complaints over the fish die-off from 2022, but maintained that when the authorities visited this year, there was no such case.

He then directed reporters to a Facebook post from the Ministry of Mines and Energy stating that officials visited the Late Cheng mining site sometime in late September 2023 and found no environmental, technical or safety issues.

On the desk, inside the foyer by the entrance to the Kampong Thom Provincial Department of Mines and Energy, a large lump of gold ore sits on a desk. Staff confirmed the ore is from Late Cheng’s mine in Prey Lang. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

However, as no EIA is publicly available, it’s impossible to know what level of degradation or pollution is deemed acceptable by the government.

No further information was found in the Kampong Thom provincial department of environment. Staff directed questions to Tob Kakada, the department’s director, but told Mongabay that Kakada “does not like journalists” and would not share contact details for him or anyone else able to speak on the matter.

Phay Buncheon, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, said he was still trying to find information when contacted in early November. He has since not responded to further questions put forth by Mongabay.

But in 2022, local media outlet CamboJA News reported that a company called Green Balance Environmental Consulting had conducted an EIA for Late Cheng.

When contacted, staff at Green Balance Environmental Consulting would only confirm that they had produced two EIAs for Late Cheng — one in 2021, another in 2022 — and that no other studies had been conducted before.

One source involved in the production of Late Cheng’s EIAs, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from the company, confirmed that the company was extracting gold as early as April 2021, prior to an EIA being conducted and long before it was granted a license to extract in September 2022.

“Mostly [mining companies] get exploration licenses before they get EIAs,” the source said, adding that Late Cheng finally decided to comply with the law after the government threatened to shut down the mining operations.

“The government [would have] suspended their operation, but [this didn’t happen because] they got compliant,” the source said.

Late Cheng was likely mining gold illegally in Prey Lang for years, with the apparent knowledge of government regulators, but neither the company nor the authorities would comment on the allegations.

The timeline of licenses and environmental impact assessments suggests that Late Cheng was likely operating in breach of Cambodian laws. Image by Andrés Alegría / Mongabay.
Accusations of mining without a valid license

According a 2022 article published in VayoFM shortly after Late Cheng was awarded its license for extraction, the company is expected to produce 180 kilograms (5,790 ounces) of gold per year, paying $250,000 each year to the government in return. VayoFM quoted Ung Dipola, director of the Ministry of Mines and Energy’s department of mineral resources — and, coincidentally, the owner of Vayo Media Group — as saying that Late Cheng would begin trial runs in August 2023.

However, the Bruno Manser Fonds report alleges the company has been extracting and refining gold at an industrial rate since at least April 2021, some 18 months before the government granted it a license to do so.

The report used satellite imagery analysis, with the authors making their assessment based on the buildings, shafts and supporting infrastructure visible in 2021 and 2022.

Residents put the start of industrial mining in Prey Lang back even further, to before Late Cheng’s initial license for exploration was awarded in March 2020.

According to Socheat*, a resident of Sandan district who requested neither his real name nor his village be published because he had already been in trouble with local authorities for speaking out against the gold mine and subsequent deforestation, Late Cheng’s involvement likely began sometime early in 2019.

“We don’t know when the mine first opened, but it was shut down in 2018,” he said of an artisanal gold mine that was operating where Late Cheng now has a mining concession. “Then four or five months later, in 2019, it reopened again, but much bigger than…

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