Illegal miners in the remote reaches of Cambodia are repelling government inspectors with armed middlemen, the Mines and Energy Ministry said on Wednesday as it hosted its annual meeting in Phnom Penh.
“The problem with eliminating unlicensed mining is that it’s in a remote area, so by the time we reach the site, they’re already gone or out of view. And they have weapons too,” said Meng Saktheara, a ministry spokesman.
The middlemen for the operations often hire villagers and buy equipment and weapons to back the operation and intimidate government officials who visit the site, Mr. Saktheara said.
“There are people who stay behind who prevent us from inspecting,” he said.
Sann Darith, director of the ministry’s office in Mondolkiri province, blamed local authorities for not cooperating better with the ministry’s efforts to root out the illegal operations, most of which dig for gold.
“There are three or four illegal mines, but I can’t crack down on them because we don’t have the weapons to protect our safety,” he said.
Going forward, Mr. Darith said there would be better communication and coordination with local authorities and military police in order to shut the operations down.
“Who will dare continue with those illegal mines, once the Ministry of Mines cracks down?” he added.
Unlicensed mines in difficult-to-access regions remained a challenge last year, a report circulated at the meeting says.
There were delays and gaps in provincial offices’ collection of royalties too, though total ministry revenue was up from $10 million in 2015 to $13 million last year.
Mr. Saktheara denied any corruption in the collection of payments, and said that a new tracking system and up to 200 new contract employees would improve collections. Under the new system, all mineral exports will be tracked before leaving the mine, and those transporting or selling minerals without proper documentation would be fined.
“Soon, we will start to install systems for each industry to record their production, so no funds will be missing,” he added.
Buoyed by the improved system, the ministry predicts royalty collections will reach $20 million by the end of the year.
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