A shock to the ecosystem as gold mining explodes across Cambodia



Posted on 17 December 2006  | 
Mine site pollution in Cambodia
Runoff from processing tanks can seriously pollute the tributaries of major waterways, especially with the first pulse of rainfall in the early wet season (May). Careful analysis of the runoff is needed for mitigation, but we know that cyanide and strong acids are used in the processing.
© Andy MaxwellEnlarge
Gold mining at two of WWF Cambodia’s highest priority conservation sites, Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary (PPWS) and the Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP), is threatening the future of the areas’ biodiversity values.

PPWS and SWAP harbor tiger, while PPWS is the core territory of what is probably the largest Asian elephant herd in the Lower Mekong Dry Forest Ecoregion – both animals are Lower Mekong Dry Forest flagship species.

Up to now, activities have been somewhat chaotic, with independent miners coordinated by local strongmen digging up new sites across the dry forest landscape. Such activities destroy fish spawning habitat, smother aquatic vegetation and fauna, and destroy ecotourism potential along pristine streams. The damage extends to ecosystems that help keep the water clean for downstream communities, including major cities along the Mekong River.

Processing of the ore produces effluent containing mercury, cyanide, strong acids, and other toxic pollutants. If processing is not regulated, the effluent can poison thousands of people in downstream communities who depend on fish for their protein.

The intention of the Cambodian government to regulate mining activity is welcome news, but the speed at which concessions are being granted is daunting. In September this year, WWF confirmed that at least four new mining concessions had recently been granted either in, or adjacent to PPWS, and one in the SWAP. If the available maps are accurate, mining concessions cover a staggering 33% of the total area of the wildlife sanctuary.

The new concessions are for exploration, which does not legally require an Environmental Impact    Assessment (EIA), but the impacts can still be severe, with extensive digging and washing of soil causing massive erosion and sedimentation of local streams, particularly in the remote headwaters of scenic waterways like O Te.

To resolve mining issues in the long term requires strong technical input and, as mining is important for national economies, careful advocacy at the national and international levels.

WWF Greater Mekong is developing a broad multi-stakeholder project to address the policy problem at the regional scale, but results cannot come immediately.

WWF Cambodia’s Dry Forest Species Project is desperately short of funds to combat the most serious   impacts of mining. Funds are urgently required to maintain rangers on site to monitor the expanding mining activities, and where possible, crack down on unregulated activities.

Without action on the ground to ensure that exploration activities are safe, sustainable and regulated, globally significant biodiversity will be destroyed forever and along with it, the local resource base for indigenous Phnong people and the nation as a whole.

by Andy Maxwell
Mine site pollution in Cambodia
Runoff from processing tanks can seriously pollute the tributaries of major waterways, especially with the first pulse of rainfall in the early wet season (May). Careful analysis of the runoff is needed for mitigation, but we know that cyanide and strong acids are used in the processing.
© Andy Maxwell Enlarge
O Te stream in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary
A local Pnong ranger and guide crossing O Te stream in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary during a recent wildlife survey. This stretch of the stream and adjacent wetlands has been granted as a concession for mineral exploration. Support is desperately needed to continue the essential work of PPWS rangers, who can monitor and control unregulated activities before this beautiful waterway is devastated.
© Ou Rattanak Enlarge

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