June 25, 2011

Fossickers know gems are forever


PAILIN is renowned throughout Cambodia for its gemstones, but for how much longer?

Tu Chatarong has been selling gemstones from a small shop at the foot of Phnom Yat for six months. Before that, he processed stones collected from around the mountain since 1998.

“We buy the raw stones, then we process them,” he says.

Tu Chatarong says people are no longer allowed to roam the provinces digging for gemstones .

“People in Pailin are still digging for stones, but they have changed from digging in the mountains or sifting through rivers,” he says.

“They dig close to their homes because the authorities have banned digging at the mountain.”

This has made trade more difficult, Tu Chatarong says.

“Before, they used heavy mach-inery to find the stones, and more people found them.

“But now, fewer and fewer  people are finding anything.”

The stones they do find – mostly rubies and sapphires – are not necessarily of the highest quality.

Tu Chatarong opens a small pouch of stones and pours them on top of his display case.

“These are worth US$200,” he says. “But they are not of such good quality.”

Despite all this, Tu Chatarong is confident that Pailin’s gemstone business will continue.

“I don’t think Pailin gemstones will vanish, because they will still find stones somewhere and we still have lots of land,” he says, pointing  into the distance.

“Like the Blue Mountain: nobody has dug there, and it is a  likely source of stones.

“But we don’t have enough capital to explore there. If I had more capital, I could dig there because I know the land.”

Around the corner, Mut Sary, 35, sits at the front of his house processing gemstones.

One of nearly 100 processors in Pailin, he has sold gemstones since 1998.

“I sell in Phnom Penh and Batt-ambang, and sometimes customers come to buy from here,” Mut Sary says.

“Business is more difficult now because we don’t have as many stones to buy.

“Some people who used to dig for gemstones have given up and become farmers.”

This fact has made Mut Sary consider his own future.

“Sometimes I think about quitt-ing, but I still want to wait and see what is going on,” he says.

“If some people are still finding stones, and there still some people willing to buy them, I will wait.”

Like Tu Chatarong, Mut Sary is convinced that Cambodia’s gemstone processors will survive.

“They will never die out,” he says confidently. “Every day, we have people coming to us with something to sell.

“If people look in lots of places, they will still find gemstones.”

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