I flexed my toes into my flip-flops as I leaned into the dizzying abyss. Across from me, the first miner, whose every square inch of skin and clothing camouflaged with the surrounding dirt, prepared for his turn. He stretched a headlamp over his forehead and picked up his only other tool, an arrow shaped pick, which would aid him in a search for gems during the next hour. From his fingers, it swayed like a pendulum above the elbow-wide entrance. When perfectly centered, he opened his grip and dropped it down the shaft until it made a sharp invisible thud, piercing the earth below and awakening me from my seeming hypnosis. A pack of cigarettes gleamed from the opening of his breast pocket as he elbowed his way down the tunnel, a still photographic image in my mind. The second awaited his turn while darting small rocks on the descender’s head – perhaps attempting to land them in the pocket. In a swift, fluid motion he lept into the hole and free fell until bracing himself and skidding the rest of the way down.
Mining came to Ratanakiri province in 1996 and offered a new form of work to locals, mostly members of one of four surrounding indigenous tribes. Our guide, a native of Ratanakiri, explained the incentives and shortfalls of choosing to work in the mines. Miners, unlike farmers, he explained, must borrow money from several acquaintances for food and tools for the many months that it can take to find gems. When miners find and sell a gem, which are believed to be gifted by spirits, a large portion of their profits must go toward repaying these lenders. Other than scattered holes that are filled when suspecting authorities appear, when driving by, onlookers would likely mistake the twenty or so miner for farmers simply tilling the soil. Spewn about were dented batteries, crushed cigarette packs, and long pieces of splintered bamboo, but no significant indications of a large scale operation. Still, workers must be cautious because the government claims ownership of this roadside land and has previously forced them to leave. Regardless of suffering potential government imposed penalties, as well as tremendous short and long term health hazards, extractive industries that we witnessed in the province, such as rubber, timber, and gems, continually catch locals in a difficult position between choosing traditional livelihoods and new, contradictory sources of income.