An environmental non-governmental agency is searching for legal grounds for a lawsuit that could uncover the truth about what happened to millions of dollars in sand that disappeared from Cambodia over the past decade.
Mother Nature Cambodia founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that a Singaporean law firm, Eugene Thuraisingam, had agreed to collect information on Singaporean sand purchases for a possible lawsuit against the city-state.
Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA that they were looking at a pair of legal tracks that they could follow if they decide to sue.
“The first is to file a lawsuit in relation to sand dredging in Koh Kong province that has caused serious impacts on the livelihood of local residents,” he said. “On the second, we know that the sand has been exported illegally from Cambodia without paying tax, so it involved in high-profile corruption cases.”
U.N. data shows that Cambodia exported $752 million in sand to Singapore over the past eight years, but Phnom Penh only reported that about $5 million worth of sand was exported to the island nation that is the world’s top destination for the building material.
Driven by the growing demand for sand, either for concrete for construction, or in Singapore’s case for expanding its territory, the demand for sand has been outstripping the supply.
According to information in the World Atlas, the United States is the biggest exporter of sand, with Cambodia coming in at number seven. The Observatory of Economic Complexity reports that 97 percent of Cambodia’s sand goes to Singapore.
Cambodia’s position as a top sand exporter sits at odds with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s policies.
In 2013 Hun Sen imposed a ban on dredging along the Mekong and Ton Le Sap, and in 2015 the Cambodian government put a hold on new applications for licenses to conduct sand-dredging operations in the country's rivers and lakes in order to study the environmental and social impact, but it is unclear if those moves had any effect, as sand mining appears to be continuing.
In a 2016 report, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) found the Cambodian government had continued to supply licenses to sand miners despite the bans.
In April the government decided to auction four two-year sand dredging licenses along the Mekong River, under the auspices of “restoring navigation of the waterway.”
Four other licenses were granted for designated “green zone” areas, where “there is no risk of riverbank collapse” while nearly 70 new sand dredging licenses were issued without holding public auctions or requiring the companies to make publicly available environmental impact assessment results.
In all, CCHR found there were 84 companies holding licenses to dredge sand as of May 2016, despite the government’s bans.
The discrepancy between the government’s words and actions troubles Gonzalez-Davidson.
“I don’t believe, at all, that the government or relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Commerce or Ministry of Mines and Energy have a genuine will to seek a solution,” he said. “They just pretend by acting as if in a theater in order to cheat Cambodian citizens so that they can continue their activities of exporting sand overseas.”
The Khmer-speaking Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia back to his native Spain in 2015, after he had long campaigned against the planned Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province. The 108-megawatt dam is backed by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker Lao Meng Khin and his wife, who have evicted thousands of families from land around the country.
Sand is big business
The world’s sand mining industry is estimated to be a $70 billion a year industry with illegal trade in the material worth even more, according to a 2016 report in The Sydney Morning Herald.
A 2015 report in Wired detailed the emergence of so-called “sand mafias” that use bribery, intimidation and killings to control the illegal sand trade.
Thanks in a large part to the world’s sand, Singapore is 22 percent larger than it was in the 1950s, according to the Sydney Herald report. The newspaper said the island is pushing ahead with plans to import titanic amounts of sand to artificially expand its territory by 6,200 hectares by 2030.
Singapore is getting larger, but the sand mining that aids its growth often wreaks havoc on rivers, deltas, and marine ecosystems in Cambodia and elsewhere.
Gonzalez-Davidson said they were also looking at filing a similar lawsuit in India. According to a 2013 report in the Cambodia Daily some $1.5 million worth of Cambodian sand turned up in India.
Meng Saktheara, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told RFA that Cambodia doesn’t export sand to India, and he criticized Mother Nature for exploring a legal action.
“This is not a good solution, as it creates complicated issue,” Meng Saktheara told RFA.
“I request civil society organizations, if possible, to undertake comprehensive studies so as to help the government [in dealing with this issue]. Say, if the findings related to 30 countries, please point out which countries in order that the government asks the customs of those countries to reveal which companies are really involved in this issue.”
Gonzalez-Davidson, disagreed, saying the ministry should carry out their own studies.
“I encourage relevant ministries to carry out [the studies] themselves. And if any ministry does not have the capacity to do it, perhaps the issue can be pushed to other units such as the Anti-Corruption Unit,” he said.
Reported by Chandara Yang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.