Nearly 50 civil society organizations called for the Cambodian government to join some other Southeast Asian nations and ban or severely restrict exports of sand to Singapore after it was revealed that nearly $750 million worth of the building material has disappeared from the country.
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 material.
“We note the decisions of the governments of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia to ban or restrict sand exports to Singapore due to environmental concerns, and we urge your excellency to consider instituting a similar ban or restriction in Cambodia, in the interests of Cambodia’s long-term sustainable development,” wrote the 47 groups in an Oct. 31 letter to Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem.
The vast discrepancy between the official numbers and numbers gleaned from U.N. reports is troubling as sand mining can have severe environmental impact and costs Cambodia’s treasury millions.
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network of Social Accountability, who signed the letter, said corruption could have been the key factor in the unrecorded sand exports.
“We wanted the ministry to be informed of the impact of the sand exports and how it badly impacts the communities,” San Chey told RFA’s Khmer Service. “The ministry needs to find out about this.”
Ministry of Mines spokesman Meng Saktheara admitted that corruption could be a factor, saying the sand could have been smuggled out of Cambodia or sand dredgers from other countries could be using Cambodia to camouflage their own activities.
“This matter is being treated very carefully and as a priority because it involves national budget,” he said.
‘The Ministry has no role in it’
In its official response, however, the ministry attempted to deflect criticism, blaming the use of different reporting regimes by different countries for the differences.
“The ministry admits that it still faces some challenges in managing the sand export businesses,” it said in a statement. “The discrepancies in sand export data could be the result of the different reporting regimes of each country.”
The ministry also emphasized its limited role in the oversight of the businesses involved in the sand trade.
“Regarding the sand sale business deals, the ministry has no role in it,” it said in the statement. “Such deals involve only the companies which are licensed to operate the sand export businesses and the buyers. We are looking into this and will take concrete measures if irregularities are found in the sand export business operations.”
Son Chhay, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA that the assembly’s Anti-Corruption Commission planned to question Suy Sem about the discrepancies soon.
A Hun Sen Family Affair?
In its report “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family,” the investigative non-governmental organization Global Witness found links between Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family or their associates and a sand dredging license for a four-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River.
The Cambodian environmental organization Mother Nature Cambodia has accused the government of using “the power of the state…to provide a veneer of legality to the mining.”
“The government claims that Koh Kong [province’s] coastal estuaries naturally carry 'too much sand', and as such need dredging and deepening so that they can be more navigable, and also to reduce riverbank erosion and floods in the area,” the organization writes on its website. “In short, it paints the mining as beneficial to the local fishing communities.”
“Reality though, is much different from that,” the organization added. “Fish stocks have been depleted across the estuaries where the mining is taking place, pollution from the mining barges is close to unbearable to those living nearby, riverbank collapse is endemic, and the only ones that benefit from the alleged benefits of deepening of the estuaries are the large barges that travel upstream to pick up the sand and transport it onto Singapore.”
A worldwide problem
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.
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.
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.
At the time of the 2015 announcement, Suy Sem said that there were 142 sand dredging companies operating in Cambodia, but only 37 of them had licenses.
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 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.
Reported for RFA's Khmer Service by Heng Sun. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.