BANGKOK—An international NGO has issued a damning report on the impact of sand dredging operations managed by Cambodian lawmakers with close ties to the country's prime minister.
Global Witness, a London-based organization that monitors the use of natural resources around the world, said that two senators are monopolizing the trade of sand dredged along Cambodia's coast for sale to Singapore for land reclamation.
The group said in its report Shifting Sand that dredging companies managed by senators Ly Yong Phat and Mong Reththy are causing devastating damage to Cambodia's coastal ecosystem and lack transparency in their financial dealings with Singapore.
It added that despite a declaration of a nationwide ban on the industry by prime minister Hun Sen in May last year, sand companies and Cambodia's regulatory agencies are "ignoring
national environmental and social safeguards, and international industry best practices."
The livelihoods of local fishermen have been destroyed, the group said, as fish stocks and crab harvests have been substantially reduced since the arrival of dredging vessels.
"Ignoring these safeguards is in violation of Cambodia's national legislation, international commitments to protect human rights, obligations to conserve biodiversity and best environmental management practices of the dredging industry," the report said.
Global Witness added that profits generated by the industry in its trade with Singapore from Cambodia's western Koh Kong province alone were estimated at U.S. $28.7 million annually, with a retail value of approximately U.S. $248 million in Singapore.
"Millions of dollars are changing hands, but there is no way of tracking whether royalties, taxes and other revenues generated from the sand dredging and export industries are reaching the national treasury."
The group called on the Cambodian government to immediately suspend all sand dredging activities and review currently issued licenses to ensure financial transparency and adherence to international best practices.
It also called for compensation to local inhabitants in accordance with Cambodian law.
Global Witness said the Singapore government should immediately suspend all imports of sand from Cambodia, conduct audits of all payments issued for Cambodian sand imports, and put in place guidelines to ensure sustainable methods are used by nations trading extracted sand.Government concessions
Senators Ly Yong Phat and Mong Reththy own L.Y.P. Group Co. Ltd. and Mong Reththy Group Co. Ltd., the two companies most responsible for the sand dredging impact in Cambodia according to Global Witness.
Global Witness said that both owners maintain a portfolio of business interests in Cambodia that have shirked national laws and led to the forcible evictions of local residents to make way for land development projects.
On July 24 last year, just months after prime minister Hun Sen announced the nationwide ban on sand dredging, L.Y.P. Group Co. Ltd. received permission from the Committee for Sand Resources Management to resume sand operations for export.
L.Y.P. Group had initially been issued licenses by Cambodia's Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME) in 2007 and 2008, and the agreement served as an extension of those licenses.
The group operates on the Sre Ambil, Ta Tai, and Koh Por rivers in Koh Kong province.
Owner and ruling Cambodian People's Party member senator Ly Yong Phat said he had been given the permission after appealing directly to Hun Sen.
"The reason that I can continue this business is because I asked the government. I requested the Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] to allow me to dig up sand from the coastline to make it deeper," he said.
He said the operations were justified because of the constant threat of flooding that local inhabitants face from high coastal waters.
"The coastline is shallow and leads to flooding of the roads and people's homes during the rainy season. We had a good opportunity because Singapore needs the sand, so we let them come to dig up the bay. At the same time, we can sell the sand to them," Ly Yong Phat said.Government response
The Mong Reththy Group Co. Ltd. was granted a license to dredge sand for export in the Prek Thmor Rieng area of Sre Ambil, Koh Kong province, on September 1, 2009.
In a statement issued in response to the Global Witness report, the Cambodian Embassy in London quoted Mong Reththy who acknowledged having received a license to export sand, but denied having sold any to Singapore.
"For a start it's not the sort of sand that meets Singapore's standards. But in any case, I have not sold any sand, not even one kilogram," Reththy said.
Cambodian Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said in the statement that a "small amount of dredging was permitted to serve local demand and allow the passage of ships through over-silted areas," despite the 2009 ban.
Pech Siyon, director of the Cambodian government's Department of Industry, Energy and Mines in Koh Kong, was also quoted as saying that sand-dredging operations in his region had stopped since the Prime Minister's ban on sand exports.
The Singapore government also released a statement in response to the report, restating its position that imports of sand from Cambodia to Singapore are "done on a commercial basis" and that "sand suppliers are private entities and they purchase sand from sand concession holders."
But Global Witness campaigner George Boden said the government's response fell far short of what the report had uncovered in its investigation of the sand dredging trade.
"The Singapore government's response does not answer the key allegation in our report—that their current approach to sourcing sand is enabling environmental destruction and corruption in Cambodia," Boden said.
"Singapore is proud of its reputation as a figurehead on the environment. If it wants that reputation to bear scrutiny, it must stop hiding behind inadequate regulation and unconvincing excuses."Dredging expansion
Throughout 2009 and 2010, sand mining expanded along Cambodia's coastline. Last October 2009 Cambodia's Water Resources and Meteorology said that 14 companies had been given concessions in Koh Kong, Preah Sihanouk, and Kampot provinces.
A Cambodian government Web site estimates that between 40,000 and 60,000 tons of sand are extracted each month from the waters of Koh Kong province, though it does not say how much of the sand is intended for export.
The Web site states that the government has imposed a strict limit on the amount of sand that can be extracted and that, while sand-mining operations remain small-scale, they are expected to have little impact on the local environment.
The government of Singapore meanwhile reported to the United Nations Statistics Division Commodity Trade Statistics Database (UN Comtrade) that it imported 3.8 million tons of sand from Cambodia in 2008.
Global Witness said an industry source has estimated the monthly extraction rate for the L.Y.P. Group concession area to be approximately 300,000 tons.Original reporting by RFA's Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.