Shifting sand between Cambodia and Singapore: Why lawyers are now involved

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The staggering difference between how much sand Cambodia and Singapore say has been exported from the former to the latter since 2007 highlights a tangled web of legal, societal and ecological issues that will take some unravelling. The numbers don’t add up and Cambodia’s ruling elite may stand among the accused.

By Victoria Wah

Environmental non-governmental organization Mother Nature has hired Singaporean law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP to investigate irregularities in sand imports from Cambodia and examine whether importation and sand mining has been conducted illegally.

Statutory boards involved in the sand imports will come under the firm’s scrutiny during the ongoing investigation. The firm is currently collecting information for a possible lawsuit against the State although it has declined to elaborate further. Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson says, “Our goal is…that the mining and export of coastal sand from Cambodia is eventually regarded as too toxic by the Singapore government and that they are forced to stop getting involved.”

Exactly how much sand has been imported in recent years depends on the source of your information. The Cambodian government has stated that a total of US$ 5.5 million worth of sand has been exported to Singapore between 2007 and 2015. This figure is significantly lower than that reported by Singapore, which showed US$ 752 million in imports.

Singapore’s sand import data mirrors the data found on the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database. The understated figure from the Cambodian government points to a rampant illegal sand trade that accounts for the remaining sand exports. The question is: who are the perpetrators, the government or private parties?

Cambodia denies its government is involved in illegal sand trading

Dith Tina, the Cambodian Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman, has firmly denied any link between the disparate figures and the government’s involvement in any illegal sand trade. He says that the difference was the result of how the UN collects its information rather than any wrongdoing on the part of the Cambodian government.

He further points the finger at private companies that are responsible for exporting more sand than the figure reported. He said that six firms had licenses to export sand but declined to comment further about the status of the 2009 ban on dredging in rivers and seas. This ban was enacted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to cover river sand and marine sand. The only exception to this ban is dredging sand that obstructs waterways.

Dredging continues despite the ban, and government denials

The Cambodian government maintains that it has completely eradicated unlawful sand dredging as part of its bid to uphold environmental protection. Ung Dipola, deputy director-general of the general department of mineral resources, says, “Until now, the illegal and anarchic sand dredging has been completely eliminated.” Despite his claim, government-issued fines for unauthorised sand dredging increased by 154% over the past year. This suggests that there has not been a complete clampdown on the illegal sand dredging industry.

Furthermore, dredging licenses continue to be issued despite the explicit ban on dredging along the Mekong River and Ton Le Sap. 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.. The Cambodian government seems reluctant to completely end this lucrative industry due to the money raked in from dredging licenses and fines.

The government is sending out mixed messages

In 2015, the government earned US$ 7.7 million through licensing fees, royalties and fines. Furthermore, Dipola said that the Ministry had bypassed an auction process for licenses and had given out 84 licenses since the end of 2015. Despite the ban, the government may also believe that the sand business is far too lucrative to be stopped completely. Global Witness recently found links between Hun Sen’s family and acquaintances and sand-dredging licences for a four-kilometre stretch of the Mekong River. The government’s actions seem to welcome dredging due to the profits involve rather than condemn it.

Hun Sen justifies this dredging as being necessary to facilitate navigation, reduce flooding and decrease Mekong riverbank collapses. However, Gonzalez-Davidson disagrees, saying, “All the experts we asked said this (explanation) makes no sense.” He further accuses the government of claiming mining is beneficial to the local fishing community when it is actually doing them harm.

The harm dredging is doing is clear to see

Continual dredging has negatively impacted communities whose livelihoods depend on the sea. Som Chandara, a Mother Nature activist says, “(Dredging is) making a bad situation for the communities by polluting the water.” Dredging machines dump their waste directly into the river, polluting the water and killing marine life. Louk Pou, a fisherman on Koh Sralau island, said that he used to earn more than US$ 50 a day fishing for crab before the dredging started. Since then, crab – as well as fish – stocks have declined and his daily income has dwindled to less than US$ 10. This has made it difficult for him to support his family.

Dredging has also reduced their quality of life. It is not just their drinking water that is affected but also their food supply. The lack of fish, which is a predominant source of food for communities living near the sea, has undermined their food security. These factors have displaced many residents and have forced them to resettle. More effort is now needed to regulate the dredging industry. Dipola suggests, “Before we grant licenses, we have to study it, hold a public forum,” adding that licenses are not granted if they, “affect the community or environment.” Tighter licensing requirements are an absolute must to prevent more communities from being displaced and limit the environmental destruction dredging causes.

Cambodian sand is helping Singapore expand year-on-year

Notwithstanding the implications described above, Singapore is increasing in size thanks to Cambodian sand. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights wrote, “Cambodia became of interest to Singapore following Indonesia’s ban on sand exportation in 2007. In fact, due to its environmental impacts, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have all limited or banned exports of sand to Singapore.”

Following the ban, most of Singapore’s sand has come from Cambodia. Since 2009, millions of tons of sand have been exported to Singapore from Cambodia’s estuaries. The Observatory of Economic Complexity also reports that 97% of Cambodia’s sand goes to Singapore.

Singapore’s voracious demand for sand to underpin its territorial expansion has inevitably drawn international concern for Cambodia’s ecosystem. Gonzalez-Davidson says, “we need to tell them (Singapore) that Cambodia is also not happy with seeing how Singapore is directly responsible for the destruction of one of our most precious assets.

Singapore is now looking at polders to lessen its reliance on sand

There is, however, some assurance that Singapore has regarded environmental care as a core value. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong recently said that the Singapore government is piloting a new reclamation technique using dikes as an alternative to sand reclamation. This new technique, called the polder development method, should reduce its reliance on Cambodian sand exports and consequentially lessen the negative environmental impacts in Cambodia.

With the polder project set to begin at the end of 2017, Singapore will be able to lessen its reliance on Cambodian sand, and ensure that its reputation as a world-class city is not marred by this controversy even if its reclamation needs are great. On the other hand, a potential backlash from the law awaits Cambodia, where illegal dredging continues to displace communities due to the government’s half-hearted efforts to eradicate it.