Politics of Sand

AsiaWATCH — Dredging and mining for use in Singapore’s construction industry and landfill projects are ravaging coastal ecosystems around the region, Luke Hunt reports.

The politics of sand is a dirty business, and there’s plenty of it around, particularly in Singapore where a voracious appetite for constructing mega-buildings and expanding its borders by filling in the sea has led to widespread ecological damage around the region.

Indonesia, which has 92 outer islands determining its maritime border areas, complains bitterly about its disappearing territory and has banned the export of sand. So have Vietnam and Malaysia, which also uses its dealings with sand as a political bargaining chip when negotiating with the island state.

Countries further afield are also thinking twice about selling sand to Singapore. Its surface area has expanded by 22% from 582 square kilometres in the 1960s to 710 square kilometres in 2008 and it wants to go much further.

This was the case with Cambodia, which acted on a report by environmental activist Global Witness released in May and announced it had ordered the suspension of sand dredging while it assesses alleged damage to fish stocks and the ecology of the Tatai River.

This came after a moratorium was imposed on sand exports in 2009.

However, companies flouted the order and were continuing to dredge for export, and out of the Tatai River system, where limited dredging for local purposes was allowed, according to government officials and media reports, while smuggling elsewhere in the region also remains rife.

A year ago, 34 Malaysian civil servants were arrested for accepting bribes and sexual favours in relation to sand smuggling and at that time former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed 700 trucks a day were being loaded with sand and crossing Malaysia’s border into Singapore.

SM Muthu, a council member of the Malaysian Nature Society and an adviser to the Sabah Environmental Protection Association, said the smuggling of sand into Singapore was continuing and there was no reason to doubt the figures provided by the former leader.

“Smuggling is with the knowledge of certain authorities because nowadays in countries, especially in Southeast Asia, everything has a price.

“It’s illegal, so there are certain people who are paid to look the other way, so they solve the problem that way,” he said.

He said he had previously investigated complaints of illegal sand mining only to be told by Malaysian authorities this was not the case, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In Cambodia, at least 14 firms had been given dredging licences and NGOs have accused them of dredging in protected areas of the Peam Krasop wildlife sanctuary and Koh Kapik Ramsar site in addition to the Tatai River.

Additionally Global Witness has claimed senators Mong Reththy and Ly Yong Phat – dubbed the King of Koh Kong – were covertly awarded licences to dredge sand.

Mong Reththy has denied exporting sand to Singapore and claims he only conducts dredging to allow for the passage of ships to his private sea port.

But according to a copy of a permit obtained by the Phnom Penh Post, the Ly Yong Phat Group – which has interests in casinos, hotels and plantations – has exclusive rights to sand dredging on the Tatai river until September next year.

Global Witness said miners had penetrated protected mangrove, estuary and sea grass areas, breeding grounds for marine life along a coastline harbouring much of the country’s last wilderness areas. UN figures show Cambodia supplied 25% of Singapore’s total imports in 2010.

The Tatai empties into the South China Sea, home to many rare species including the Irrawaddy dolphin and the dugong. From here barges can sail 1,280km direct to Singapore, which insists it acquires sand only from approved sources but has declined to identify them.

Other reports say vessels belonging to Hong Kong-registered Winton Enterprises and Malaysian company Benalec Holdings were ready to meet orders from Singapore for sand from Cambodia. It costs US$3 (90 baht) a tonne to extract and is then sold in Singapore for $26 a tonne.

In Phnom Penh, Ho Mak, the director of Rivers at the Ministry of Water Resources, said the companies dredging the Tatai River – also an eco-tourism area – had been ordered to stop after restrictions were announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Piech Siyon, a provincial director of the Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, insists this has happened; however, Chum Sok Korb, the deputy director of the Tatai Krom Eco-Tourism Association says the dredging is continuing and the villagers are suffering from depleted fish catches.

“Small boats still come to pump the sand in the river; we want them to move sand dredging operations as far away from the eco-tourism area as possible,” she said. “We are afraid of losing the beautiful tourism area.”

Villagers along the Tatai River live a hand to mouth existence and have witnessed widespread damage to their environment.

Mr Muthu said such a scenario was typical of the problems caused by illegal sand mining across Southeast Asia. “I have seen houses already in the water. I have seen houses perched along the banks just waiting to sink into the rivers. It’s quite bad because these people do not care,” he said.

“We have laws but they are only on paper, in terms of practical enforcement it’s almost nil. They are all political statements – at the end of the day they just give in to those who are looking for cheap sand.”

There is no shortage of sand smugglers in Southeast Asia and the Singapore land developers are well aware of this, prompting accusations by Greenpeace they have launched a “war” for the commodity.

“The Indonesian government has very strong reasons to stop sand exports to Singapore and imposed bans, which are still in place, during the administration of Megawati Sukarnoputri,” said Keith Loveard, a security consultant with Jakarta-based Concord Consultancy.

He said as a result Singapore was known to have bought a lot of sand from Cambodia and Vietnam, but sand mining for export to Singapore has also continued in Indonesia. Sand mining is also being expanded into the Philippines, and to Burma where it is impossible to keep track of operations.

“I witnessed one operation on the southern coast of Belitung Island, about a day and a half’s sail from Singapore, where bulldozers were ripping up pristine beaches and stacking the sand onto barges,” Mr Loveard said.

In Indonesia, the navy says it is capable of guarding only 12 islands – less than an eighth of the maritime islands along its border with Singapore and Malaysia. Of these, only 31 are inhabited.

This prompted officials in Jakarta to recently urge provincial governors to be more vigilant in protecting the islands from smugglers.

Mr Loveard also said there were allegations that sand mining for use in Singapore’s construction industry and landfill projects was threatening the existence of at least one island, Nipah. “Mining not only damaged fragile environments but also threatened to become an issue in Indonesia’s boundary disputes with Singapore. Extensive reclamation in Singapore could arguably have affected the placement of international boundaries including the exclusive economic zone.”

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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