Mother Nature Cambodia Inc.
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As Singapore dredges sand out from beneath Cambodia’s mangrove forests, an ecosystem, a communal way of life, and one woman’s relationship to her beloved home are faced with the threat of erasure. This 15-minute short movie by the award-winning filmmaker Mam Kalyanee touches upon the beauty of this stunning part of coastal Cambodia, the destructive dredging it suffered from for close to a decade, and the greed and stupidity that lies behind it in the form of Singapore's relentless 'land expansion' program.
The Cambodian government is becoming infamous across the world not just for its persecution of political and civil society leaders, but also for relentlessly, and in most cases illegally, selling the country's natural resources to the highest bidders. In total violation to the country's constitution, relevant laws, and international treaties it has signed, the Hun Sen government continues to allow - even encourage - the over-exploitation of the nation's forests, rivers, estuaries, lakes, seas, etc,. The ultimate aim? To continue enriching the ruling elite. In return for this, the state receives next-to-nothing in return, local communities are left off far worse than before these so-called 'development projects' started, and needless to say Cambodia's environment - from which millions depend - continues to suffer from severe degradation.
The mining of sand is by no means different. Corrupt government officials and their crooked business partners have used key state agencies - i.e., relevant ministries, the taxation department, law enforcement agencies, and the courts - to provide a veneer of legality to the sand mining industry and to fence off any voices of opposition against this outright pillage, such as local communities, investigative journalists, or civil society. Meanwhile, Cambodians - especially those unlucky enough to be living near active sand mining sites - are left in the dark about the whole issue, their opinions, rights, and well being completely ignored.
Generally speaking, three kinds of sand are being extracted in Cambodia: marine sand, extracted from coastal estuaries and used for reclamation purposes, with the vast majority of this sand exported to Singapore; river sand, generally used in the construction sector; and silica sand, only for export to countries like Taiwan and used for a diverse array of industries, .
RECLAMATION / MARINE SAND
Starting around 2008, what had been until then mostly peaceful and stunning estuaries along Cambodia's coast saw an invasion of sand dredging ships. When local communities complained that the presence of countless sand-transporting barges and ships was seriously affecting the marine environment from which they largely-depended, they were told by the local government that the mining was legal as it had been approved by the Cambodian government. Those who asked too much were outright threatened. The little that the Hun Sen government said publicly about this was that Koh Kong's coastal estuaries carried 'too much sand', and as such needed for deepened for navigational purposes, and to reduce riverbank erosion and floods in the area (link). In short, that the dredging was officially done for the benefit of the fishing communities living along the coast. This seemed preposterous, to say the least, to the hundreds of local families who were seeing how their main source of income was being devastated as the mining was causing fish stocks to decline alarmingly. To add insult to injury, sand valued millions of dollars was leaving on a daily basis right in front of them, for export to places like Singapore. Local communities got no jobs out of it, and virtually none of the revenue that was coming from the extraction and export of sand was being used to build much needed schools, hospitals, or basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, waste-water systems, etc.
The area's remoteness, the lack of ability or desire by civil society to get involved in such a high-risk issue, feeble opposition party and independent media unable to ask many questions, coupled with thuggish local authorities serving the interests of the dredging syndicates, made any attempt at accountability and transparency, let alone mounting a campaign to stop the destructive mining, close to futile.
In March of 2015, after the Hun Sen regime had put the destructive Chhay Areng hydroelectric dam on hold, we started taking a look at the dredging and exportation of sand that had been taking place for years along coastal Koh Kong. We were tired of seeing with our own eyes large barges loaded with sand going up and down the stunning estuaries of Koh Pao, Ta Tai, Tropeang Roung (a.k.a. Lower Areng) and Andoung Teuk. Local fishing communities had been asking us for a long time to help them out and protect their fishing grounds, which they claimed had been seriously harmed by countless barges scooping up sand 24/7, all year-round. We knew that campaigning against sand extraction was not going to create too many friends in the 'government' or, least of all, in the provincial government of Koh Kong, with an infamous record of facilitating the illegal exploitation of the area's once-vast natural resources. But we also knew that local fishing communities - and of course the Cambodian public - would be totally behind us.
Firstly, and much in line with what we had been doing in the Areng Valley from 2012, we started by concentrating on empowerment of local communities, or in other words, making local communities see that they could stop this destructive practice. We did so by holding discussions about relevant laws and strategy, filing petitions to relevant government agencies and parliamentarians, talking to the media, and many more activities. The aim was to break the status quo put in place by local authorities, which was designed to keep fishing communities cowed into inaction. Soon after, the first set of peaceful protests against the sand dredging started. Barges had no choice but to start leaving the Ta Tai and Tropeang Roung estuaries after protests by activists and fishing communities exposed that their dredging was not just detrimental to their livelihoods, but plainly illegal. Protests, increasingly attended by activists from other parts of the country acting in solidarity with local communities, soon grew in scope and size, bringing to a halt dredging operations in four of the five province's estuaries where the dredging had been taken place unabated since 2008.
The media was also starting to pick the issue up, highlighting the protesters' concerns that sand mining 'companies' - in reality little else than criminal syndicates - had been for years routinely violating the law by dredging outside of designated areas, deeper than what they had been allowed, and with total disregard to the needs of the local communities. Needless to say, the growth of the movement against the extraction of marine sand, which as mentioned above was being used mainly for reclamation purposes by Singapore, didn't make everyone happy, least of all those who control key state organs. In typical mafiosi-like fashion, three Mother Nature Cambodia activists who had been helping coordinate the peaceful protests were charged with an non-existing 'crime' and placed in pre-trial detention and sent to Koh Kong's infamously overcrowded prison. They had to wait a full ten and a half months for their so-called trial to begin, in which the lack of incriminating witnesses and evidence was not an obstacle for judges to find the three activists guilty and sentence them to one and a half years. They were, however, freed from jail the same day the verdict came out as the reminder of their sentence was suspended. For good measure, and to ensure that the anti-sand movement got the message, they were ordered to pay a whopping US$26,500 in court fines and compensation to the plaintiff behind the charges (the sand mining syndicate 'Direct Access'.
Once the activists had been released from jail, and after high ranking officials from the Ministry of Mines and Energy had unsuccessfully tried to entice some of our activists to join the government, Mother Nature Cambodia pulled an ace from under our sleeve that played a vital role in killing off for once and for all the fraudulent and destructive extraction of marine sand. The method was simple, yet tremendously effective: we highlighted the massive discrepancies in recorded trade between Cambodia (as the exporting country) and the other nations which had been buying the sand as importers. We started with Singapore, which had diligently recorded most if not all of the shipments of Cambodian sand that had entered the city-state. Singapore official government data showed that it had purchased over 75 million tons of sand from Cambodia over the 2008 to 2016 period, worth over US$700 million. A look at Cambodia's own data on the amount and value of sand it had exported to Singapore showed vastly different figures: less than 3 million tons, worth a paltry US$5 million. It didn't take long for the mainstream media, Cambodia's Facebook thriving 'world', opposition members of parliament and civil society to start asking questions. The reaction by the Hun Sen regime only helped exacerbate people's suspicion that something very odd-smelling had been taking place, with endless - and in mkany cases outright headless - lies that did not even match what their own fellow government agencies were saying. The final nail in the coffin came when Cambodian government officials eventually blamed Singapore for the huge discrepancy by 'importing sand illegally smuggled out of other countries in the region and wrongfully recording it as having come from Cambodia'. After such a statement, the usually-mute Singaporean government had no choice but to respond publicly on the issue, claiming that Singapore had never been involved in the importing of smuggled sand and that no shipments of Cambodian sand had entered the country without proper documentation issued by the exporting country.
In November of 2016, a temporary ban on further dredging and exports of sand in coastal Koh Kong was put in place, after which dredging mainly ceased. To ensure that the relevant actors got our message, we threatened with starting a civil class lawsuit in Singapore against the relevant Singapore companies and government 'statutory boards' behind dredging. Large-scale dredging and export of marine sand used from Koh Kong's estuaries for reclamation purposes was officially banned in June o f 2017, after many years of suffering and fighting.
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THE MAIN PLAYER:
The LYP Group, owned by Ly Yong Phat, a senator for the ruling CPP party and a close business associate of the family of the ruling dictator Hun Sen, acted as the main 'coordinator' behind the extraction of marine / reclamation sand in Koh Kong. Seldom bothering to mine or export the sand itself, it mostly allowed other smaller companies to do the job instead, charging them a percentage of their profits. In exchange of these 'fees', the LYP Group made good use of its strong 'political clout' and ensured that relevant government ministries, the police, local authorities, etc. turned a blind eye to violations of the law or to the environmental degradation that was taking place. If problems arose, such as when local protests against the destructive mining erupted in 2015, the LYP Group made good use of these connections to have leaders of the peaceful protests jailed so that the profitable status quo would not jeopardized. Despite the marine sand sector having collapsed in November of 2016, after Singapore turned away from Cambodian sand, the LYP Group still controls the extraction and export of silica sand from their so-called Special Economic Zone in Kiri Sakor district, also in Koh Kong province.
SAND MINING SCAMS
Sand mining is big business in Cambodia, and regional neighbour Singapore is a natural customer. For years it’s had extensive land reclamation projects.
Top row, from left to right: Sand dredging inside the Ta Tai Wildlife Sanctuary; A still from Kalyanee Mam's 'A Lost World'; A ship leaves Koh Kong's estuaries to export sand to Singapore;
Bottom row: The small islets of Koh On & Koh Bong, under threat due to sand extraction inside Cambodia's largest mangrove forest; A small girl walks through mangrove forests while catching snails; Satellite image showing sand dredging ships at play;
(Credit: Kalyanee Mam, Mother Nature Cambodia, Google Earth)