SAND MINING SCAM(S)
The Cambodian ruling regime has become 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 regularly signed up for, the Hun Sen dictatorship has for the last 20 years or so allowed criminal-like syndicates to over-exploit its forests, rivers, estuaries, lakes, seas, etc, with the ultimate aim of fabulously enriching a tiny elite. The state has received next-to-nothing in revenue, 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 massively.
The mining of sand is by no means different. Corrupt government officials and their crooked business partners have used the power of the state (relevant ministries, taxation department, law enforcement agencies, the courts, etc) to provide a veneer of legality to the booming sand mining industry, while Cambodians are left in the dark about the ins and outs of the sand mining sector. The impacts this has caused to local communities vary, but have tended to be widespread and in some cases, devastating. Generally speaking, three kinds of sand are being extracted in Cambodia: marine sand, used for reclamation purposes; river sand, generally used in the construction sector; and silica sand.
RECLAMATION / MARINE SAND
Starting around 2008, what had been peaceful 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 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. In short, that the dredging - carried out in an area home to one of Southeast Asia'a largest mangrove forests, over 40,000 ha in size - was done for the benefit of the fishing communities living there. This seemed preposterous, to say the least, to the hundreds of local families who had few other sources of livelihood other than fishing in the once-abundant and tranquil estuaries. Not just were fish stocks declining alarmingly, but sand valued millions of US$ was leaving on an almost-daily basis right in front of their noses and being exported, mostly to Singapore, while close to zero jobs were created to local communities, 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 hydro-dam on hold, we decided to start taking a look at the infamous dredging that was happening along coastal Koh Kong. We were tired of seeing sand-loaded barges going up and down the beautiful estuaries of Koh Pao, Ta Tai, Andoung Teuk, etc, which play a vital role in keeping Koh Kong's gorgeous mangrove forests alive and well. Local fishing communities had been asking us for a long time to help them out and protect their fishing grounds, under relentless attack from 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 Phnom Penh regime or in the Koh Kong mafia-like provincial government. 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 for the couple of years prior to the start of the anti-sand dredging campaign, we started by concentrating on what we generally refer to as 'empowerment' of local communities. Holding discussions about relevant laws and strategies, filing petitions to relevant government agencies, talking to the media, and many more activities were done to ensure that the status quo created by the local authorities over the last few years was broken, to make local communities see that they could indeed stop this crime. After that, 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 us, grew in scope and size, bringing to a halt dredging operations in three of the five province's key estuaries where the dredging had taken place 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.
Top row, from Left to Right - Mam Kalyanee, Emergence Magazine and Mother Nature Cambodia;
Bottom row, from Left to Right: Mam Kalyanee, Emergence Magazine, Google Earth.
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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 'liaison' behind the marine sand sector. Never bothering to mine or export the sand themselves, they simply charged a standard fee out of profits incurred by the 'companies' that were doing the actual mining. In exchange of these 'fees', the LYP Group made sure that everyone, from relevant government agencies, the police, to local authorities, got a slice of the pie, turned a blind eye to repeated allegations and authorized the continuation of the sector. If problems arose, such as when local protests against the destructive mining erupted in 2015, the LYP made good use of their close political connections to have leaders of the protests jailed in order to ensure the continuation of the status quo. 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 in their so-called Special Economic Zone in Kiri Sakor district.