Shifting sand between Cambodia and Singapore: Why did lawyers get involved?

The staggering discrepancy in sand figures reported by Cambodia unravels the mixed feelings the Cambodian government holds towards the complete ban on the sand dredging industry and the negative results of this half-hearted ban.

By Victoria Wah

Mother Nature, an environmental non-governmental organization, recently hired a Singaporean law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP to investigate irregularities in sand imports from Cambodia to Singapore.

Statutory boards in Singapore involved in the sand imports came under the firm’s scrutiny during the investigation. The information gathered by the firm could lead to a possible lawsuit against the Singaporean state although the legal firm has declined to elaborate further. Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson said, “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.”

The Cambodian and Singaporean governments disagree on exactly how much sand has been imported from 2007 to 2015. The Cambodian government stated that a total of US$5.5 million worth of sand was exported to Singapore between this period while Singapore’s own import figures showed a startling figure of US$752 million, 137 times that of Cambodia’s import figure.

Singapore’s sand import data mirrored 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. If Singapore’s figures are correct, who are the Cambodian perpetrators of illegal trade?

Cambodian government firmly denies participation in the illegal sand trade

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

It is difficult to pinpoint the Cambodian government as the perpetrator of the illegal sand trade when the government was the one that initiated the ban on sand exports. In 2009, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen banned the export of dredged river and marine sand from Cambodia. This ban was enacted to minimise the negative implications of sand dredging that fuelled the sand trade. The only exception to this ban was dredging sand that obstructed waterways.

It is also difficult to blame private companies in Cambodia that could be responsible for the illegal sand exports since the Cambodian government has vehemently insisted that it has completely eradicated unlawful sand dredging since the ban’s enactment. Ung Dipola, deputy director-general of the general department of mineral resources, said, “Until now, the illegal and anarchic sand dredging has been completely eliminated.”

Reports show otherwise despite the denial of illegal sand trade

Despite the government’s firm insistence that unlawful sand mining has been eliminated, reports tell a different story. There has been a 154% surge in government-issued fines for unauthorised sand dredging from 2015 to 2016 that indicates that illegal sand dredging was never completely eliminated by the government.

Furthermore, a 2016 report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) found the Cambodian government had continued to supply licenses to sand miners despite the dredging ban. In fact, the Ministry had reportedly bypassed an auction process for licenses and had issued a whopping number of 84 licenses since the end of 2015.

Recently, Global Witness found links between Hun Sen’s family and acquaintances and sand-dredging licences for a four-kilometre stretch of the Mekong River. Hun Sen justified this dredging as being necessary to facilitate navigation, reduce flooding and decrease Mekong riverbank collapses. However, Gonzalez-Davidson disagreed, saying, “All the experts we asked said this (explanation) makes no sense.” It was more likely that the government welcomed dredging rather than condemn it.

It seems that the government is reluctant to end this lucrative sand trade due to the huge profits earned from issuing dredging licenses to companies and fining them thereafter. In 2015, the government earned a huge sum of US$ 7.7 million through licensing fees, royalties and fines. The lucrative profits earned from issuing licenses and fines deter the government from completely banning the sand export industry.

Implications of dredging that call for tighter licensing regulations

Failure to ban sand dredging entirely has negatively implicated communities whose livelihoods depend on the sea. Som Chandara, a Mother Nature activist, said, “(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.

Fishermen’s livelihoods are threatened by the loss of marine life. Louk Pou, a fisherman on Koh Sralau Island, said that he used to earn more than US$50 per 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.

The loss of marine life has also undermined food security for communities living near the sea. Fish that form a predominant food source for these locals have dwindled in numbers as a result of water pollution caused by dredging. The lack of food security and livelihoods has caused widespread resettlement.

More effort is needed to regulate the dredging industry. Dipola suggested, “Before we grant licenses, we have to study it, hold a public forum”. She added that licenses are not granted if they “affect(ed) the community or environment.” Regulations on issuing dredging licenses must be tightened to limit the negative implications of dredging.

Cambodian sand is helping Singapore to expand despite sand bans

Notwithstanding the implications of the sand trade on Cambodia, Cambodian sand has benefitted Singapore immensely. Following the limitations and bans on sand exports by Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia for environmental reasons, Cambodia has become one of Singapore’s main sand exporters. Singapore has been increasing in size thanks to Cambodian sand.

Singapore’s voracious demand for sand has inevitably drawn international concern for Cambodia’s ecosystem. Gonzalez-Davidson said, “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’s focus on polders will lessen its reliance on sand

There is some assurance that Singapore will limit its sand imports from Cambodia as it shifts its focus away from sand towards dikes. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that the Singapore government was piloting a new reclamation technique called the polder development project. This project would use dikes rather than sand to expand its territory and thereby reduce Singapore’s reliance on Cambodian sand exports. Lessened reliance on sand exports would consequentially lessen the negative impacts on the communities and the ecosystem in Cambodia.

Being a world-class city, Singapore will not let its reputation be tainted by a legal controversy over sand, even if its reclamation needs are great. With the polder project beginning at the end of 2017, Singapore will be able to lessen or even remove its reliance on Cambodian sand in the future. Meanwhile, Cambodia continues to suffer from the negative effects of dredging as the government continues to waver in its decision to completely ban the lucrative sand trade.