How Singapore is part Cambodian
Cambodia’s lax enforcement of environmental laws has made a haven for sand miners. And most of it is headed for Singapore, writes DENIS D. GRAY
By Denis D.Gray
By Denis D.Gray
A Vietnamese barge hauling sand in the Tatai River, Cambodia. — AP picture
ROUND a bend in Cambodia's Tatai River and the virtual silence of a tropical idyll turns suddenly into an industrial nightmare.
Lush jungle hills give way to a flotilla of dredgers operating 24 hours a day, scooping up sand and piling it onto ocean-bound barges. The churned-up waters and fuel discharges, villagers say, have decimated the fish vital to their livelihoods. Riverbanks are beginning to collapse, and the din and pollution are killing a promising ecotourism industry.
What is bad news for the poor, remote Tatai community is great tidings for Singapore, the wealthy city-state that is expanding its territory by reclaiming land from the sea. Sand from nearby countries is the prime landfill and also essential building material for Singapore's spectacular skyline.
As more countries ban its export to curb environmental damage -- entire Indonesian islands have been all but wiped off the map -- suppliers to Singapore scour the region for what can still be obtained, legally or not. Cambodia, a poor country where corruption is rife and laws are often flouted, is now the No. 1 source.
Singapore is by no means the only nation taking part in a global harvest of sand from beaches, rivers and seabeds. Officials and environmentalists from China to Morocco have voiced concern and urged curbs. As construction booms in emerging economies and more sources dry up, exploitation of the remaining ones is likely to intensify.
Sand mining began anew in May on southwestern Tatai River. Despite denials by the main owner of sand mining rights in Koh Kong province, two Cambodian officials said the sand was destined for the island nation.
Singapore will not say where its sand comes from: the Construction and Building Authority said it was not public information. The National Development Ministry said the state's infrastructure development company bought it from "a diverse range of approved sources".
The mining visible on the Tatai River violates some of Cambodia's own legal restrictions, not to mention a recent government order to suspend it temporarily.
Vessels of a Vietnamese company were tracked by boat from about 10km upriver to the Gulf of Thailand, where nearly a dozen seagoing barges, tugs hovering around them, took on the sand.
The AZ Kunming Singapore, a 5,255-tonne barge pulled by the AZ Orchid, was seen arriving empty from the open sea, its tug flying a Singaporean flag. Both are registered with the Singapore government.
Ships from several countries, including China, were spotted in sand-mining operations in Koh Kong province, where residents joked about going to Singapore and planting a Cambodian flag there.
The vessels included one from Winton Enterprises, a Hong Kong-registered group that was subcontracted to export sand to Singapore, according to Global Witness, a London-based environmental group that published a detailed account of the trade last year.
The report said miners had penetrated protected mangrove, estuary and sea grass areas, breeding grounds for marine life along a coastline and hinterland harbouring some of the country's last wilderness.
Cambodian cabinet spokesman Siphan Phay, who was investigating the issue in Koh Kong, appeared angry that the temporary halt order was being ignored. He described the activity as illegal mining destined for Singapore, a surprising statement given that ministers had awarded the concession.
Ly Yong Phat, who holds the major concession in Koh Kong, has at times acknowledged the Singapore connection. But in a recent interview, amid tightening restrictions and mounting criticism, he said his company had not shipped sand to Singapore for more than a year because "our sand did not meet their standards".
The dredging, he added, was for local sale and to deepen river channels. However, a Malaysian company, Benalec Holdings, said it was ready to tap up to 530,000 tonnes for a reclamation project in Singapore from several sources in Cambodia, including Ly Yong Phat's LYP Group.
Known as the "King of Koh Kong", Ly Yong Phat is one of Cambodia's biggest tycoons and a senator with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen. His holdings include hotels, a casino and agricultural plantations.
United Nations statistics show Singapore imported 14.6 million tonnes last year, ranking it among the world's top customers. Global Witness estimated that nearly 800,000 tonnes a year, worth some US$248 million (RM736 million), were streaming to Singapore from Koh Kong alone.
UN figures show that Cambodia supplied 25 per cent of Singapore's imports last year, followed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines. With its secrecy and lax enforcement of environmental regulations, Myanmar could emerge as a major supplier.
The damage caused by sand extraction has spurred clampdowns on exports.
Malaysia imposed a ban in 1997, though the media frequently report on massive smuggling into Singapore. An Indonesian ban came in 2007. Vietnam banned exports late last year.
Global Witness spokesman Oliver Courtney said the trade in Cambodia revealed a "mismatch between Singapore's reliance on questionably sourced sand and its position as a leader for sustainable development". The city-state prides itself on environmentally sound urban planning.
Chea Manith of the Nature Tourism Community of Tatai said 270 families along the river have seen an estimated 85 per cent drop in the catch of fish, crab and lobsters and were being forced to eke out a living from small garden plots. Tourists have all but vanished.
Armed with a petition, village leaders, tourism operators and a wildlife group met with Ly Yong Phat in early July. He substantially reduced the dredging and has promised to stop altogether in October.
A subsequent letter from the Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology ordered the LYP Group to halt operations temporarily on the Tatai, citing a breach of regulations. But the mining has continued on the Tatai, and violations, such as dredging closer than 150m from riverbanks, were evident. -- AP