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Fresh sand controversy

Sand dredgers moored off the Chroy Changvar peninsula in Phnom Penh.
Sand dredgers moored off the Chroy Changvar peninsula in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Fresh sand controversy

Cambodia exported more than 108,000 tonnes of sand to India in 36 separate shipments between 2013 and 2015, according to Indian customs data obtained yesterday, contradicting Cambodian customs data that show no sand being sent there at all.

The latest data discrepancy come as the Ministry of Mines has struggled to explain why Singapore recorded sand imports of almost 70 million tonnes from Cambodia between 2007 and 2015 for which Cambodia has no record.

The large-scale disparities have led to concerns from environmentalists that some people are growing wealthy by illegally exporting Cambodian sand, while destroying aquatic habitats and causing severe erosion of land that has already led to houses collapsing.

The new Indian customs data, which were obtained by environmental group Mother Nature, records 36 shipments of sand from Cambodia from 2013 to 2015, along with dates of arrival. A total of 108,658 tonnes of sand worth $2.6 million arrived, it says.

In contrast, customs data from Cambodia’s Commerce Ministry record exports of sand going to just five countries: Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea. A total of 455,000 tonnes – worth $2.47 million – was exported to those places, it says.

Commerce Ministry spokeswoman Seung Sophari said yesterday that her ministry only compiled the import and export data provided by customs officials and could not comment on why there were discrepancies with what the Indian customs data shows.

“We take the data from customs, and study what goods export and import into the country,” Sophari said, referring questions to the customs department, which falls under the Ministry of Economics and Finance.

“It is customs who are in charge of import and export of the goods . . . while for the sand, the one who issues licences to sell domestically and to export to other countries is the Ministry of Mines and Energy.”

Bou Bunnara, head of public relations at the customs department, declined to comment yesterday.

Mines Ministry spokesman Dith Tina, who has spearheaded his ministry’s defense against claims it was turning a blind eye to sand smuggling, said he believed some of the sand being exported to Singapore might have later been moved to other countries like India.

“Companies can ask to export to one country and then re-export to another,” Tina said via email yesterday. “In the case of India import[s], does the document prove a direct import from Cambodia or any re-export?”

“We thank the NGO for trying to help finding Cambodian sand but make sure that the data given is accurate and in the right context,” he added, dismissing the idea the data suggested smuggling.

“Give the proof rather than the accusation and assumption just to fool public opinion.”

Sand dredging is banned in many states in India due to its impacts on waterways and the potential to cause land erosion. Even in the Indian states where it is legal, demand tends to outstrip supply and imports are needed, according to Indian news reports.

A November 2012 article in The Hindu, for example, noted that soaring local demand for sand being used in concrete in the eastern port city of Chennai had “forced construction companies to import sand mined from the Mekong River in Cambodia”.

However, much of the sand that leaves Cambodia comes from along the coast of Koh Kong province, and in April 2013, some $1.5 million worth of sand dredged there was quarantined in the southern Indian city of Cochin for six months.

Prime Minister Hun Sen banned exports of river sand in May 2009 – with the exception of where the sand was blocking a waterway – but the status of the ban has since been unclear, with six companies presently holding licences to dredge sand for export.

The Mines Ministry also records 14 firms – with names like International Rainbow Co Ltd and Diamond Sun Co Ltd – as exporting coastal sand between 2007 and 2015, and 14 companies as having exported river sand in that period, despite the ban.

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a founder of the Mother Nature group who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 because of his activism, said yesterday that he believed the discrepancies in Singaporean and Indian data suggested only one thing.

“To me these figures reveal a shocking truth: people in positions of power in the government have been for years involved in the smuggling of Cambodian sand to countries like India, through the forgery of documents, corruption, and abuse of power,” he said.

“They might have the power and influence to make all of this sand magically ‘disappear’ from official Cambodian government accounts, but not from the records of the countries that import Cambodian sand.”

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