Sand mining returns – dredging for every last grain within Cambodia’s coastal protected area

Last month (May 2014), villagers living in one of Cambodia’s coastal protected areas (Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary), were shocked to realize that sand mining was taking place within a kilometer of their fishing village, in the zone designated specifically for villagers to protect their environment. Armed with their maps and paper documents showing signatures from relevant authorities (including the Minister of Environment), the Village Management Committee and local Park Rangers showed the company their papers.   Sand mining stopped for a few days: this, however, was a short-lived victory. Company officials, according to sources familiar with this case, met with the Chief of the provincial Department of Environment claiming that they had an appropriate license and operations resumed soon after this meeting. So, why is the provincial Chief ignoring policy that the Ministry of Environment, which he is a member of, has signed off on? And, who would sign a license to enable sand mining to take place within the community zone of a protected area? While it is unclear who has signed the company papers, someone is clearly supporting the sand mining from higher levels since the sand mining is in clear contravention of the Community-Based Protected Areas Management Sub-Decree.

Sand mining in the distance

Sand mining as seen in the distance

Sand mining up close

Sand mining up close

So what’s the problem with sand mining, besides being really noisy and using a lot of big equipment in the ocean? While the longer-term impacts are less clear, the short-term impacts are more obvious. Fish habitat is being destroyed (dredging deepens shallow channels, impacting fish and other aquatic habitat in the process), fish migration routes are disturbed, and the water is said to be more turbid. Boats have been dredging near the edge of the mangroves, partially damaging some trees and completely ripping out others. This is particularly irksome since villagers have been involved in replanting over 800 hectares of mangroves in the past decade, and in actively protecting this ecosystem – this particular protected area is known for the beauty of its’ mangroves. Several minor landslides have also reportedly taken place. Fish stocks are said to be dramatically down, meaning people have to fish further away from home if they are to catch anything. This forces villagers to either take on considerable risk, in terms of facing storms, particularly for those who cannot afford larger boats to go further offshore, or to (temporarily) abandon fishing and their homes.

Sure, sand mining is not new to this area – it began in late 2007 – and is part of a large trend of exploiting natural resources for political use (vis-à-vis timber, land concessions, and mining). However, in the past the sand mining took place at the edge of the protected area, and while it greatly affected villagers ability to fish in the early years, over time the dredgers moved further away and villagers felt the impacts to a lesser degree (see 2012 sand mining case study). Villagers really thought that the sand mining had finally left in 2011 and that they would have a chance to recover from its’ impacts.

What is tougher this second time around is the intensity of the sand mining and its’ proximity to the village(s). Villagers feel like the company to now trying to dredge up the final bits of sand from this area, having mined up and down and around the streams and coasts of south-western Cambodia for the past seven years, and is now resorting to even worse-than-normal measures. Even lousier, all the lobbying, map-making, rule-making, pilot testing, livelihood trials, mangrove replanting and advocacy work appears to be in vain. People have put in serious sweat equity to either directly manage their local resources or to find small amounts of funding to enable villagers to do this work. Since the late 1990s, villagers, NGOs and government staff have been grappling with how to make a living in a protected area while also being environmental stewards (while this does not always work, you get a sense something ‘right’ has been happening in this area both in terms of environmental protection but also livelihood development) (see Marschke 2012). But, when high-ranking government officials ignore the very policy they have supported, and even showcased at times, it’s a real blow. Even those with informal channels to the Minister of Environment are not able to shift the direction of things.

That said, it’s even unclear if the Minister is vested in these operations continuing or if he simply cannot pick this issue as his big fight. You see, this Minister of Environment has considerable political connections: he is the son of Say Chhum (CPP Secretary General), one of the most powerful people in the ruling party, and is the son-in-law of Dith Monty (President of the Supreme Court of Cambodia). These particular sand mining operations are allegedly backed by the National Senator, Ly Young Phat, who is said to have strong connections to the Prime Minister (see Global Witness 2009). If these dots connect, and this we will likely never know or fully grasp, it suggests that a few very powerful actors benefit from the sand extraction, making it tremendously difficult for most Khmer to even bring up this issue, let alone try to protest or shut it down.

And this leads one to wonder if local people are being used as puppets of the state – proudly showcased in moments for their environmental stewardship and conveniently ignored in other cases? Why do local people do the majority of the work – patrolling their villages, setting up systems for eco-tourism or mangrove replanting – only to then deal with the dire consequences of an illegal activity such as sand mining? Many government staff, junior and senior, across Ministries, have also been involved in community fisheries, community forestry and protected areas management initiatives and that they too are upset and angry about the sand mining activities. A junior official in this system does not dare raise this problem with a Minister. Even a senior official who dares to whisper about the injustices this is creating needs to be careful since if they raise their voice too loudly they too will face personal problems. This is how things work, informally of course, in Cambodia. Shadow networks consisting of powerful players mute actors across all levels, with poor people being forced to handle things on their own.

Returning to the local level, the Village Management Committee did have a second meeting with the sand mining company, this time to ask for some sand (for construction) and some funds for community development in their village. Their rationale was that if they could not halt the mining, the company should at least help with their development. This request was turned down. Rumours are now flying around the village: since the sand mining continues some villagers think the Village Management Committee was paid off or attempted extortion (the committee vehemently denies these allegations). This shows how the intensity and pressure that comes with sand mining operating so close to the village is affecting community relations, and this is but one example.

Could international pressure halt these activities? I don’t know (see Global Witness 2010 report exposing this issue). It’s open to debate as to how aware or influential the donor community really is in Cambodia (or in any country for that matter). But, regardless, it’s worth getting the message out there.  I am writing this blog post in the hopes that journalists, advocates or politicians will pick this story up.  Sand mining — which is a highly contested form of resource extraction, banned in many countries — should never take place in and around villages, nor within protected areas.  Doing so adds yet another challenge for people to deal with; it is also debatable of such forms of extraction even remotely contribute towards forms of economic development, let alone poverty alleviation or sustainable development.  Ignoring villagers’ rights and local laws undermines the entire development process.