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Sand dredgers defeated in Koh Kong, Cambodia

Cambodia

Along Cambodia’s southern coast in Koh Kong province, the mangrove forests throng with birds, insects and marine life.

For hundreds of years people have made these mangroves their home, collecting crabs to sell and living on fresh seafood. But in 2008 industrial sand dredgers moved in.

Vast quantities of sand were scooped up, piled on barges and exported, mainly to Singapore: to make concrete, becoming towering buildings and landfills, stretching the city-state further into the sky.

In 2015 a small band of ‘Mother Nature’ activists began to speak with the mangrove communities. They learned how sand dredging was undermining ecosystems and a way of life.

Singapore reported importing 73 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia, while Cambodia reported exporting just 16 million tonnes

Fishing catch had dropped by 70 to 90 per cent, families were suffering and the forests were collapsing into the sea.

Sun Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang led a campaign of direct action protests. They were soon arrested and thrown in jail. Ten months later, the activists were released and received a suspended sentence for threatening a sand dredging company, Direct Access. Despite months of imprisonment in horrible conditions, Mala and Somnang rejoined the campaign. Blunt questions started to be asked: ‘who profits from this literal land-grab?’

Somebody was making hundreds of millions of dollars, selling off their country’s landmass and conveniently evading tax

Investigating the sand trade in 2017, Mother Nature activists exposed a startling mis-match: Singapore reported importing 73 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia, while Cambodia reported exporting just 16 million tonnes.

Huge quantities of ‘disappearing sand’ were slipping through Cambodian customs. Somebody was making hundreds of millions of dollars, selling off their country’s landmass and conveniently evading tax. Pressured by environmentalists and the media, Singapore stopped buying Cambodian sand; the Cambodian government banned sand dredging from the Koh Kong estuaries.

Although Mother Nature continues doggedly exposing the failures of enforcement elsewhere, the dredgers have disappeared and the mangroves remain – a green protective fringe along the coastline, rich with life.

New Internationalist issue 510 magazine cover This article is from the February 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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