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Credit: Google Earth and Conrad Oliver

Cambodian NGO engages local law firm to look into complicity of Singaporean Entities in ‘environmental destruction’ arising from Sand Mining

Mother Nature Cambodia, a NGO that is "fighting to put an end to the systematic destruction of Cambodia's precious natural resources" has engaged Singaporean law firm, Eugene Thuraisingam LLP ('ET LLP'), to provide advice in relation to the alleged complicity of Singaporean Entities in the 'Sand Mining Scam.'

If the fight is successfully brought before Singapore's Courts, it would be unprecedented as it would be the first time that victims of an environmental disaster in Asia take action against the perpetrators - in this case, corporations and/or statutory bodies in Singapore.. A similar course of action was pursued in 2013 when Cambodian farmers rallied together to sue a UK Sugar Firm for millions.

The 'Sand Mining Scam'

After Malaysia, Indonesia, and other neighboring countries reduced or outright banned sand exports to SIngapore due to environmental concerns, Singapore turned it's attention to Cambodia's sands to supplement it's seemingly endless land reclamation efforts. Singapore began to buy large quantities of sand from 'Koh Kong'. A quick search of our archives reveal that as far back as 2013, our writer, Joshua Chiang, was already raising red flags about the enterprise

The contentious issue in this enterprise is not the sale of Koh Kong's sand per se but rather the unfettered manner in which the sales were conducted. This lack of restrain, Mother Nature Cambodia argues, led to sheer environmental destruction.

Fish stocks have been depleted across the estuaries where the mining is taking place, pollution from the mining barges is close to unbearable to those living nearby, riverbank collapse is endemic, and the only ones that benefit from the alleged benefits of deepening of the estuaries are the large barges that travel upstream to pick up the sand and transport it onto Singapore.  

The Cambodian Government defends itself by arguing that Koh Kong estuaries carry too much sand and thus need to be dredged for 'navigational and hydrological reasons'. Mother Nature Cambodia claims that a key part of the scam lies in the role that the corrupted Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), as overall regulator of the sand mining, plays. Not only does it continues to issue permits to mining companies it knows have been willfully violating the law for years, it also readily provides assistance to these companies whenever accusations of wrongdoing are made.

In this picture, an ‘inspection team’ from MME led by secretary of state Dith Tina, pretends not to see that the riverbank has massively collapsed, that the estuary has magically become several meters wider, nor that the water depth measurements are three times the limit allowed. Credit – San Mala
In this picture, an ‘inspection team’ from MME led by secretary of state Dith Tina, pretends not to see that the riverbank has massively collapsed, that the estuary has magically become several meters wider, nor that the water depth measurements are three times the limit allowed. Credit: San Mala

Another alarming discrepancy lies in the lack of transparency. According to trade data from the United Nations, the Cambodian government claims to have exported less than 6 million tons of sand - worth about 6 Million USD - to Singapore. However, the same database shows that Singapore has imported more than 70 million tons of sand from Cambodia. This, Mother Natue Cambodia submits, serves as evidence that the Cambodian Government is allowing Singapore to illegally smuggle sand out of the country.

Mother Nature Cambodia's relentless advocacy has not been without consequence. At least 3 of their activists have been jailed and countless others have been threatened and harassed. In the following video, A MNC activist is buried neck-deep in sand and asks the Cambodian Government a very simple question: Why were the 70 million tons of sand exported to Singapore missing from official government export figures?

 

Global Witness Report

The Global Witness report Shifting Sand: how Singapore's demand for Cambodian sand threatens ecosystems and undermines good governance documents the environmental risk that Singapore's love for Cambodian sand entails.

"Singapore's rapid expansion is driving an ecologically and socially devastating sand-dredging industry in Cambodia, according to a new report released today by Global Witness. This booming trade is being monopolised by two prominent Cambodian Senators with close ties to Prime Minster Hun Sen - despite a supposed government ban on sand exports."

The Report also dealt a devastating blow to the Singapore Government

"Singapore says that the import of sand is a purely commercial activity but it also presents itself as a regional leader on environmental issues.. The country's failure to mitigate the social and ecological cost of sand dredging represents hypocrisy on a grand scale. If Singapore wants its environmental stance to be taken seriously, monitoring where the sand is sourced and what is being done to obtain it would be an obvious place to start." - George Boden, GlobalWitness

Exchange between Mother Nature Cambodia and the Singapore Government

In January last year, Mother Nature Cambodia wrote to Singapore's Ambassador to Cambodia. In the letter, the following questions were raised in addition to a request for an audience with the Ambassador.

  • Is Singapore still purchasing Cambodian sand and if so, how much has Singapore imported since 2008?
  • Which ministries are responsible for these imports and what is the sand being used for?
  • From which private companies have Singaporean authorities bought or imported this sand?
  • Which regulatory procedures apply to sand imports?
  • Is the Singaporean Government observing its own laws and international conventions that regulate the import of sand and the impacts of sand dredging?

In a brief reply, the Singaporean Embassy in Phnom Penh replied by stating that the Singapore Government played no role in the illegal smuggling of sand. It also stated that "Singapore does not condone any illegal activities."

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Satellite images don't lie: dozens of barges are busy extracting sand in just one of the many mining sites. Credit - Google Earth
Satellite images show dozens of barges extracting sand in just one of the many mining sites. Credit: Google Earth

Mother Nature Cambodia has dutifully compiled documents relating to the 'sand mining scam' which can be accessed here.

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Mr M Ravi, an International Human Rights Advocate and a non-practicising lawyer with ET LLP, wrote the following in a Facebook post

"I am looking forward to providing research and assisting the team who is representing Cambodian villagers via Mother Nature (a Cambodian-based NGO) who have instructed the firm to seek environmental justice. This would be our first major international environmental law case and one which affects the human rights of the villagers who have suffered loss of livelihood due to the alleged illegal mining activities."