The Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) Cambodia request clarification regarding sand exported by during the period 2007 to 2015 / photo: licadho-cambodia.org

Govt downplays large gap of sand import and export of Cambodia and Singapore

Just this Monday, The Singapore government distanced itself from any wrongdoing over accusations that it imported tens of millions of tons of smuggled sand – in a response that an environmental NGO leader considered ‘full of lies’ and ‘devoid of any meaning’ – after month of silence, the Cambodia Daily reported.

According to trade data sent by both countries to the United Nation Database of Commodity Trade Statistics, Singapore has about 70 million tons of sand arriving from Cambodia compared to 6 million tons Cambodia reported sending there from 2007 to 2016.

Differing accounts of sand trade from Cambodia to Singapore, measured in metric tons / source: cambodiadaily.com
Differing accounts of sand trade from Cambodia to Singapore, measured in metric tons / source: cambodiadaily.com

Environmental groups and even the Cambodian government speculate because of the gap, that the island was involved in bringing in smuggled sand from Cambodia or elsewhere to support its land-building projects.

Singapore has kept silent and did not answer the charges, but finally in an email on Monday (16 Jan), the manager of corporate communications for Singapore’s Ministry for National Development, Gene Ng, tried to downplay the significance of the large sand gap, the Cambodia Daily wrote.

Ng suggested that contractors, not the government, were legally culpable for any criminal behavior. He wrote in the email, “If there is any evidence that our contractors are not in compliance with the source countries’ laws and regulations, Singapore will respect that legal process will take its course.”

“Import or export figures reported by countries are dependent on their own calculation formulas; The import of sand from Cambodia to Singapore is done on a commercial basis,” Mr. Ng wrote, “Singapore does not condone any trade or extraction of sand that breaches the source countries’ laws and regulations on environmental protection.”

“We have put in place strict criteria to ensure that our suppliers meet the prevailing local rules and regulations of the source country,” he added.

Mr. Ng did not specify what criteria the government used to check that shipments of sand were legally sourced, and he did not respond to an immediate request for elaboration.

Environmental NGO 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.

The Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) Cambodia has requested clarification in a letter to the MME last October, regarding the sand exported by Cambocia during the period 2007 to 2015.

In January 2016, Mother Nature Cambodia has written a letter to Singapore’s Ambassador to Cambodia. In the letter, the following questions were raised:

  • 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 only answered in a letter 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’.

Mother Nature, which has also blamed poorly monitored coastal sand mining for destroying ecosystems and livelihoods in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, has hired a law firm to explore possible legal action in Singapore. 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 land reclamation efforts. Singapore began to buy large quantities of sand from ‘Koh Kong’.

The NGO’s exiled founder, Alex Gonzalez Davidson, said Singapore’s statement did not lessen his concerns.

“Their response is not just devoid of any meaning, it is also full of lies and an insult to the Cambodian people, especially to the hundreds of families whose livelihoods have been thrown down the drain,” he said, “if the government of Singapore thinks they can get away with this kind of reply, they are making a very serious mistake.”

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.