IRIN, humanitarian news and analysis, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Fish are the primary source of income for residents of this sleepy, rustic border town in southwestern Cambodia, but when the area’s sand dredging vessels prowl the waters to plough up the riverbed, the fish all but disappear.
“When they were dredging a lot, we stopped bothering to even go out since it was not possible to catch anything,” Dol Sareem, a 60-year-old fisherman, told IRIN. “In those months, we caught half as much fish.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen banned sand exports in May 2009, yet sand mining continues in Koh Kong Province, the epicentre of the country’s corrupt dredging industry, enriching local elites and leaving fishermen to suffer, said international watchdog Global Witness.
There has been a lull in the sand operations since April, but local fishermen including Dol Sareem, who lives in Koh Kong’s main fishing community of dilapidated wooden homes with corrugated tin roofs, became so distressed by the impact of sand dredging that they joined several hundred people to protest in front of the provincial government office last December.
“It has improved since they have not been dredging these last few months but it’s still not like before,” he said.
Fishermen operating along the nearby River Kampot were less restrained in expressing their frustration. In February, they destroyed dredging equipment which they believed was responsible for the collapse of a riverbank.
Law not enforced
Dredging extracts sand below the sea floor, disturbing marine life and, more significantly, the spawning grounds that replenish it.
Dredgers remove 25,000 tons of sand each day from the Cambodian seas to export primarily to Singapore, where it is used for land reclamation, according to a Global Witness report in May.
The group valued a year’s worth of Cambodian sand at US$250 million on the Singapore market.
The report, entitled Shifting Sands, said the industry lacks transparency and government regulation, and could severely damage marine ecosytems essential to the livelihoods of many fishing communities.
“Companies operating in the sand sector as well as Cambodia’s regulatory agencies are ignoring environmental and social safeguards, and international industry best practices,” the report said.
The Cambodian government rejects the report’s findings. The response by government officials closer to the ground, however, has been contradictory.
Pech Siyon, Koh Kong’s director of the Department of Industry, Energy and Mines, told local media he expected the main dredging company, LYP, named after Ly Yong Phat, the senator with the ruling party who is identified by Global Witness as the leading figure in the industry, would resume export operations in the near future.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have placed restrictions on sand exports because of the environmental destruction it causes.
As a result, Global Witness says, Singapore has turned to Cambodia, where laws are lax.
According to Chourn Bunnara, who is based on the Cambodian coast with the NGO Fisheries Action Coalition Team, fishing communities have been largely powerless to raise concerns with the government about dredging vessels violating the ban.