The need for sand to build roads and infrastructure in Vietnam charges ahead with few restraints as land and houses are lost.
The only traces of Long Phu Thuan, an islet in the Mekong River in Vietnam’s Dong Thap province, can now only be found in old maps.
Much of the islet belonged to Le Van Phi, a 70-year-old farmer. Back in 1976, he explored the islet and converted 0.4 hectares of it into farmland. He grew corn, soybeans and chili peppers in the dry season, and rice in the flooding season.
With bumper crop after bumper crop, the islet’s land price shot up to 10 times higher than farmland on the shore. This convinced him to sell seven hectares of his land on the shore to buy another hectare of islet land.
“Who would have thought, later on, they allowed too much sand to be exploited, and the whole islet was gradually eroded,” said Phi with a sigh. “Around 2012, people in this region used to pull together to catch illegal sand miners and fight until blood was spilled.
“Then those smugglers and some district leaders protecting them went to prison.”
Soon after, the government stopped illegal mining in the village, but started issuing mining licenses instead.
By 2014, Long Phu Thuan was gone. What remains is the daily growl of an engine as dredgers continue to scoop up sand from the riverbed.
Despite efforts to restrict excessive sand mining in recent years, including a 2017 ban on sand exports, the Mekong Delta’s growing and urgent infrastructure development needs mean that supply cannot keep up with demand.
The shortage has pushed sand prices through the roof, filling the pockets of criminal rings while hollowing out the foundations of local people’s homes and eating away at their farmland.
Mekong Delta residents have been opposed to sand mining for many years, but with little effect. Only last December, subsidence swallowed five hectares of farmland in a split second in Binh Thuan I hamlet in Vinh Long province.
Immediately afterward, a dredger sped away amid the shouts and screams of angry locals. Thirteen houses sunk into the river and 109 people lost their homes that day.
“They have been taking sand away day and night for decades, Vo Minh Thao, who had just lost his house, said in a self-recorded clip. “Now, all the houses, fields and gardens of people have been destroyed…”