Bottom feeders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am


Imagine you've invested in an eco-resort. You walk from your villa down to the river and are shocked to find a noisy barge dredging sand from the riverbed. As horrifying as it sounds, it was a reality for Janet Newman, a former criminal barrister from England, who, in 2008, created an eco-resort replete with solar panels on the Tatai River in Cambodia's Cardamom mountains.

'We were 'visited' one day by some large boats after a smaller boat had come and drilled right outside Rainbow Lodge,' she says, referring to her resort. 'Two came for one day and I went to speak to them ... They pumped for one day, were quite polite, but I could tell they did not like my questions and, thankfully, they left.'

Environmentalists fear the dredging of sand from Cambodia's rivers and beaches will hurt the country's tourist industry in the long term. Visitor numbers have been growing and now account for about 5 per cent of gross domestic product. Anything that detracts from that is of concern to the companies that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into offering its unspoiled seclusion to homebuyers and holidaymakers.

One of the beneficiaries, however, has been Singapore. It is estimated that, in 2008, about 14.2 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia went into building Singapore's two mega casinos, and a further unknown amount was used to help feed its ambition to increase its surface area by about 520 square kilometres by 2030.

NGO Global Witness estimates that 796,000 tonnes of sand, with a market value of US$248 million, is exported to Singapore every month from Cambodia's southwestern Koh Kong province alone.

'The damage to the environment is irreversible,' says a Global Witness spokesman, who insists on anonymity. 'Unless somebody calls a halt to this rape of its estuaries, rivers and seashore, Cambodia's ambition to be regarded as the region's last bastion of eco-protection will, like its beaches, be gone forever.

The extraction is coming at a significant environmental cost, he says, as dredging reduces water quality, blocks sunlight and kills off plant life, including sea grass and coral. The pace of erosion has accelerated, there is greater risk of flooding and there have been reports of significant declines in fish stocks.

Protests by environmental and wildlife agencies have fallen on deaf ears. To date, licences to dredge sand have been granted along the entire Cambodian coast, in estuaries and rivers. Global Witness says nine sand dredging vessels were seen in one protected area in a single day. Despite denials by the Singaporean embassy in Phnom Penh, copies of dredging licences obtained by Global Witness bear the stamp of a government official.

Over eight days in November 2009 the LYP Group, a Cambodian company owned by Ly Yong Phat, a businessman and senator known as the 'King of Koh Kong', exported about 77,236 tonnes of sand to Singapore. It is estimated the business is worth US$28.7 million a year to the company.

Powerful families are reaping the benefits of economic development in Cambodia, as the gap between rich and poor grows wider, and their connections reach to the heart of government.

A ban on sand exports by Prime Minister Hun Sen was seen by many as a positive step until it was discovered that the legislation covers only river sand. Scratch the surface some more and there is also evidence that a ministerial committee set up to control sand exports has controversially approved licences for river and sea sand extraction. A number of such approvals have been granted to government ministers and their close associates.

Newman has been an outspoken campaigner against the environmental exploitation and has taken up the cudgel of 'people power' to protect her turf. She says another Vietnamese barge anchored outside her lodge two days after the first one left. It was so big that the pilot lost control of it and smashed it into the bank.

'It soon became clear to me this ship and the boats before them were illegal. They had no papers, would not tell me the name of the company they worked for or the names of their bosses. When I threatened to go around the ship and find my own details so it could be traced, they got shirty with me and demanded I get off their boat. I demanded they get off our river.

'They left at 3am when the tide was up because the ship was so big it had effectively got stuck. Thankfully, they have not come back, but they must have been meeting a container ship out near the coast somewhere. The amount of sand they took was huge.'

The dredgers are looming bad news for the indigenous people whose livelihood depends on the rivers running down to Cambodia's south coast. Not only do they pollute the water with oil and petrol, but their waste is dumped overboard. Worse still, their work has caused the courses of rivers to change.

'They pump the same places on the river over and over again,' Newman says. 'I am amazed there is any sand left in some locations. They do this because they say it is 'good sand', but the obvious side effect is that the river's flow will alter and erode its banks.'

Luke Young, a Khmer-speaking colleague of Newman, says the normally chatty fishing families who live in the jungle either side of the Tatai are scared to discuss the dredging. But he has seen that where fishing pots were a common sight on the river, there are none now; where crabs were plentiful, there are very few.

'In Koh Kong, a shopowner said the price of fish [had risen] a lot. He said freshwater fish are practically non-existent which, in his view, was because the pumping systems on the dredgers also sucked up fish,' Young says.

'Many fishermen say that because of the dredging they now have to go farther out to sea, which means they are competing with better-equipped Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai boats. Many believe that the first sand dredging a few years ago stirred up chemicals in the sand and killed off large numbers of fish.

'I was also told some people were threatened with violence if they talked about the dredging to outsiders. I think most villagers are too scared to say anything.'

Newman says she has tried to get local people to sign a petition against the dredging, which she would present to government agencies, but the villagers didn't seem to understand the concept of a petition.

She has heard persistent but unsubstantiated rumours that Ly Yong Phat and a local five-star general are granting licences to dredge the rivers for sand. 'The rivers belong to the state,' she says. 'So how can a general or a private businessman have the right to make money out of state property? I also do not understand how nobody seems to want to hold them accountable for anything. Surely, if they are the ones making money out of this by granting licences, they should have a responsibility to see that the companies do it properly.'

The sands of time may be running out for the kingdom. With millions of hectares of unexplored wilderness and jewel-like islands off its coast, anything that defaces its natural beauty will hurt its burgeoning tourism industry.

'If Cambodia continues to bow to foreign commercial interests, its treasured, long-held dream of becoming a First World, environmentally aware, must-see eco-tourist destination are in doubt,' the Global Witness spokesman says. 'That also goes for the survival of endangered species such as Irrawaddy and spinner dolphins, dugongs, sea horses, green turtles ... and crabs.'