Singapore’s data mirrors UN’s on Cambodia’s sand export numbers

Alex Willemyns and Mech Dara Phnom Penh Post 19 Oct 16;

Singaporean customs data on sand imports from Cambodia show near identical figures to those recorded by the UN, which last month were dismissed by a top official amid a reporting discrepancy in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The UN data showed $752 million in imports of sand from Cambodia since 2007, despite Cambodia reporting only about $5 million in exports to Singapore.

Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina said on September 27 that the UN data, which recorded 72.7 million tonnes of Cambodian sand entering Singapore from 2007 to 2015 but only 2.8 million tonnes leaving Cambodia, were not based on “concrete proof”.

However, customs data obtained from Singapore’s Trade Ministry yesterday for half that period – 2011 to 2015 – are for each year the same as the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database figure, and show Cambodia exported $405 million of sand to Singapore.

Where the UN data showed $91.29 million of sand from Cambodia to Singapore in 2011, the customs data – converted from Singaporean to US dollars at that year’s average exchange rate – show a near identical $91.32 million of arrivals of Cambodian sand.

The government recorded only $707,843 of total sand exports to Singapore that year, according to figures from the Commerce Ministry.

For 2012, the UN’s data show $69.27 million leaving Cambodia for Singapore, whereas Singapore’s customs data show $69.33 million. Cambodia recorded only $457,647 of sand exports to Singapore that year.

The figures match for every subsequent year, with the most sand sold in 2014. In that year, UN data record $127.76 million of sand leaving Cambodia for Singapore, and the Singaporean data show $127.81 million. Cambodia recorded only $70,883 of sand exports that year.

Unlike the UN’s data, which note both the volume of exported sand and also the value, the Singaporean customs data note only the value.

Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2009 banned the export of dredged river and marine sand from Cambodia – except for where the sand was obstructing waterways – but the status of that ban has since been unclear, with many large-scale dredging operations continuing unabated.

Tina, the Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman, who last month also called use of the UN data “unprofessional” and told a local media outlet the disparity could be due to different valuation methods on each end, declined to comment on the customs data yesterday.

“Why do you keep on asking the ministry to accept the figure declared by . . . we don’t know which institution? Why don’t you ask the owner to comment on their figure?” Tina wrote in an email, denying that the differences may suggest something illegal occurred.

“How did you get to this logic? It’s more constructive if you can provide concrete proof showing illegal activity and the perpetrators,” he said.

Tina said six firms had licences to export sand. He did not respond to questions about the status of the 2009 ban.

Singapore’s embassy in Phnom Penh also did not respond to a request for comment. However, an embassy official said earlier this year that the export of sand from Cambodia was a commercial matter and did not involve the Singaporean government.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of the NGO Mother Nature who was deported in February 2015, said in an email he believed the hundreds of millions of dollars of sand exports were being hidden to protect companies like CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat’s LYP Group from rebuke.

Neither Yong Phat nor representatives of the LYP Group could be reached for comment yesterday.

“Those high up in the government who are organizing and abetting this crime, together with partnering cartels such as the LYP Group, want to ensure that their criminal activities are not widely uncovered, primarily so that they can continue smuggling sand,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

“The government should immediately place a moratorium on all further sand extraction activities along coastal estuaries of Cambodia. Then relevant government authorities should take a trip to fishing communities affected by the mining and go from house to house apologizing for these last nine years of thievery.

“After, they should publicly apologize to the entire nation for this total scam, and then start returning the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been pillaged from the nation,” the activist added.

Gov’t: Illegal Sand Dredging Over
VEN RATHAVONG Khmer Times 18 Oct 16;

An official from the Mines and Energy Ministry said yesterday that illegal sand dredging along the Mekong and Bassac rivers had been stopped entirely since 2015, despite a report from the ministry last month which said fines issued by the government for unauthorized sand dredging had increased 154 percent over the past year.

Ung Dipola, the deputy director-general of the general department of mineral resources, took reporters and about 100 university students on a tour of sand dredging operations along the Mekong River yesterday.

During the event, he said the ministry had completely stopped the “anarchic sand dredging” – a reference to a statement sent to the National Assembly late last year by senior opposition party official Son Chhay, when he called into question the Kingdom’s oversight of the sand dredging industry.

Mr. Dipola said the ministry had granted 20 licenses to more than 10 companies with sand dredging operations along the Mekong River in Kampong Cham, Kandal and Prey Veng provinces. But in May, he said the ministry decided to circumvent an auction process for licenses and had unilaterally given out 84 licenses since the end of 2015.

“Until now, the illegal and anarchic sand dredging has been completely eliminated,” he said, claiming sand dredging companies were fully obeying the technical regulations set in place for those that reapplied for licenses to dredge this year.

Despite claiming that illegal sand dredging had ended entirely, he said the ministry was now fining companies caught dredging sand illegally. Every company, he said, is inspected and followed by ministry ships using GPS systems to make sure they are not dredging in reserved lots.

The ministry attempted to crack down on illegal sand dredging last year, banning the practice entirely and forcing all companies to reapply to the ministry for licenses last May. But many environmental groups say sand dredging companies never stopped and may have even increased their intake of sand during the ministry’s crackdown.

The business is lucrative, both for the companies selling the sand to an ever-growing Phnom Penh full of construction sites and for the government, which made $7.7 million last year through licensing fees, royalties and fines.

UN statistics on imports and exports showed a large chunk of revenue – $750 million – missing from the Kingdom’s books. Mines Ministry spokesman Dith Tina dismissed the figures and the report, saying the export numbers for many countries did not add up on both ends, and that the issue had more to do with how the UN collects its information than any malfeasance on the part of the Cambodian government.

The ministry has also been criticized for allowing companies to continue dredging sand despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the practice causes riverbanks to crumble, potentially costing local residents due to a loss of land or property.

According to a report from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, millions of tons of sand have been dredged and exported to Singapore from Koh Kong’s estuaries since 2009.

“Cambodia became of interest to Singapore following Indonesia’s ban on sand exportation in 2007. In fact, due to its environmental impacts, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have all limited or banned exports of sand to Singapore,” they wrote.

But Mr. Dipola said the collapse of any riverbanks was either due to water erosion – which environmentalists say is exacerbated by sand dredging – and illegal sand dredging, which did not involve social and environmental impact surveys before starting work.

“Before we grant licenses, we have to study it, hold a public forum,” he said, adding that licenses are not granted if they “affect the community or environment.”

He also claimed that sand dredging could help prevent riverbank collapses if the government was allowed to study the area first.

Yet a study by the California Department of Conservation on river sand dredging in the United States and New Zealand found that the destruction of riverbeds often preempted the collapse of banks and water erosion by making riverbanks higher and higher as more sand was taken out.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has also spoken on the link between the two, telling a crowd last March: “You [the Ministry of Mines and Energy] will be responsible for the places where sand dredging is allowed and [where it] causes the collapse of people’s homes.”

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