Singapore Could Face Legal Action Over Sand Importation

BEN PAVIOUR Cambodia Daily 5 Jan 17;

Environmental NGO Mother Nature has hired a Singaporean law firm to investigate alleged irregularities in the country’s importation of Cambodian sand, the organization’s founder said on Wednesday.

The firm is “looking into the relevant laws that might have been broken there, in relation to the social and ecological destruction the mining has caused, or in relation to the government importing Cambodian sand which is tainted by issues of corruption, smuggling, tax-evasion, etc.,” Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson said on Wednesday in a Facebook message.

He identified the potential targets as the statutory boards that fall under the purview of several government ministries involved in the import of Cambodian sand.

“Our goal is…that the mining and export of coastal sand from Cambodia is eventually regarded as too toxic by the Singapore government and that they are forced to stop getting involved,” he said.

Authorities from Singapore’s JTC Corporation, which oversees the state’s sand-heavy reclamation projects, and the National Development Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The government, in past statements, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Eugene Thuraisingam acknowledged that his eponymous firm, which specializes in criminal and commercial law, was looking into the case, but declined to elaborate.

The government has provided divergent numbers for its exports to Singapore from 2007 to last year, all of which are radically lower than the 73.6 million tons of imported sand counted by the island and reported to the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database, known as Comtrade.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy recorded 16.2 million tons of sand exports during the period, while statistics from the Finance Ministry’s general department of customs and excise show roughly 2.7 million tons leaving for the city-state, which is more than 1,000 km from Cambodia by sea.

Indian customs data obtained by Mother Nature show a similar gap, registering 108,000 tons of Cambodian sand imports compared to none recorded by Cambodia’s Finance Ministry.

A 2014 report from the U.N. Environment Program said the global sand business “is having a major impact on rivers, deltas and coastal and marine ecosystems,” although the trade “remains largely unknown by the general public.”

The report singled out Singapore as the world’s largest importer and noted that it used sand to extend its territory, which has grown by 20 percent, or 130 square km, over the past 40 years.

As Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam successively banned dredging or sand exports to Singapore, Comtrade records show that Cambodia has picked up the slack and become the country’s top supplier, even as those same records show that just 4 percent of the island’s imported sand was officially measured as it left supplying countries over the past decade.

The city-state’s government is piloting a new reclamation technique using dikes to get around its reliance on sand, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told reporters in November.

“Even reclamation has its limits, because sand is not always easy to come by,” he said.

Cambodian Sand Could Build a Foundation for Legal Action in Singapore
Radio Free Asia 5 Jan 17;

An environmental non-governmental agency is searching for legal grounds for a lawsuit that could uncover the truth about what happened to millions of dollars in sand that disappeared from Cambodia over the past decade.

Mother Nature Cambodia founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that a Singaporean law firm, Eugene Thuraisingam, had agreed to collect information on Singaporean sand purchases for a possible lawsuit against the city-state.

Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA that they were looking at a pair of legal tracks that they could follow if they decide to sue.

“The first is to file a lawsuit in relation to sand dredging in Koh Kong province that has caused serious impacts on the livelihood of local residents,” he said. “On the second, we know that the sand has been exported illegally from Cambodia without paying tax, so it involved in high-profile corruption cases.”

U.N. data shows that Cambodia exported $752 million in sand to Singapore over the past eight years, but Phnom Penh only reported that about $5 million worth of sand was exported to the island nation that is the world’s top destination for the building material.

Driven by the growing demand for sand, either for concrete for construction, or in Singapore’s case for expanding its territory, the demand for sand has been outstripping the supply.

According to information in the World Atlas, the United States is the biggest exporter of sand, with Cambodia coming in at number seven. The Observatory of Economic Complexity reports that 97 percent of Cambodia’s sand goes to Singapore.

Cambodia’s position as a top sand exporter sits at odds with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s policies.

Sand bans

In 2013 Hun Sen imposed a ban on dredging along the Mekong and Ton Le Sap, and in 2015 the Cambodian government put a hold on new applications for licenses to conduct sand-dredging operations in the country's rivers and lakes in order to study the environmental and social impact, but it is unclear if those moves had any effect, as sand mining appears to be continuing.

In a 2016 report, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) found the Cambodian government had continued to supply licenses to sand miners despite the bans.

In April the government decided to auction four two-year sand dredging licenses along the Mekong River, under the auspices of “restoring navigation of the waterway.”

Four other licenses were granted for designated “green zone” areas, where “there is no risk of riverbank collapse” while nearly 70 new sand dredging licenses were issued without holding public auctions or requiring the companies to make publicly available environmental impact assessment results.

In all, CCHR found there were 84 companies holding licenses to dredge sand as of May 2016, despite the government’s bans.

The discrepancy between the government’s words and actions troubles Gonzalez-Davidson.

“I don’t believe, at all, that the government or relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Commerce or Ministry of Mines and Energy have a genuine will to seek a solution,” he said. “They just pretend by acting as if in a theater in order to cheat Cambodian citizens so that they can continue their activities of exporting sand overseas.”

The Khmer-speaking Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia back to his native Spain in 2015, after he had long campaigned against the planned Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province. The 108-megawatt dam is backed by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker Lao Meng Khin and his wife, who have evicted thousands of families from land around the country.

Sand is big business

The world’s sand mining industry is estimated to be a $70 billion a year industry with illegal trade in the material worth even more, according to a 2016 report in The Sydney Morning Herald.

A 2015 report in Wired detailed the emergence of so-called “sand mafias” that use bribery, intimidation and killings to control the illegal sand trade.

Thanks in a large part to the world’s sand, Singapore is 22 percent larger than it was in the 1950s, according to the Sydney Herald report. The newspaper said the island is pushing ahead with plans to import titanic amounts of sand to artificially expand its territory by 6,200 hectares by 2030.

Singapore is getting larger, but the sand mining that aids its growth often wreaks havoc on rivers, deltas, and marine ecosystems in Cambodia and elsewhere.

Gonzalez-Davidson said they were also looking at filing a similar lawsuit in India. According to a 2013 report in the Cambodia Daily some $1.5 million worth of Cambodian sand turned up in India.

Meng Saktheara, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told RFA that Cambodia doesn’t export sand to India, and he criticized Mother Nature for exploring a legal action.

“This is not a good solution, as it creates complicated issue,” Meng Saktheara told RFA.

“I request civil society organizations, if possible, to undertake comprehensive studies so as to help the government [in dealing with this issue]. Say, if the findings related to 30 countries, please point out which countries in order that the government asks the customs of those countries to reveal which companies are really involved in this issue.”

Gonzalez-Davidson, disagreed, saying the ministry should carry out their own studies.

“I encourage relevant ministries to carry out [the studies] themselves. And if any ministry does not have the capacity to do it, perhaps the issue can be pushed to other units such as the Anti-Corruption Unit,” he said.

Reported by Chandara Yang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

Environmental Group Prepares Lawsuit Over Alleged Sand Export Graft
Men Kimseng VOA Khmer 10 Jan 17;

Documents obtained by local environmental campaign group Mother Nature reportedly show that Cambodia exported more than 100,000 tons of sand to India between 2013 and 2015, a period when the country recorded no exports to the sub-continent.

The development came on the heels of a Mother Nature analysis of U.N. trade figures it said showed Cambodia had under-reported its sand exports to Singapore by some 70 million tons between 2007 and 2015.

The group is now preparing a lawsuit based on its findings.

“The documents we have in hand show that the source of the sand is from Cambodia,” Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a founder off Mother Nature, told VOA Khmer. “We bought documents from Singapore and it doesn’t show any Cambodian sand being re-exported in 2014 and 2015.”

The Spanish environmentalist, who has been banned from entering Cambodia since 2015, said he is working with a law firm in Singapore to possibly file a complaint against companies and government institutions there for importing sand extracted illegally from Cambodia.

“For now there are two possibilities,” he said. “The first one is to file a complaint against companies or government institutions that are involved in importing sand from Cambodia illegally.

“The second one is to file a complaint because this sand dredging has caused severe environmental impacts on Cambodia, especially Koh Kong residents have been impacted severely on their livelihoods.”

Government spokesman Dith Tina told a parliamentary committee after the allegations were raised that the drastic differences in the figures were due to the different reporting requirements of the two states.

“We don’t know what recording system Singapore was using and if you asked us to say whether Singapore or the UN is wrong, we don’t provide such judgment,” he said. “It should be noted that each system is designed to serve its own purpose and with different principles.”

Eugene Thuraisingam LLP said on its Facebook page on Tuesday that it has been instructed by Mother Nature Cambodia to provide advice in relation to the alleged illegal sand-dredging activities in Koh Kong.

“The dredging activities which have been taking place since 2008, have led to severe environmental destruction and the loss of livelihoods of local communities,” wrote the law firm.

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