Cambodia urged to stop sand dredging operations

ABC Radio Australia 1 Jul 11;

Conservation groups and eco-tourism operators in Cambodia's Koh Kong province are urging the government to stop sand dredging operations they say are decimating fish stocks and destroying businesses.

They are working together to oppose the dredging on the Tatai river which is being carried out by ruling party Senator and business tycoon Ly Yong Phat.

Presenter: Clara Tran
Speaker: Janet Newman, Rainbow Lodge; Leslie Perlman, program manager, Wildlife Alliance; Mao Hak, director of rivers at Ministry of Water Resources Cambodia

Windows Media

TRAN: Englishwoman Janet Newman has been running her eco-tourism resort, the Rainbow Lodge, on the Tatai river for the past three and a half years.

One morning in May, she awoke to find the beauty and tranquility of her home shattered by an influx of sand dredging barges.

NEWMAN: It was just chaos. they worked all night. We were not able to sleep. In the morning even more boats turned up and it was literally like a traffic jam on the river.

TRAN: The sand is being dreged out of Cambodia's estuaries and shipped to Singapore to help expand their territory.

In 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen's government banned sand dredging for export, but a report by environment watchdog Global Witness says the lucrative trade continues to threaten Cambodian ecosystems and livelihoods.

Last year, Global Witness estimated Koh Kong's annual sand trade with Singapore was worth $US248 million.

But its the people and businesses of Koh Kong who are the losers.

Ms Newman says the noise and pollution from the vast quantities of ships, tugboats and cranes pumping sand from the river have made it impossible to host eco-tourists, starting to trickle into the remote province.

And the negative impact goes beyond foreign tourists.

NEWMAN: It's not just about the Rainbow Lodge but the villagers haven't been able to sleep. There is nothing left in the river. You never see children swimming in the river anymore because it is covered in oil and diesel and rubbish.

TRAN: Leslie Perlman, program manager of Wildlife Alliance, says there are serious concerns about the social and environmental impact of the dredging.

PERLMAN: The villagers are reporting dramatically shrinking crab and shrimp patches as the dredging destroys the habitat in the river and along the banks. Additionally in other areas, the dredging is eroding so much sand that the river banks are collapsing.

Mao Hak, director of rivers at the Ministry of Water Resources, says the government has a sand and mining resources committee that decides which companies it allows to extract sand for export.

MAO HAK: Before we give the permission....(fade down)

TRAN: Mr Mao says before the government gives sand dredging permission, the company seeking the licence is responsible for carrying out an impact study on that area.

According to a copy of the permit obtained by the Phnom Penh Post newspaper, the LYP Group, owned by Senator Ly Yong Phat, has exlusive rights to sand dredging on the Tatai river. The company's representatives could not be reached for comment.

Mao Hak from the Ministry of Water Resources says information should have been given to local communities.

MAO HAK: They have some...(fade down)

TRAN: Mr Mao claims the company would need to involve the local people living in the area about the proposed operation. But Ms Newman says this did not happen.

NEWMAN: As far as I'm aware, there was no public consultation. There was certainly no information or notices about this activity whatsoever.

TRAN: Although there don't appear to have been any official consultations, workers on the sand barges have told residents in Koh Kong they are Vietnamese soldiers and they have weapons onboard.

Ms Newman says Cambodian Government departments working on environment, tourism and water resources have expressed sympathy, but she now thinks it's up to people power to stop the destruction taking place on Tatai river.

NEWMAN: I hope we can get it stopped before August or at the very least get some kind of regulation on what is going on now. Myself and others, including villagers who have signed a petition are actively trying to work with the local government to try and get this stopped because the effect is immediate. Of course the longer it goes on the greater the long-term effects as well.

TRAN: Wildlife Alliance's Leslie Perlman says the law offers a glimmer of hope for Koh Kong province.

PERLMAN: Sand dredging has gone up and down in this country. The prime minister put a moratorium on the exportation of sand. So legally, if the sand is going to Singapore or another country - exported out of this country - that's illegal. That could be another legal way we are looking to stop this.