As an environmental NGO held a press conference in Phnom Penh on Monday to present evidence against a company it accuses of illegally extracting sand from an estuary in Koh Kong province, opposition lawmaker Son Chhay called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to order an investigation into the reports of unchecked dredging.
For more than two months, the NGO Mother Nature has been working with a community of mostly fishermen in Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor district to chase away dozens of sand barges operated by Rainbow International and Direct Access.
The companies have been accused of polluting the Andong Teuk estuary beginning in 2009, causing riverbank collapses and destroying the fish and crab stocks the locals depend on.
During the press conference Monday, Sun Mala, co-founder of Mother Nature, said that Rainbow International had largely stopped dredging in the area, but that Direct Access was operating at full speed.
“Direct Access has been dredging sand from 2009 to 2015, but they have never made a report about the impact sand dredging is having on people’s lives,” Mr. Mala said.
According to a copy of Direct Access’ license, obtained last week, the Mines and Energy Ministry gave the company permission in August last year to dredge a total of 237.43 hectares for “domestic supply and overseas export.”
The license specifies which stretches of the estuary can be dredged, how deep excavators can dig and how close they can dig to the shore.
Mr. Mala said that Mother Nature had found Direct Access in violation of all three parameters.
In one 5,262-meter stretch of the estuary, the license states that the company can only dredge between 2 and 4 meters down and must be at least 50 meters from shore. But Mr. Mala said that based on Mother Nature’s measurements, the firm was extracting to a depth of 12.6 meters and as close as 25 meters from the riverbank.
“The fish and crabs are not able to live at this depth of water,” Mr. Mala said.
In a letter to Mr. Hun Sen released Monday and dated July 30, Mr. Chhay, the CNRP lawmaker, said that despite the prime minister’s ban on the export of river sand in 2009—which prohibits the dredging of sand intended for export in Cambodia’s rivers and coastal areas—the companies were continuing to operate unimpeded.
“I would like to request that you check on and take action to stop anarchic sand dredging in Koh Kong province and in rivers,” Mr. Chhay wrote.
Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina could not be reached for comment Monday, but in an email on Friday, he said that Mr. Hun Sen’s ban did not cover all sand.
“The government allows [companies] to dredge sea sand but not river sand because the government banned it,” he said.
According to Direct Access’ license, the company is allowed to dredge only in an area referred to as “Andong Teuk creek.”
In photos taken by Mother Nature activists last month, barges operated by the two companies can be seen unloading sand onto a larger ship, the Ikan Jenahar.
Daniel Lindo, a representative of Cleanseas Shipmanagement, the ship’s Philippines-based management company, said last week that the Singapore-based shipping firm Pacific Carriers Limited was chartering the Ikan Jenahar.
A Pacific Carriers representative, who gave his name only as Captain Choo, confirmed that the shipment of silica sand was destined for Singapore, where much of Cambodia’s river sand ended up prior to the 2009 ban. He declined to provide further details.
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