‘We can’t run away’
The rise in sand demand endangers the lives of children, laborers, journalists and environmental defenders.
Greed over grains of sand has a fatal human cost: As cities rise and countries urbanize, sand-related murders and other associated crimes have taken a toll on poverty-stricken communities.
In parts of the globe, where sand is extracted, criminal gangs and sand mafias control the multi-billion dollar trade, spawning violence in land-rich, developing nations. On their trail are hundreds of people — miners, journalists and environmental defenders — reported to have been killed, imprisoned or threatened.
The problem has become so serious that in 2014, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published a study calling attention to how the issue had been mostly ignored by policymakers despite the modern world’s increasing dependence on sand. Nearly a decade later, the same stories emerge: The highly lucrative and low-risk business of sand mining continues to drive and perpetuate violence, cause loss of revenue and various forms of abuse within a vast multinational trade.
In fact, in a 2021 study titled “Illegal sand extraction: revenue in Brazil and in the world,” federal police specialist Luis Fernando Ramon estimates the value of illegal sand extraction to be between $199 billion and $350 billion each year. These figures are on par with the value of other global crimes monitored by the Global Financial Integrity, such as drug and human trafficking, illegal wildlife trade and illegal fishing, to name a few.
The Environmental Reporting Collective’s latest investigation has found a similar alarming pattern.
In Nepal and the Philippines, threats stalk journalists reporting on illegal sand mining and environmental activists leading protests against the activity.
In the village of Sri Pur in Nepal, Om Prakash Mahato, a 25-year-old engineering student, was beaten and crushed to death under the wheels of a truck on the banks of the Aurahi River in 2019. Mahato was leading a movement to stop the mining of the river. While two of the murderers, Bipin Kumar Mahato and Munindra Mahato, were sentenced for life, the sand-mining operator involved is still operating with impunity.
Attempts to close down illegal mining in Nepal have not been successful. In early January 2023, the Ministry of Home Affairs moved to close down more than 1,200 crushers that illegally extract and process stones and sand from rivers and streams. Yet in the same month, on January 25, the council of ministers revised its closure order and gave the companies until the end of June to meet the regulatory requirements.
The Nepalese government has since decided to close crusher industries, which were opened for special projects, but they are still completing the said projects. Sand mining thus continues without any hindrance in many areas.
Journalists covering illegal sand mining in Nepal have also been under threat. Kathmandu-based Freedom Forum have documented cases of either sand smugglers or officials manhandling, defaming, and restricting access to journalists covering the issue.
This dangerous phenomenon isn’t rare. In Aparri town, in the Philippines’ Cagayan province, Mark Saludes, a reporting fellow of the nonprofit Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and Sheena Katrina Orihuelam, an advocacy officer with the faith-based organization Laudato Si’ Philippines, were reportedly harassed by a group of armed men in April 2022, when they were covering a protest of fisherfolk and church members against alleged black sand-mining operations in the area.
An armed individual approached Saludes to ask permission to enter the church premises “because a prisoner had escaped.” The man, who was seen with five companions, reportedly introduced himself as a police officer. When Saludes called the local government of Aparri about the presence of the armed men, he was informed that there was no police operation in the area, according to Licas News. People who were near the church compound, however, said the armed men were soldiers.
Saludes had encountered a similar incident in 2017 when he was covering a demonstration in the same parish church in Cagayan.
Meanwhile, in the Philippine province of Ilocos Sur Sherwin de Vera, an activist with environmental advocacy organization Defend Ilocos, was arrested for rebellion in December 2017. The rebellion charge was filed in 2014, when he participated in protests urging the government to stop the illegal sand mining in northern Philippines. He was freed a month later, and his case eventually dismissed.
In Mannar, a town in Sri Lanka, Australian mining company Titanium Sands Ltd and its local subsidiaries have been going in and out of private lands digging holes to get samples as they plan to mine ilmenite sand, a key substance in producing titanium, a globally sought-after material.
Under Sri Lankan law, no one is allowed to enter private property without the consent of the land owner. But in this island on the northwestern coast, sand miners can. Many of the 4,600 exploratory holes dug were done in private land without obtaining permission from the landowners. The island’s population of nearly 8,000 families is unaware of the plan to mine the ilmenite sand although sand explorations have been in progress since 2015.
Residents worry that if mining proceeds, they would lose both their land and groundwater. But as in many poverty-stricken areas rich with minerals, communities are often torn apart with some selling their lands.
“We can't stop the project after they start the project. So we need to be against this before they start. But the problem is villagers sell their land at higher prices to outsiders. We need money to live, that's why people sell their lands,” said Mannar resident Mohamad Sadhir.
In Vietnam, sand demand for construction in the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City alone is estimated to be at 3 million cubic meters per month. However, the amount of sand with legitimate invoices makes up only 10% to 20% of this estimate. This means that the remaining sand is sold illegally.
The underreporting of the amount of sand actually mined or the use of false invoices has allowed companies from paying taxes in full. Going after these activities has resulted in the collection of fines and some successful prosecutions, but they remain rampant.
In May 2022, An Giang Provincial Police prosecuted and detained two people for selling false invoices for more than 1.9 million cubic meters of sand, which were worth a total amount of over VND102 billion ($4.32 million).
In the same year, An Giang Provincial Police inspected and detected 34 violations related to sand mining, trading, and transportation activities. They also recorded administrative violations worth nearly VND950 million ($40,300).
In the city of Can Tho, 18 cases of violations of sand transportation and trading without invoices and documents resulted in VND132 million ($5,600) fines. In addition, police confiscated nearly 2,400 cubic meters of sand.
The situation in India is by far the most alarming. Despite a ban on unlicensed sand mining, gangs known as “sand mafias” have been plundering sand with impunity in parts of the country for many years. Rivalries between these gangs over sandbanks have made gun battles and bloody clashes common. Caught in the crossfire are children, laborers, activists, journalists, and even police and government officials, several of whom have been reportedly killed or injured by these groups.
The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has documented 418 deaths in 16 months across the country from December 2020 to March 2022 due to violence and accidents linked to sand-mining activities. However, the actual death toll could be higher.
In Bihar state in eastern India, for instance, sand laborers become collateral damage in the long-standing enmities between gangs. In poor regions, working as a laborer at an illegal mine site is more lucrative than toiling in the farm. Many of these workers are those who belong to the oppressed castes, including the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, who are considered the lowest stratum in the caste hierarchy.
A resident of Amnabad village, in Bihar’s Patna district, said that one way for a gang to gain control of a mine is to open fire at laborers. Some will die in the event, while the survivors would be frightened to go back and work at the site, said the villager, who requested anonymity in fear of retribution.
“This is the easiest way of stopping mining at the site without killing a rival gang member. That would provoke an all-out war,” he added.
In Bihar alone, SANDRP recorded at least 76 people who died and 103 others who were injured in sand-mining-related violence and accidents between December 2020 and March 2022.
“The administration just needs to dig sand mines; the skeletons will make a mountain,” said an 18-year-old resident of Maner town, who also requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
The heavy presence of armed men around the mines has also encouraged the glorification of gun culture and violence to the point that even children are posing with guns and idolizing goons. Boys start dropping out of school when they reach 13 or 14.
While mining and environmental rules and regulations exist, law enforcement has been problematic in India. Villagers have little avenue for redress as allegations of law enforcement officials taking bribes from sand miners and traders run rampant. Police posts in Bihar, for instance, have become so prized that police officials themselves reportedly pay bribes to get a lucrative assignment.
Many government officials have also been accused of being involved in illegal sand mining with several facing departmental action and penalties for it.
Amitabh Kumar Das, a retired Inspector General in Civil Defence, who has served in Bihar, said that the problem in the state is not the absence of laws but the lack of enforcement.
“Illegal sand mining in Bihar operates not just in connivance with the police department but with their active participation. Similarly, other government agencies side with the sand mafia; they protect the mafia for handsome bribes,” Das said.
The mafias have essentially sowed fear among people who have nearly no one to turn to. They are either scared of being killed and losing their source of income.
“We can’t run away from them; they are vengeful people,” said a 35-year-old man from the village of Haldi Chhapra in Patna district- He too requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “We also need employment from them, or we would starve to death.”
The multi-billion dollar business has also become the subject of organised crime spawning violence in countries like Indonesia, Kenya, Gambia and South Africa.
A 2022 UNEP study on sand and sustainability captured what’s happening in these countries. “Sand is mined by a wide range of actors, from large formal companies to informal artisanal and small-scale miners, who often mine in circumstances of poverty, as a cash-in-hand livelihood source,” it said.
“Sand extraction is unregulated and under-regulated in many parts of the world,” the report noted. “In weak governance settings some sand actors have exploited the absence of regulation and oversight to control markets through coercion and even violence.”
Governance is thus integral to the sand and sustainability challenge, according to the UNEP.
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