The politics of sand is a dirty business, and there’s plenty of it around – particularly in the tiny island-state of Singapore. Its voracious appetite for constructing mega-buildings and expanding its borders by filling in the sea has led to widespread ecological damage around the region.
Indonesia has complained bitterly about its disappearing islands and banned the export of sand. So has Vietnam. Malaysia uses dealings over sand as a political bargaining chip when negotiating with Singapore, and countries further afield are also thinking twice about selling it sand.
This was the case with Cambodia, which acted on a report by environmental activists Global Witness that was released in May. It has announced that it has ordered a suspension of sand dredging while it assesses alleged damage to fish stocks and the ecology of the Tatai River.
However, all the indications are that private business in Cambodia is thumbing their nose at the government and continuing to dredge the Tatai River. This is despite pleas from impoverished villagers, who live hand to mouth and who have had their livelihoods affected and seen widespread damage to their local environment.
According to the report, Singapore expanded its surface area by 22 percent, from 582 square kilometres in the 1960s to 710 square kilometres in 2008 – and it wants to go much further.
Ho Mak, director of Rivers at the Ministry of Water resources, told The Diplomat the companies dredging the Tatai had been ordered to stop while an environmental impact study is made. Piech Siyon, a provincial director of the Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, insists this has happened.
However, the reports to the contrary are many, something supported by Chum Sok Korb, who told The Diplomat that villagers wanted all sand dredging – big and small – stopped now.
There's no shortage of smugglers in Southeast Asia and the Singapore land developers are well aware of this, prompting accusations by Greenpeace they have launched a ‘war’ for the commodity.
Indonesia has 92 outer islands which determine the country’s marine border areas. Of these, only 12 are guarded by the Navy, prompting officials in Jakarta to recently urge provincial governors to be vigilant and act in the sovereign interest by protecting the islands from smugglers.
A year earlier, 34 Malaysian civil servants were arrested for accepting bribes and sexual favours in relation to sand smuggling into Singapore. At around the same time, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed that 700 trucks loaded with sand have been crossing the border into Singapore each day.
Singapore likes to see itself as a responsible global citizen and worthy regional role model. However, the fight over such a menial commodity like sand might suggest otherwise.