Sand mining destroys community resources

Down to Earth No. 51, November 2001

The mining of coastal sands for export is blighting the livelihoods of small-scale fisherfolk in Riau.

Sand mining in the coastal waters of Riau is taking a heavy toll on the marine environment and the peoples who depend on it. Riau province, eastern Sumatra, is closest to the biggest consumer of the sand - Singapore. Companies, backed by Singaporean buyers, use dredges that excavate sand at a rate of 6,000 cubic metres a day. The sand is then transported to Singapore to be used in the construction industry and coastal reclamation projects. Singapore is said to require a further 1.8 billion cubic metres of sand over the next 7-8 years for these projects, which are aimed at expanding the country's land area and providing living space for its growing population.

Some 400,000 hectares of seabed and an extensive area of coral reefs have been damaged by the mining in Riau, according to the Indonesian Center for Forestry Studies. The dredging - sometimes within metres of the shore - has caused coastline erosion, and has destroyed fishing grounds used by coastal villages.

Estimates for repairing the damage are Rp 7 billion (US $1 million) per square km of seabed, meaning that the damage caused costs much more than the income earned by the industry. The Riau administration gets US$ 1 per cubic metre of sand mined. In Singapore, suppliers sell at US$ 7 per cubic metre, making profits of $3 per cubic metre.Most shipments fail to pay the required export taxes.

Illegal sand mining - allegedly controlled by a cartel of three Singaporean-backed companies - supplements the legal operations which supply sand to Indonesia's neighbour. These companies count on their close ties with naval officers and government officials to protect them from legal action. Around 400 million cubic metres are thought to be illegally exported each year, with losses to the state amounting to millions of dollars in uncollected taxes and royalties.

Yet the provincial administration continues to issue mining licences with the short-term aim of revenue-raising taking priority over long term resource sustainability. There are currently more than 300 companies with licences to operate in Riau. In an attempt to allay fears of further destruction, the Riau Governor Saleh Djasit has assured the public that eighteen companies which received licences this year will only operate in areas without coral reefs and they must ensure that their activities do not disturb local fisherfolk. But local NGOs doubt that the authorities have the political will to enforce these conditions. A team set up by the governor to monitor activities is under-funded and poorly equipped. One Singaporean transport vessel was impounded - the mining company was dredging sand outside the permitted area - but was released soon after without explanation. According to one local report in Bisnis Indonesia, Dutch, Japanese and German companies are among the foreign companies contracted by the Singaporean government to procure sand for the reclamation projects. The Singaporean government itself has been unwilling to offer estimates for the volumes of sand imported into the country.

Local environmental NGO Kaliptra points to tens of companies that have permits to mine sand in the district of Karimun alone. According to a report in Tempo, a map of the district issued by the mines and energy ministry shows that "not 1 square centimetre" of the waters is not covered by sand mining concessions. Investigations by Kaliptra and Mapala Phylomina Unri (a student environmental group) found that the compensation companies offered to fishing communities for the loss of their fishing grounds was far below the amount the community could earn from fishing. As a result, local income levels have plummeted. The mining is also eating away at the coasts: abrasion has reached over 5 metres in some places. Several small islands, used by fisherfolk to shelter from the wind, have disappeared altogether. The waters are dark brown and smell putrid. Almost all the small-scale fisherfolk in the district have not been able to go to sea for the past 5 months as there is no fish left to catch within 12 miles of the shore.

In October, angry villagers seized a sand mining vessel operating in the Durian Strait. The boat was taken to the local jetty and other villagers boarded the vessel. They fled in panic when a crew member starting firing shots at them. One 36-year old man was killed and twelve others were injured in the incident.


Ban sand mining!

Indonesian NGOs concerned about the impact on coastal fishing communities are campaigning to stop sand mining. Kaliptra has condemned the "systematic impoverishment" of fishing villages by the Indonesian authorities and mining companies. Together with other local and national NGOs, the group is calling for a halt to all sand mining in Riau province; action against the "environmental criminals" who cause erosion, environmental degradation and impoverishment of communities; for the Singaporean government to take responsibility for the destruction of the local economic base; and for rehabilitation of the local economy.

NGOs in Medan, North Sumatra are campaigning to stop sand mining for export to Singapore and Malaysia.

(Kaliptra Statement 28/Aug/01; Kaliptra 1/Sep/01; 16/Oct/01; Bisnis Indonesia 27/Jun/01; Tempo 16-22/Oct/01)