Singapore is one of Asia's smallest and wealthiest nations that for decades has been dumping sand and earth into the ocean to expand its limited coastlines. An environmental watchdog group says the country's search for cheap fill dirt has led to Cambodia, where investigators claim massive dredging projects are fueling corruption and devastating the environment.
Investigators with Global Witness say they uncovered a huge trade in sand exported from Koh Kong province in southern Cambodia, despite a government ban on such activity. The London-based watchdog claims the vast majority of that sand was destined for Singapore for use in land reclamation projects and construction.
Senior campaigner for Global Witness, Eleanor Nichol, says locals told investigators that the dredging already has damaged Cambodia's coastal ecosystem.
"To put it simply, sand-dredging is-or can be-extremely damaging to the local environment. And we gathered a lot of anecdotal evidence from the southern part of Cambodia that local fisherman were really feeling the impacts of the sand-dredging in terms of declined fish catches."
Nichol says her group's other concern is the practice is fueling corruption and worsening governance within Cambodia. She says contracts for controlling the sand trade were handed out behind closed doors to two Senators named Mong Rithy and Ly Long Phat who are close allies of the prime minister.
Nichol says sand-dredging is big business, and the way the licenses are currently granted, there's no real way to ensure the money ever ends up benefiting the Cambodian people.
"We estimate that in Cambodia its worth roughly $28 million each year. So that's a huge amount of money for a country that is still very poor and dependent upon donors for their funding. It's also a huge amount of money not to be seen showing up in government coffers."
Cambodian officials deny selling any sand to Singapore. Contacted by VOA's Khmer service, Senator Rithy said he never exported sand to Singapore because they did not want it.
Rithy says in reality, he is only given a license to rehabilitate the canals in the region to enable ships to move in and out and to ensure they do not run aground. He says the sand is mainly mud, and there is no market for it. He says Singapore won't even buy it.
A spokesman for the Cambodia's government also denied that cronyism was at play and criticized the Global Witness report.
The spokesman says the report is one-sided and politically-motivated. He says it ignores the reality that all revenues from the industry are included in the national budget.
Nichol acknowledges that Cambodian officials have denied Global Witness' claims. But she says Cambodia's international donors should use their leverage to make sure the government does not improperly exploit its natural resources.
"There is a role for complicity here with Cambodia's donors. Let's not forget that they are actually funding the Cambodian government to the equivalent of 50 percent of the budget each year. They do have a role there to play in trying to ensure that the country's resources are actually used for the benefit of the people."
On Wednesday, Singapore's government released a statement defending its sand importation practices and rejecting the Global Witness report. The government said its sand imports are contracted through private companies and those companies must abide by the laws and regulations of the countries they operate in. The government said it does not condone illegal sand exports.