While the Cambodian government is often criticized for poor management of its natural resources, it earned praise this week for a ban on the export of sand.
Even Global Witness, an environmental watchdog that has been sharply critical of the government’s exploitation of timber and minerals, welcomed the ban.
Cambodia was exporting sand to Vietnam and Singapore, but the practice can have a devastating impact on coastal environments. Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive May 8 that would halt the export of sand, while allowing dredging for local demand.
More than 120 sand-dredging companies are estimated to be operating in Cambodia, removing thousands of tons of sand from coastal and river bottoms.
Global Witness spokeswoman Amy Barry said the ban was a good measure, but it was only the first step toward sustainable management of Cambodia’s natural resources, including forests, minerals and, potentially, oil.
“We want to make sure we call on the prime minister, Hun Sen, to ensure that his decree is implemented and to monitor the sand-dredging and export,” Barry said.
Cheam Yiep, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the ban followed complaints by citizens and a report from the Sand Resource Management Committee.
“That’s why recently [Hun Sen] issued a decree to stop sand-exporting operations,” he said.
The ban was imposed for three reasons, he said. First, sand export was not benefiting the government; second, it was damaging personal property; and third, it was harming rivers and marine areas that legally belong to the government.
Private companies violating the ban would be sued, he said.
“We already have a law,” he said. “When the prosecutor files a complaint, the investigative judge will make a decision accordingly.”
Chan Yutha, chief of cabinet for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, said the ban was put into effect immediately following the order by Hun Sen. Now all sand-dredging will be re-examined, he said.
“I just want to clarify that sand-dredging operations have either positive or negative effects,” he said. “If they follow technical standards, it is a good impact, but if the technical standard is violated, it has a negative impact, such as the collapse of riverbanks.”
Dredgers in violation of the standards are warned or fined, their tools and equipment confiscated, he said.
Even with this ban in place, critics say law enforcement and policy implementation in Cambodia remain weak. The government has sold many of its assets in the past, including sand, beaches, and historical buildings, to private companies.
Global Witness has issued detailed reports on deforestation undertaken with impunity and the stripping of the country’s mineral resources. With potentially lucrative offshore oil deposits under exploration, the worry is that income from state resources will benefit only a handful of powerful elites.