SIHANOUKVILLE (Khmer Times) – Two days after villagers and environmental activists boarded sand-dredging barges in Koh Kong province, they vowed yesterday to keep protesting against what they call illegal sand dredging of river beds.
Sun Mala, an activist with NGO Mother Nature, said that a large number of Vietnamese boats suspected of illegal sand dredging are still floating offshore Koh Kong’s Andong Teuk commune. As of Wednesday evening, about 100 villagers and activists were protesting near Botum Sakor district office.
But a mining official in Phnom Penh said the operations are legal. He said “radical” protests were motivated by anti-government politics.
Botom Sakor district chief and Pich Siyun, chief of the provincial mining department, met yesterday evening to try to cope with demands to halt dredging by two Vietnamese sand-mining companies, International Rainbow and Direct Access. Sand is a key ingredient for the construction booms that grip Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. In 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen banned the export of river sand. Since then, the two Vietnamese companies are the only ones with export licenses.
Efforts from authorities to negotiate with Mother Nature protesters have been unsuccessful, according to a mining ministry source.Other government officials told Khmer Times authorities will first try a “soft approach” with protesters. “But this approach won’t last forever,” one warned.
Protesters claim that more sand-dredging boats are in provincial waters. They vow to continue to challenge what they call irregularities in permits companies received from local authorities and the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Locals and activists accuse local authorities of colluding with sand-dredging companies, who they say are causing extensive environmental damage to rivers and shorelines.
Asked about license irregularities and the lack of environmental impact studies, the district chief and Mr. Siyun avoided questions by driving away. Repeated calls to the provincial governor were not put through. “The department of mining should stop the operation, but it said it has no right,” said So Vikea, a Mother Nature activist. “Yet it tries to persuade us to go home instead, while the district chief refused his role in dealing with the issue and claimed only to be the coordinator.”
“When we asked them to show the study on social and environmental impact assessment, they had nothing to show us and walked away,” he added.
But Dith Tina, a secretary of state at the mining ministry, said in a telephone interview from Phnom Penh that paperwork for sand-dredging was different when the two Vietnamese companies were issued their licenses.
He said environmental and social impact studies had taken place, as well as inspections, carried out as recently as June.
Mother Nature and locals dispute this and are working on a report that they will file to the mining ministry by Tuesday.
Meng Saktheara, spokesman for the mining ministry, promised yesterday to deal with the issue if it verifies the accuracy of reports and claims of locals and NGOs.
The Ministry Strikes Back
Mr. Dith struck back at the protesters, saying their actions are unjustified and illegal.
“The two Vietnamese companies in question have permits and are operating legally,” he said. “Inspections of their operations were carried out in June, and we have visited Koh Kong many times.”
Speaking exclusively with Khmer Times, Mr. Tina suggested the activists are mostly from the capital, are anti-government and are politically motivated.
Their environmental cause is unjustified, he stated.
“The situation is not how the NGOs are saying it is,” he said in an interview Wednesday evening.
Khmer Times asked him about reports of dead fish, contaminated water and other environmental problems where dredging has taken place.
“What they’re talking about is often caused by weather and natural occurrences,” he replied. “But legitimate complaints will be investigated.”
The official denied that previous petitions had been ignored. He said the activists should use other legal routes open to them before resorting to “radical” actions.
“The door of the ministry is always open,” he stated. “If these groups come to us with legitimate complaints, we will investigate. But there are better ways of getting our attention. They should act within the framework of the law.”