Mother Nature founders Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson (L), and San Mala), who were arrested in February. Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson was deported. Mr. Mala remains in jail. Rod Harbinson
Mother Nature is a Cambodian environmental grassroots movement fighting to put an end to the destruction of Koh Kong’s natural resources. Mother Nature director Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson has petitioned the government to put a moratorium on further dredging for the export of sand, and to allow for independent scientific studies to be conducted on the social and environmental impacts the local communities allege the sand mining has caused. He also says that Singapore, where most of the sand ends up, should be held to account.
Khmer Times recently interviewed Mr. Davidson, who is in Spain, by email about the environmental situation in Koh Kong and about a recent letter from Prime Minister Hun Sen to the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s Son Chhay, who had asked for an explanation about the regulation of dredging and accused two Vietnamese companies of damaging the area.
The PM’s letter on November 16 said the two companies – International Rainbow and Direct Access – are Cambodian and that, according to a report from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, their dredging has not impacted residents nearby. Rather, he wrote, the people who live in the dredging area welcome the companies and say that the dredging is actually restoring the ecosystem.
KT : What do you think about the prime minister’s letter?
The letter is a positive development, as it is the first time the prime minister has made a detailed public clarification on the sand-mining issue in Koh Kong. However, the letter in itself is full of half-truths and outright lies, and leaves many critical questions unanswered. Questions such as “how many millions of tons have been dredged in total out of Koh Kong?” “At what price has this sand been sold on the market?” “How much, in total, has the state received through royalties, taxes, etc., from the sand mining?” are all extremely important questions that need urgent answers.
KT : Does the situation in Koh Kong reflect the arguments in the letter?
There is a huge disconnection between the on-the-ground realities with what the letter has to say. It is blatantly clear that the people who reported to him on this sand-mining issue deliberately misinformed him about the real social and environmental impacts. For instance, Mr. Hun Sen’s letter keeps using the Khmer word “Sdar,” literally meaning “restoration,” when referring to the ongoing sand mining operation. I fail to see how destroying an estuary through anarchic and totally unchecked sand dredging, and ruining the livelihoods of hundreds of local families, can be termed “restoration.”
KT : The government and the Ministry of Mines and Energy that the sand-dredging has very little impact on the environment. The ministry studied the impacts before giving the licenses for dredging. Do you think this shows that an effort to prevent harm has been made by the government?
It seems as if some people at the Ministry of Mines and Energy are eager to find proper solutions to the issues that Mother Nature’s activists and the local fishing communities have been raising for half a year. For instance, the letter corroborates that Direct Access still needs to produce further studies before their license to dredge the Andoung Teuk estuary can be renewed, and that is an excellent development. However, let me be crystal clear on this: the sand mining is causing massive environmental damage to Koh Kong’s estuaries and mangroves, and has devastated the livelihoods of local fishing communities. Also, if relevant ministries did study the impacts of the sand dredging, why aren’t they releasing these studies and [putting them in the] public domain?
KT : Do you think they should stop dredging in Koh Kong province?
I think that there should be a moratorium on further dredging for export of sand, for a certain period of time, [to] allow for independent, non-biased, scientific studies to be conducted on the social and environmental impacts the local communities allege the sand mining has caused. This research should be open to the public and to civil society, and above all it should take into consideration the true views and needs of the local fishing communities. Thousands of families in Koh Kong fully depend on healthy mangroves and estuaries for their livelihoods, and they are alleging massive fish drops [sic] in the six or so years the sand mining has been going on. People are becoming indebted and we are starting to see a considerable increase in migration by young people out of the area because there is no longer is enough income to be made out fishing.
KT : Are you concerned that more Mother Nature activists will be arrested if you don’t accept what the government is saying?
We are humans, and as such it is normal to have feelings of concern and fear. However, we go forward and we shall keep demanding what is right for the common good. We are 100 percent sure that the relevant ministries and the government will eventually agree with our stance and change some of their wrong habits.
KT : Why has Mother Nature tried to protect the sand? What do you want to see in the future in Koh Kong?
Koh Kong’s mangroves are one of the largest in the whole of Southeast Asia and play a fundamental role in the marine ecology of the region. They are also staggeringly beautiful and a Cambodian asset that must, at all costs, be effectively protected and promoted to the outside world as a symbol of Cambodia.
Our vision is to see local communities returning to their sustainable fishing practices and to develop the area as a place where national and international tourists can check out the awesome scenery and wildlife.
KT : Do you have any additional comments?
The letter clarifies what we have been hearing all along, that the sand mining is used only for export. And we have strong indications that the biggest buyers of this sand are countries such as Singapore. So, fingers should be pointed towards who is buying and using this sand, and we should start pressuring them into taking full responsibility for their actions. Just like Singapore is unhappy at Indonesian forest fires, we need to tell them that Cambodia is also not happy with seeing how Singapore is directly responsible for the destruction of one of our nation’s most precious assets.