Over 200 people held a protest yesterday morning in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district, demanding that provincial authorities halt sand-dredging operations on the Bassac River.
The Raka Khpos commune residents demonstrated in Koh Kor village at the site where, according to villagers, erosion has led about 10 homes to crumble into the Tonle Bassac River over the past year.
One of the protesters, Khem Phan, 40, said the sand dredging began last July. “We hold this peaceful protest to ban the sand dredging because it causes damage to the riverbank and property loss,” said Phan, who worries continued sand dredging could have lethal consequences.
“It happened during the day time,” said Phan. “If it was at night, villagers might [have] died in the collapse.”
Phan claimed locals do not know the name of the company responsible as its employees have refused to tell them who they work for. Meanwhile, Phan said, provincial authorities were not receptive to their concerns.
“The [provincial] officials say that [the company] dredges to deepen the river,” Phan said.
Phan said the sand was dredged to fill in a lake on more than 50 hectares of land in neighbouring Tuol Krasang village for a project to build affordable housing for civil servants.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of the environmental NGO Mother Nature, said he was familiar with the situation in Sa’ang district.
“The Ministry should for now temporarily pause further sand extraction in the area, properly consult with local communities, and prepare real, not fake, social and environmental impact assessments,” he wrote in an email.
Kandal’s deputy provincial governor, Khem Chankiri, said provincial officials would investigate the villagers’ grievances.
According to Chankiri, a company called Leng Ching obtained a licence from the Ministry of Mines and Energy to extract sand from the area for the construction of the nearby apartments.
He went on to argue that sand dredging can have a positive environmental impact. “The extraction, at some locations, eases the water flow and rescues [the] riverbank,” Chankiri said, adding that an environmental impact assessment [EIA] had been conducted.
Chankiri went on to dismiss the protesters as troublemakers from outside the commune. Residents of the commune, Chankiri said, were invited to a forum last summer explaining the project and its benefits.
Protester and Koh Kor village resident Mut Mom, 42, acknowledged the forum took place, but that many in the commune remained uninformed because they did not attend.
“[Officials] have never talked to them at home or at the site where land collapsed,” Mom said.
Ministry of Mines and Energy spokesman Dith Tina shared Chankiri’s assessment, writing yesterday’s protest off as “an attempt to incite people to protest by politically motivated outsiders and anarchist individuals under [an] NGO name”, without stating which NGO.
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro