MORE than 300 fishermen gathered in Koh Kong on Monday to protest a large-scale sand-dredging operation they say has devastated fish catches in the province’s coastal estuaries and jeopardised thousands of livelihoods.
Ros Math, a local village chief who represents 1,397 families in Khemarak Phumin district’s Dang Tung commune, said fishermen from Khemarak Phumin, Mondul Seima and Koh Kong districts had suffered grave losses from oil spills and turbulent water caused by the dredging operation, and called for its immediate halt.
“Before, we could catch roughly 150 kilograms of fish a day, but now catches have dropped to less than 10 kilograms,” he said. “We rely on fishing for our livelihoods, but the company has killed the fish.”
Chi Sophal, a fisherman from Bak Klang commune in Mondul Seima district, said 600 families in his commune had been affected by the sand-dredging operation and had submitted thumbprints requesting that provincial Governor Yuth Phouthang intervene. “Local residents have complained about the operation for a year but did not have power to stop it,” Chi Sophal said. “It has destroyed their livelihoods.”
In March, the Post reported that Winton Enterprises, a Hong Kong-based firm, was removing thousands of tonnes of sand each week from coastal estuaries in Koh Kong, a practice environmentalists said was having severe effects on the local environment. Reporters observed sand being extracted by dredging vessels in estuaries upstream from Koh Kong town and shipped offshore, where it was unloaded into an ocean-going bulk carrier for export to Singapore.
A report issued in February by anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness estimated that around 60,000 tonnes was being mined for export each month and put the annual value of the Koh Kong operation at US$35 million.
Bunra Seng, country director of Conservation International, did not know about the specifics of the Koh Kong situation, but said the area around Koh Kong – including the 25,897-hectare Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary – was a vital spawning ground for fish, shrimp and crabs that support large populations.
“The sand collectors should study the impacts.... Otherwise they could disturb this [area] a lot,” he said.
The operation has also continued despite a ban on sand exports announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen in May, which was backed up by a further order in July.
“All sand business must be shut down,” Hun Sen said on July 1, citing the “destructive impact” on the country’s river and coastal ecosystems.
At the time, Pech Siyon, Koh Kong provincial director of industry, mines and energy, told the Post that three local dredging companies had been forced to suspend their operations, but that LYP Group, Winton’s local partner, had been granted permission to fulfil the remainder of its export orders.
Eleanor Nichol, a Global Witness campaigner, said Hun Sen had shown leadership by ordering a ban on sand exports, but that the implementation had clearly been selective.
“He needs to follow through on this decision to ensure it is implemented without favour for certain companies. To do otherwise would fundamentally undermine the impact of the request,” she said.
When contacted on Tuesday, Pech Siyon said he was aware the dredging had affected locals, but said permission for the continuation of the Winton/LYP operation was granted to prevent flooding in the provincial town.
“We really understand the difficulties of the people, but we are just thinking about the interest of the nation as a whole,” he said. “People will lose their business for just a short period, but after the dredging operation is finished they will be able to fish as normal.” He declined to mention when the operations would be completed.
Sanh Moniroth, director of the provincial Department of Water Resources and Meteorology, said permission for the Winton/LYP dredging operation had been granted by the central government and was not under the control of his office. Lim Kheang, a representative of LYP Group, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.