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Report: Cambodia destroying coastal ecology by sand exports to Singapore

BANGKOK (AP) — Cambodia is devastating its coast by dredging vast quantities of sand to sell to tiny Singapore for expansion projects, with multimillion-dollar profits going to tycoons close to the Cambodian prime minister, a watchdog group said Tuesday.

Impoverished Cambodia has become the new prime source of the masses of sand used for projects to artificially enlarge Singapore's island territory now that several other Southeast Asian nations — including Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam — have banned sand exports because of environmental concerns.

Singapore has increased its surface area by 20 percent in recent decades by filling in coastal seabeds to create new, valuable waterfront ground, a process known as "land reclamation."

London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness criticized Singapore for the practice, pointing out that the wealthy island city-state at the same time "presents itself as a regional leader on environmental issues."

"The country's failure to mitigate the social and ecological cost of sand dredging represents hypocrisy on a grand scale," Global Witness said in a report released Tuesday.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last year announced a blanket ban on sand exports following local protests, but the Global Witness investigation said the country continues to supply Singapore with tens of thousands of tons of sand dredged up from rivers and estuaries along the fragile coastline.

Operations from just one Cambodian province were estimated to be worth $248 million annually in retail value in Singapore, the group said.

Cambodia's law on sand actually banned only river sand from export, but Global Witness said its investigators found that both river and sea sand have been exported since the law was passed.

Global Witness said the government has been "failing to ensure compliance with Cambodia's other environmental and socio-economic legal framework," though a Cambodian government spokesman said that dredging is confined to areas where the environment would not be degraded.

Singapore's National Development Ministry said sand import is carried out by private enterprises, which must by law "not breach any of the source countries' environment rules and other relevant laws."

The Cambodian sand trade, Global Witness said, is monopolized by two senators with close ties to Hun Sen "with no evidence of any revenues (from the exports) reaching Cambodia's state coffers."

One of the senators, Mong Rethy, refused to comment when reached by telephone, while the other, Ly Yong Phat, could not be reached despite several attempts.

Global Witness has over the past decade published several reports chronicling the stranglehold of what it calls Cambodia's "kleptocratic elite" on the country's forests, minerals and other natural resources through corruption and cronyism, often accompanied by abuses of human rights.

The government has denied such charges, but Cambodia's international donors, including the United States and the European Union, have leveled similar criticism.

Global Witness' latest report said Cambodia's sand-dredging industry "poses a huge risk to its coastal environment, threatening endangered species, fish stocks and local livelihoods. There is no evidence that basic environmental safeguards have been applied."

It said that concessions had been allocated inside protected areas and that on one day alone, nine dredging vessels were spotted inside such a zone. Extraction has actually increased since last year, it said.

The report quotes a government website as estimating that up to 60,000 tons of sand are mined each month from the water of Koh Kong province in the country's southwest.

Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said a total ban was in place on sand dredging near islands and eco-tourism areas, deep water regions and in zones with large number of fish stocks.

However, he said some dredging is permitted to serve local demand and allow passage of ships in silted-over areas. Surplus sand could be exported, he said.

Singapore's government denied any wrongdoing and disputed the Global Witness report's allegations.

"The report suggests that the Singapore government seeks to import sand without due regard to the law or environmental impact of the source country. This is not true," a statement from National Development Ministry said.

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Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.