Illegal sand miners make hay as Covid-19 keeps people at home

By Minh Nga   April 20, 2020 | 09:31 pm PT
Illegal sand miners make hay as Covid-19 keeps people at home
A vessel for mining sand in Bu Dang District of Binh Phuoc Province as seen in a screenshot from a video by the Vietnam Television (VTV).
While both authorities and the public are preoccupied with the novel coronavirus fight, illegal sand miners are busier than ever.

When Vietnam began a 15-day social distancing campaign on April 1, with people asked to remain home and only go out when truly necessary, sand miners seemed to take advantage.

On the night of April 12 residents of Phu Chau Commune in Hanoi’s Ba Vi District called newspaper offices to complain that more and more barges had been coming to their section of the Red River to mine sand, and more than a few were there right at the time.

It was evident that illegal sand miners had taken advantage of the stay-at-home orders and the fact the public gaze was no more on them.

For people living along the Red River, the fight against illegal sand mining has for years been their own since usually the criminals disappear when the police turn up and return after they leave.

And even when they are caught, the penalty is trifling. On a good day a miner can earn VND1 billion ($43,000) from selling 2,000 cubic meters of sand whereas those caught are charged with "violating regulations related to research, exploration and exploitation of natural resources" and fined VND100-200 million ($4,200-8,500) if they steal over 50 cubic meters of sand without using explosives.

The story is similar in the south too.

Ten days into the social distancing campaign, people in Thong Nhat Commune, Bu Dang District, Binh Phuoc Province, complained bitterly they had had more than enough of sand miners.

Besides operating every night in the river, causing a threat of erosion, the miners have trucks going in and out of the commune to carry away the sand, causing pollution.

A local named Dam Van Lam told VTV that he and his neighbors "cannot live like this any longer."

Tran Quoc Tuan, chairman of Thong Nhat, said the commune "does not have enough personnel to fight sand miners in the river." Asked about the trucks, he said, "We cannot track down the actual owners."

Amid the social distancing campaign, at least five cases of illegal sand mining were detected by local waterway authorities while patrolling to make sure people were following orders to stay inside.

On April 14 a Border Guard Steering Committee task force in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province near Ho Chi Minh City stopped five vessels carrying a total of 2,420 cubic meters of sand.

The captains of the barges failed to produce documents showing legal origins for the sand, the Vienam News Agency reported.

The authorities seized the sand, the captains’ licenses and the registration documents of their vessels for "transporting mineral products without legal origin," a charge that merely entails seizure of the illegal consignments.

On April 7 and 8 traffic police in Long Thanh District, Dong Nai Province, another neighbor of HCMC, caught two different groups of sand miners in the Dong Nai River. They seized two boats loaded with equipment to suck sand out of the water and another with two cubic meters of sand, said the Voice of Vietnam. 

Also on April 8 the Hanoi traffic department’s waterway traffic task force caught a ship with a capacity of 500 tons mining sand in the Red River section in Phu Thuong Commune, Tay Ho District.

The vessel had around 100 cubic meters of sand on board and a mining device still running.

Police in Cho Moi District in An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta said they had caught red-handed three people on a boat with a capacity of 35 tons mining sand in the Tien River, a branch of the Mekong. They also found 15 cubic meters of sand in the vessel.

Solutions up in the air

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said cases of illegal sand mining have been reported to it during the social distancing period.

It has merely told local authorities to keep a closer eye on inland waterways to prevent this.

It said a new decree to take effect on May 10 will raise the fines on illegal exploitation of mineral resources, with the highest amount going up to VND1 billion for individuals and VND2 billion for organizations.

The fight against illegal sand mining has proven difficult since penalties are not enough of a deterrent and regulations are lax, law enforcement agencies said last year, suggesting that illegal exploitation of natural resources should be treated as theft and subjected to criminal penalties.

Senior officials from the Ministry of Public Security had said it was difficult to press criminal charges because authorities had to prove that the miners had stolen more than VND100 million ($4,300) worth of sand in a single case or the value of the sand exploited must exceed VND500 million, and there was no mechanism for authorities to calculate this.

Shockingly, many operators have been using the cover of dredging of inland waterways to mine sand from right under the noses of authorities.

Others get a license to mine sand and then expand operations without a permit, using local people to extract the sand. A sand seller who asked for anonymity, explained: "If the police find out, it is those miners who get caught, while those companies walk away free. And if the miners do get sand, they have to sell it to those companies at just half the market price."

Vietnam is not the only country to suffer from illegal sand mining.

Global demand for sand and gravel, used extensively in construction, was around 50 billion tons a year, according to a report published by the U.N. Environment Program in May last year.

Extraction from rivers and beaches has increased pollution and flooding, reduced groundwater levels, hurt marine life, and exacerbated the occurrence and severity of landslides and drought, the report said.

Existing legal frameworks are not sufficient, and "sand mafias" comprising builders, businessmen and dealers in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Kenya, and Sierra Leone regularly flout the law, it added.

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