TNRC Blog Sand Mafias: Environmental Harm, Corruption and Economic Impacts

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Sand Mafias: Environmental Harm, Corruption and Economic Impacts

This post captures insights from a TNRC virtual panel on June 14, 2021 in which speakers from Kenya and India discussed an understudied, yet environmentally devastating trend: the unsustainable mining of river sand, facilitated by corruption, that feeds the global construction boom while destroying habitats and livelihoods and fueling conflict. Insights were contributed by Mohamed Daghar, Regional Coordinator for Eastern Africa, ENACT programme, Institute for Security Studies, and Dr. Prem Mahadevan, Senior Analyst, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The panel was hosted by the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University, and moderated by TraCCC’s director, Dr. Louise Shelley. This virtual event was attended by practitioners in 38 countries. A recording is above, and a PDF of the slides from the event can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • An insatiable global demand for sand, fueled by economic development and urbanization, has resulted in an epidemic of sand mining with impacts on governance, the environment, and the growth of entrenched criminal networks.
  • Sand is an essential ingredient in construction. Riverine sand is most prized and can be extracted through mining or sustainable harvesting. Sustainable harvesting can provide for cyclical replenishment and provides local employment, while allowing local communities to continue with farming and other activities.
  • Unsustainable mining practices result because criminal businessmen and organized crime groups bribe and intimidate officials at all levels to look the other way while they ignore regulations. Extortion of legitimate firms may also make it unprofitable to abide by the rules.
  • Governments need to put in place sand harvesting, utilization, conservation and trading legislation and develop regional initiatives to help curb sand trafficking.

Sand Mining in Kenya and Uganda

Mohamed Daghar, Regional Coordinator for East Africa for the ENACT Program (Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organized Crime) ISS, Nairobi

Sand is the bulking agent of all facets of the global economy. It takes millions of years to form but can be mined out in less than a year, causing irreversible damage to the river and surrounding lands left behind. Sand mining is exhaustive – extracting all the sand and leaving the river bare. Sustainable harvesting provides for cyclical replenishment and provides local employment, while allowing local communities to continue with farming and other activities.

In Kenya and Uganda, the entire value chain of the sand mining trade (excluding the consumer) is driven by cartels who use violence and intimidation and enjoy protection from powerful state actors. It is male dominated, with heavy use of unprotected child labor. Women are employed at the periphery, selling food, doing laundry and in commercial sex work. Destruction of the sand ecosystem by mining has a multiplier effect on local communities, by destroying livelihoods and increasing inter communal conflict.

The cartels are organized into gangs, with up to eight gangs operating at a single site, and violently contesting each others’ territory. Profits are enormous. Filling a ten-ton truck with sand costs 20,000 shillings, but the sand sells for 140,000 shillings. In Kenya most of the sand mined is sold domestically, while in Uganda it is exported to other countries, including DRC, Burundi and China.

Most countries, including Kenya and Uganda have weak or non-existent regulations and there are no international conventions or legal instruments regulating the trade. But both Kenya and Uganda have examples such as Makueni and Machakos County where communities have mitigated sand mining to a notable extent. Makueni, for instance, was once a sand mining epicenter, but with local legislation and control measures, they were able to reduce mining by 75% in the space of a decade. Other communities should follow these best practices, and in addition, neighboring countries must act together to curb the illicit trade. Additional research is also needed to follow the money, and better understand some of the networks and actors involved in this destructive trade.

Sand Mining in India

Dr. Prem Mahadevan, Senior Analyst, Global Initiative Against Organized Crime. Before joining the GI, Prem worked for almost nine years as a Senior Researcher with the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. He specialized in research on organized crime, intelligence, and irregular warfare. He is the author of the 2019 report, Sand mafias in India: Disorganized crime in a growing economy.

Two-thirds of the world’s population lives in housing built from sand, and illicit trade in sand is almost unavoidable in countries like India, which saw a tripling in the demand for sand between 2000 and 2017 and needs to add 800 million square meters of urban space annually just to keep pace with the demand for housing. It is a vicious cycle, with sand mining contributing to the depletion of the water table, leading to further domestic migration from distressed farming communities and rising urbanization and demand for housing.

Sand mining has been a visible problem since the 1990s, but it was seen as a provincial development issue, and got little public attention, because it mainly affected poor and marginalized communities. By now the term “sand mafia” is in common use among Indian politicians—often as a term of abuse for their rivals—but it is not entirely accurate. In India, unlike in Kenya or Uganda, there is little organized crime involvement in the trade and the market is overwhelmingly for domestic use, not export. Conditions vary, but much of the initial extraction is carried out by contractors and villagers, who sell the sand to intermediate buyers and on to builders. Extortion of legitimate firms makes it unprofitable to follow the rules, and so criminal businessmen with political connections ignore all the rules, mine with no concern for sustainability and make huge profits. They are protected by their generous contributions to politicians and the resulting patronage networks.

Under India’s federal system of government, the provinces have jurisdiction over the maintenance of law and order and the exploitation of non-strategic natural resources. Even though federal regulations and guidelines were introduced in 2016 and 2020 to regulate sand mining and track illegality, very little has changed on the ground. At the local level, most efforts at enforcement are directed against artisanal miners rather than the large corporate groups that are making the profits, and successful prosecutions are rare.

Ultimately, given the huge demand for sand and construction materials in India, it will be important to emphasize conservation and re-cycling of construction materials, more economic use of riverine sand and dredging from reservoirs. Other measures to consider include banning the transport of sand across administrative boundaries and empowering and training local communities in resource conservation and sustainable harvesting.

Further Reading

Sand mafias in India: Disorganized crime in a growing economy

Sweeping illegal sand mining under the rug in Uganda

Sand/gravel mining in Kenya affecting sacred forests

Explained: Nepal’s plan to export pebbles and sand ‘at the cost of Chure conservation’

Dilip Mahato should have been a hero. Instead, he will be forgotten.

© Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus