About 80 villagers and activists in Koh Kong province on Monday boarded and attempted to tow away five sand-dredging barges as part of their ongoing campaign against two firms they accuse of polluting a local waterway and causing riverbank collapses, activists and officials said.
Yoeun Tinit, a member of environmental NGO Mother Nature, said Rainbow International Co. Ltd. and Direct Access had been dredging Botum Sakor district’s Andong Teuk estuary—which drains into the Bay of Kompong Som—since 2009.
“We protested today to ask the two companies to stop sand dredging because the activities have caused water pollution, environmental impacts and the disappearance of fish habitat,” he said.
According to Mr. Tinit, nine Mother Nature activists joined locals in using seven fishing boats to surround five of the companies’ barges, before boarding them and telling workers to stop dredging.
The activists then returned to the fishing boats and tried to tow the barges out to sea with the workers still aboard—and were still attempting to do so as of last night, Mr. Tinit said.
District governor Orn Virak said local authorities would not stop the companies from dredging because the Mines and Energy Ministry had issued them licenses to dredge sand for export.
“I wish to state that the Ministry of Mines and Energy previously gave permission to those companies to exploit the area here. They already studied the impact [of the dredging],” he said.
Mr. Virak added that police would not make any arrests so long as the activists did not board the barges again.
Since Prime Minister Hun Sen banned the export of river sand in 2009—ostensibly to protect biodiversity—Rainbow Intentional and Direct Access are the only two companies to have been issued sand export licenses, Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina said Monday.
Mr. Tina refused to say where the companies were exporting the sand.
“The ministry does not have the right to reveal what the company is doing,” he said.
Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported in February after the government refused to renew his visa, said that despite holding licenses, the companies were still breaking the law.
“Basically, the companies are violating their permit by mining outside their area and mining deeper than they are allowed to, and that’s illegal. And according to the law, those permits have to be revoked,” he said.
Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said the government’s reluctance to penalize the companies had forced locals to take matters into their own hands.
“This is one of the first times where this has happened—where you have local communities and activists gathering together not to protest, but to enforce the law,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)