Mines and Energy Ministry representatives received a heated welcome from Kandal province villagers on Tuesday as residents demanded an immediate end to sand dredging they say has eroded the Tonle Bassac riverbank, leading to the collapse of nine homes.
Residents of Raka Khpos commune in Sa’ang district say widespread river dredging caused the homes to tumble into the river last month. They held a protest over the weekend coordinated by an activist with the environmental NGO Mother Nature who fled to the U.N. human rights office in Phnom Penh on Monday, alleging police harassment.
On Tuesday morning, ministry officials and military police arrived to discuss the situation with about 50 villagers, who repeatedly and loudly called for an end to dredging.
In a video clip posted by Mother Nature activist Hun Vannak, ministry spokesman Dith Tina can be seen repeatedly bowing at villagers and pleading helplessness.
“I have no ability to make a decision on whether to suspend it or not,” he said. “I need to inform upper levels at the ministry first.”
One local shouted back: “I don’t believe that you don’t have the rights to decide it.”
Villager Muth Mom, 42, who fears her house will eventually be swallowed by the river, said the dredgers had left on Sunday, but were stationed just 200 meters away. “We are not sure whether it will return or not,” she said. “When they dredged here, the sound distracted us and the ground shook.”
Mr. Tina did not respond to requests for comment. But in an email on Monday, he blamed the “anarchist” Mother Nature for agitating a minority of local residents against the dredging, claiming the ministry closely monitored the social and environmental impact of the sand mining and a specialist had determined last month’s collapse was caused by natural causes.
But Mr. Vannak said no villagers he had spoken to were aware of any environmental impact studies. “They just started dredging sand there,” he said.
Ms. Mom said the nine families who lost their homes had accepted plots of land in the commune and 5 million riel, or about $1,250. Mr. Tina said one dredger, the Leng Ching Company, had assisted in their relocation despite the supposed natural causes cited for the collapse.