Cambodia should suspend all sand dredging in Koh Kong province until the government gets to the bottom of suspiciously low sand export figures, a group of NGOs said Friday at a meeting with the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
The government must develop a better system for managing the sand trade “as we have a bad reputation on sand exports right now,” said San Chey, country director for the good-governance NGO Affiliated Network for Social Accountability.
“There is no response from the ministry yet on this request because the government said they are waiting for detailed documents from Koh Kong,” the coastal province from which much of the sand is dredged, he added.
The government has come under pressure to explain why the Ministry of Commerce counted just 14.3 million tons of sand exports from 2005 to last year, while the rest of the world—led by the island city-state of Singapore—recorded importing more than 75 million metric tons of sand during the period.
Responding to a letter from 41 civil society groups demanding answers and transparency, the ministry issued an open letter inviting them to a three-hour, closed-door meeting in Phnom Penh on Friday.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr. Chey said the 10 representatives of the civil sector who attended the meeting still sought answers on the import-export gap.
“There are still many doubts about it,” he said, adding that the NGOs had other concerns about the legality of current sand dredging operations and their potential to cause ecological damage.
“We also requested that they publish all the documents, including the name of the companies that have licenses…on the [ministry] website, but the government hasn’t agreed,” he said. “They said if we want to look at them, just go to the ministry to check.”
Ministry spokesman Dith Tina did not respond to requests for comment.
San Mala, co-founder of the environmental NGO Mother Nature, said Mr. Tina had made the case that trade gaps in imports and exports were routine occurrences on the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database, where the figures are housed.
Still, Mr. Tina cannot explain “why the gap is really different,” Mr. Mala said.
A Cambodia Daily analysis of the country’s wood exports found a reporting gap on the commodity database amounting to nearly $1 billion, which economists and activists said also warranted more investigation.
Florian Eberth, a statistical officer at the World Trade Organization, emphasized last week that “there are always some discrepancies” in import and export data comparisons, but the trade asymmetries in this case “look rather huge.”