Experts object to firms’ plans to mine sand in Tanintharyi Region

A local company plans to extract 5 million cubic metres of sand over five years in sensitive coastal areas in Tanintharyi Region without legally-required environmental assessments. Experts warn that the proposed sand mining will be highly damaging to a nearby pearl farm, biodiversity and fisheries and livelihoods of local communities. The issue highlights some of the problems companies face when pursuing development plans in the frontier economy.

Two official documents seen by The Myanmar Times reveal that Kyaw KS Development Trading Co Ltd, registered as a local company in Yangon Region, is seeking approval to extract 5 million cubic metres over five years in Tanintharyi Region, claiming that there will be “no environmental damage”. There was no mention of environmental assessments.

Notice No. KDTC-Sea Sand 42/2018 from Kyaw KS, dated May 25 and signed by township administrator Tin Myo Aung, argues that the site of the sandbanks is “13 miles away from A Lae Man Island, where the locals live, and it does not affect the local fishing sites”, and that the extraction will attract investments for the regional government and residents. The letter suggested a “ground survey” and examinations to be conducted to check if there is overlap between the mining area and fishery sites.

Aung Thein Hlaing, township administrator at Kawthaung District, wrote to the District General Administration Department on May 28 that “The ground survey was conducted with district, township, and villages officials and responsible persons from the company, on February 24, 2018. It was decided after a meeting that as the mining project avoided the local fishing areas, there will be no objections. There will be no objection if Kyaw KS Development Trading follows the procedures and instructions from the Ministry of Mines/ regional government.”

The letter also revealed that Kyaw KS, under the name Shwe Phone Aung Kyaw Company, has sold 12,000 acres of sea sand from Ohne Taw Kan Village, in 1998, to Malaysia and Singapore for their Land Reclamation Project. The company has now partnered up with Singapore Delta Gold Pte Ltd to undertake the proposal mining activities, “with no environmental damage, using dredger vessels and shipping bus”, to extract the planned volume.

However, the information claimed in the documents is at odds with what experts and environmental specialists told The Myanmar Times.

EIA is required by law

According to Annex 1 of the Myanmar Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures, sand mining projects extracting more than 50,000 cubic metres per annum requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Given that Kyaw KS plans to extract 5 million over 5 years, it is legally required to undertake an EIA prior to any activities. But so far, no evidence suggests that the company has done so.

“It does not appear that Kyaw KS have commissioned any assessment by a qualified company. All that appears to have happened to date is that Kyaw KS has met local stakeholders, organised by the township, to reassure them that nothing bad will happen as a result of their operations,” Vicky Bowman, director of Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), commented.

“An EIA should include assessments of the topography and biodiversity of the seabed area, and an assessment of surrounding sensitive areas which might be affected, and how to mitigate any negative impact. This is particularly important as the islands to the west of the proposed sand-mining area have high conservation value due to corals and marine biodiversity,” she explained.

It is also unclear how the company has progressed to this stage of seeking township approval and whether this was an unsolicited proposal. While many countries allow marine aggregate extraction, they do this systematically. Prospecting rights for marine aggregates, which are more certain than for onshore mining, are awarded by a commercial tender process. This ensures that qualified companies are selected transparently, and that a fair market value is obtained by the state for the rights to exploit the resource.

Impact on livelihoods

Governments which manage their marine resources effectively also use a “black box” on board the boat to monitor the area and volume of the extraction. Over the last decade, it has been common to see sand being smuggled, mainly to Singapore, from other countries like Cambodia or Vietnam due to illegal underreporting of extraction volume or value. Vietnam-based newspaper Tuoi Tre reported last year that Vietnam’s sand is being sold to foreign buyers at “dirt cheap prices”: more than ten businesses across Vietnam seem to have sold the sand at an average price of only US$1 per cubic metre, and in some cases, as low as $0.01 per cubic metre. By evading taxes, the companies are effectively robbing the country of its resources. That is one reason why some of these countries have banned it.

“How will the Tanintharyi Region government ensure that it does not miss out on revenue due to the people of Tanintharyi?” Ms Bowman went on. Indeed, it is worrying that the 2015-2016 EITI report said that while regional governments may collect mineral taxes from gravel and sand producers, “in practice, there is no taxes collected from extractive industries at sub-national level”. Sand-mining is a part of the extractives sector in which much more revenue transparency is needed.

Marc Goichot, WWF’s water resources specialist, told The Myanmar Times that sand mining, despite its negative impacts on the planet, is a relatively new subject to decision-makers in Myanmar. Kyaw KS’s proposal is a large volume and he strongly suggested an EIA to be conducted and that the risks to the people living in the area, to nature and other economic sectors should be well-assessed.

“The coastal dunes act as a natural buffer that protection of people and their assets. Sand mining is understood to weaken those natural protections and thus increase exposure of coastal communities to the negative impacts of natural disasters like cyclones,” Mr Goichot noted.

In addition, because this project needs an EIA by law, it is deemed to have significant potential negative environmental or social impacts and therefore also requires approval of the Myanmar Investment Commission even though it is a local company. If the value of the investment is under $5 million, this could be approved at the level of the Tanintharyi Region MIC, according to the new Investment Law. But the documents made no mention of the involvement of MIC.

Threat to fisheries and biodiversity

Frank Momberg, Myanmar Programme Director at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), highlighted four highly damaging consequences for the environment and local industries.

First of all, the proposed sand mining concession is partly overlapping with the proposed Langgan Marine Protected Area and is located just east of the already gazetted Langgan Locally Managed Marine Area, both harbouring the most diverse and intact coral reefs of Myeik Archipelago. Sand mining can “cause serious turbidity and sedimentation in the coral area leading to their destruction”.

Secondly, the proposed sand mining area itself is close to an important nursery ground for Indian mackerel. Increased turbidity and sedimentation can affect the nursery ground for this economically important fish as well as the nursery ground for devil rays, which are endangered and are on the IUCN Red List.

Thirdly, the proposed area is also close to an economically important pearl farm which depends on excellent water quality, which will be seriously undermined by increased turbidity caused by the sand mining activities.

Lastly, the area is close to (west of) globally important mudflats for threatened shore birds. Sedimentation of sand in the mudflats can change the substrate and feeding habitat of the globally threatened shore birds. Even if the direct overlap of the concession with key biodiversity areas is limited, the damage will still be serve owing to ocean currents the impact of increased turbidity and sedimentation, reaching far beyond the actual concession area.

“In summary, the proposed sand mining operation has a very high environmental, social and economic impact that cannot be mitigated and should therefore be cancelled,” the expert said.

From a marine biological science perspective, the proposal will “heavily” affect the fishery industry, according to Robert Howard, FFI Myanmar Marine Programme Manager. Biodiverse rich marine habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds, which are in close vicinity to this proposed project, are particularly sensitive to sand mining.

Excessive sediment resulting from the mining process can smother corals inhibiting light needed for photosynthesis and increased in sediments can also clog canals and feeding structures of reef sponges. A rise in sedimentation is also known to increase pathogen virulence and in the Myeik Archipelago an increase in disease has already been reported for those reefs near to the Tanintharyi River catchment.

“Sand mining will only compound this issue,” he said.

“Both the seagrasses and coral reefs are critically important ecosystems as food sources, shelter, breeding and nursery grounds and further degradation will heavily impact biodiversity and many of the commercially sort after marine species,” Mr Howard observed.

“A local company has proposed to mine the sand from Bokpyin township. Currently, the government does not allow this. This proposal will be presented to the regional Hluttaw and we will discuss at the legislature whether to greenlight the request,” U Kaung San Oo, secretary of Tanintharyi Region government, responded to enquiries from this newspaper.

U Tin Htun, regional MP representing the Bokpyin constituency, said that he did not support the plan. “I heard that this area is designated for gold minerals. The person in charge should look at and scrutinise this proposal carefully,” he commented.

No contact details of the company are available online. The Myanmar Times visited the company’s address provided by its registration at the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, but there was no one at the office.

The spokesperson of the Union Minister office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation cannot be reached by press time.

Source: Myanmar Times

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