Location
  • Rakhine

As Tourism Expands,

Sand Mining Threatens Myanmar's Tropical Beaches

Images by
Lauren DeCicca
Text by
Lauren DeCicca and Paul Vrieze
FEBRUARY 2017, NGAPALI, Rakhine State — The palm-fringed, white sandy beaches at Ngapali stretch to the horizon and the pristine-looking scenery easily invokes a feeling of serenity for visitors who often travel from far to experience this beautiful coastline.

Ngapali's beautiful beaches attract many tourists, but the industry catering to them increasingly relies on the damaging extraction of local sand.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Little known to most tourist visitors is that some of the quiet hotels and restaurants that host them are also threatening the very survival of the beach, located in the south of Myanmar's Rakhine State.

On my first night in Ngapali, I too let the sea breeze and beauty wash away my stress for a moment while walking on the beach, but before long Oliver Soe Thet pointed to some tire tracks that abruptly reminded me of the tourism sector's environmental impact.

“Every dip in the sand, every set of tire tracks leading from the forest to the beach, and every sand pile near a hotel construction site is caused by sand mining,” said Oliver, a German who has taken on a Burmese name.

Oliver worked as a chef for many years before moving to this idyllic setting, where he tries to run his Laguna Lodge in a sustainable manner. The unregulated, damaging mining of beach sand angers him deeply.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
“The actions of the hotels are shortsighted because the loss of Ngapali’s fine sand will inevitably harm its image as a luxury destination and ultimately affect visitor numbers,” he said.

Regional and national “political parties should involve themselves much more, as this mining has not only negative impacts on tourism and revenues, but also endangers the lives of the people living in coastal areas,” Oliver added.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Destructive development The mining of beach sand and sand dredged from inland rivers and streams began in Ngapali in the 1990s, when it was selected for development as a luxury tourist resort by the former military regime.

Since Myanmar’s democratic transition began in 2011, foreign visitor numbers have increased sharply, with millions now coming to the country. Spending by tourists rose by 19 percent to US$2.1 billion in 2015 alone, according to the Asian Development Bank.

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Local investors have in turn poured money into the hotel and tourism industry development. At coastal tourism sites such as Ngapali, and also further south in Ayeyarwady Region’s Ngwe Saung and Chaungtha, the tourism industry has expanded and beach sand extraction has reportedly worsened. A public Facebook page dedicated to the issue has produced a steady stream of photo evidence of increased mining.

During a visit in February 2017, workers were seen collecting sand in full view on the beach near Ngapali. They said they received about $20 per ton of river sand and $30 per ton of beach sand, adding that a truck carried around 2 tons and can be filled in 2 hours.

Sand dredging in rivers, meanwhile, remains legal, though it can also be environmentally damaging. Most of this mining occurs on rivers around the nearby town of Thandwe.

Daw Thet Thet Gyi, who owns a farm plot located next to a small river there, said in recent years the dredging of river sand had caused occasional sea-water intrusion and flooding that had damaged the soil.

Mya Than, another subsistence farmer, said, “We can only grow peanuts because they are the only crops that will survive once the banks of the rivers overflow.”

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
A global problem The situation at Ngapali beach is part of an increasingly pressing international problem of over-extraction of sand from beaches, rivers and lakes, which has become a multi-billion dollar, unsustainable global industry in the past decade. Especially in Asia, where China experienced a long building boom and the island city-state Singapore has expanded in size by 22 percent since 1965.

A UN report on the issue warns that sand is rapidly being depleted at many mining sites, which is causing erosion, pollution and disruption of ecosystems that can affect local fishing and farming. It notes that, “Erosion occurs largely from direct sand removal from beaches, mostly through illegal sand mining. It can also occur indirectly, as a result of near-shore marine dredging of aggregates, or as a result of sand mining in rivers.”

Singapore has been accused by London-based resource corruption watchdog Global Witness and other environmentalists of importing huge volumes of unsustainably mined sand from first Indonesia and later Cambodia. Myanmar reportedly also exported smaller amounts of sands to Singapore; this export is said to be increasing and was worth US$15 million in 2014.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Raising awarenessThe Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) in Yangon has repeatedly warned that sand mining at beaches is damaging to the environment and detrimental to the tourism sector, as well as local livelihoods dependent on the marine ecosystem.

It notes that beach sand is in fact less suitable for housing construction than other sand, as the grains are smoothened from the waves and provide less grip when included in cement and concrete mixing.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
MCRB held discussions with Ayeyarwady Region’s Pathein Township General Administration Department in June to inquire about their alleged decision to let miners take unlimited amounts of sand from Ngwe Saung beach in return for monthly “donations” of around $23 per company.

The centre is now advocating with the Union Government and local authorities for restricting the practice and strengthening national environmental laws in order to better protect the beaches.

While local businesses and complacent authorities might carry much of the responsibility for the mining issue, many local communities also remain poorly informed about its impacts.

A fishing community in Gwa Village, not far from Ngapali, reportedly agreed to let companies use vast amounts of beach sand for expansion work at Thandwe Airport last year. In return, the company built a new road to Gwa’s Buddhist monastery.

Zaw Min Oo, a boat driver who was waiting under the palm trees on Ngapali beach, said he hoped the communities, businesses and local authorities will eventually learn that sand mining affects their own long-term interests. “I wish they wouldn't destroy the nature,” he said.

The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.