Whether it is sand, fossil fuel or timber: most materials flow from impoverished to rich places, whether across the oceans or inside large countries like China or India.
Name a well-known environmental organisation. The World Wildlife Fund? Sure, everyone knows the panda, it has royal support and we’ve all seen pictures of dead elephants with gaping wounds.
But as horrible as wildlife crime is, there’s one criminal activity ten times bigger than all other illegal wildlife crime combined. Try naming it, or any organisation that combats it.
Sand mining has no bleeding elephants - but it is the elephant in the room of environmental issues. Illegal sand mining has ten times more value than all wildlife crime.
Indeed, it’s bigger than all other environmental crimes combined, according to a study by Luis Fernando Ramadon, a police investigator and mining crimes professor at the National Police Academy in Brazil.
Professor Ramadan told The Ecologist: “It’s an easy form of enrichment with less risk and costs than trafficking of drugs, humans or organs.” He adds that aside from being so profitable, “it is maybe also the most harmful to the environment".
Asking Sumaira Abdulali how sand mining is harmful is like asking for a drizzle but receiving the full-blown Indian monsoon. “Soil erosion, landslides, water table loss, infertility of farmland, disturbances of ecosystems and marine life, beach disappearances, collapsing bridges…”.
One night in 2004, she had had enough of it. In what had become a nighttime routine, trucks came and went to the seafront near her house South from Mumbai. They stole the beach.
Abdulali called the police and drove to the beach. “Instead of rushing to the scene, the police tipped the illegal sand miners”, Abdulali told me.
As she waited in her car for the police to arrive, the men came from the beach, pulled her out of her car and assaulted her. “During the beating, one guy asked: ‘Do you know who I am?’ He was the son of a local politician, but also owner of a large construction company.” His father later became the state’s environment Minister.
Abdulali sued the sand mafia and won. But fighting the sand mafia is a risky affair. Sandhya Ravishankar, a Chennai based journalist, was threatened for her reports on Tamil Nadu’s sand mafia.
Despite a ban in 2013, beach sand mining for minerals remained a lucrative business in Tamil Nadu. At one point police raided 15 locations simultaneously, finding 455,245 ton of illegally mined beach minerals. The evidence suggests that almost a million tons has been exported since the ban has come into force.
Abdulali and Ravishankar are sand mafia challengers who survived. According to author and expert Vince Beiser, hundreds of people were killed over sand extraction, in India alone.
Contrary to our intuition, useful sand is scarce. Forget deserts. Desert winds make sand roll and therefore round. Edgy grains are needed for concrete, the main use of sand. Building booms have caused these sand mining booms - but there’s another reason why 75 to 90 percent of all beaches are disappearing.
Minerals such as rutile and ilmenite, found in beach sand, are in everything from titanium parts of consumer goods to paint to paper to plastics. India has 35 percent of all ilmenite. Going to Goa with sunscreen in your luggage? There is a good chance that the ilmenite in it came from a beach.
In Indonesia, Australia’s Indo Mines Limited is after the iron on one beach, which doubles as a barrier against salt intrusion from the ocean into coastal farms.
When they proposed a massive expanding to cover a 1.8km by 22km area – also the home of 20,000 people – the resistance went ballistic. Many community members were jailed and police brutalities left 41 people injured.
In The Gambia, an 11-year old boy fell to his death in one of the massive holes left behind by a sand mining firm, a hole they should have filled. The beach is now flooded, attracting crocodiles that attacked women who tend nearby gardens.
In this conflict, 45 people were arrested and sued. Zircon, the mineral mined here, was exporting to China. Aside from being sold as gemstone, sand is used to store nuclear waste.
Camila Rolando, a Barcelona based researcher, maps environmental conflicts in Western Africa for the EnvJustice project. “The conflict in The Gambia left an impression across the Senegalese border.
"The villages around the Niafrang dune try to prevent that a new beach mine opens there. They depend on rice growing, market gardening, fishing, oyster farming and tourism – all of which would be negatively affected.”
An armed rebel group in Senegal, the MFDC, is also against the proposed project. In reaction, the Senegalese government deployed extra military forces in the area. This is how sand wars can start.
Will you ever walk into a shop and ask for a pot of Tamil-Nadu-free-paint? No. And there’s no tropical beach logo for this. Waiting for enlightened CEOs is equally naive.
Only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in North America or Europe but they consume about 50 percent of all titanium dioxide – whose production lines creates conflicts everywhere but in North America or Europe.
The Atlas of Environmental justice has the details of nine local sand conflicts relating to ilmenite and rutile alone – all in the Global South. So what can we do?
Martinez-Alier argues that humanity needs to dig, produce and trade a factor less. In his jargon, digging in The Gambia for production in China and selling in the US is all part of the social metabolism of the global economy, like blood that flows through a body. Based on planetary boundaries data, he argues the global economy suffers from too high blood pressure.
Martinez-Alier said: “Those calling for green growth fail to understand that the inputs of energy and materials into the economy grow to unsustainable levels.
"Whether it is sand, fossil fuel or timber: most materials flow from impoverished to rich places, whether across the oceans or inside large countries like China or India. Local environmental conflicts are born from the opposition to this.”
However, Martinez-Alier adds: “When a success is achieved against some dirty local extraction, the knowledge of how to win is quickly reinforcing a global movement for environmental justice.” It seems that the multinationals are becoming ever more powerful, but so are the multinational anti-extraction coalitions.
Sand conflicts rage on all continents, but the conflict level is so granular that we fail to see them. Especially in poorer countries, communities increasingly find themselves battling on frontlines opened by unscrupulous companies and complicit local politicians.
These communities need all the support we can give them. And it is they who deserve the credit for trying to throw some sand in the already overheated machine that we know as the global, industrialised economy.
Nick Meynen is the project officer for global policies and sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau.