The economy weighs on sand
By a fallacious sense of ownership claim over the planet, some humans have covered earth with more man-made mass than earth’s natural biomass. That’s saying something. It means that anthropogenic activities have been so drastic, so all-encompassing that in the year 2020 the produced and accumulated man-made objects far exceeded what the earth naturally generates. And it is believed that most of this built object, the infrastructure, and materials around us are made up of one core element, sand.
Sand is the basis on which the economy is structured—it is used in most infrastructure-based projects that give meaning to early-twentieth century ideas of economic development and resource governance.
The ways of thinking, being and inhabiting spaces and landscapes by human actors are imagined through infrastructures. So, the expansion and renewal of new infrastructures is enmeshed in negotiating with existing boundaries of natural resources such as coal, oil, sand and gravel. Sand’s existence in the economy is steeped in this logic, which allows for its extraction, especially from riverine spaces.
In the 1950s, with the expansion of roads for fast travel in Northern Italy, sand extraction’s impact became notably visible on the environment, particularly with respect to its harmful impact on rivers. A similar scene unfolded in France in the 1970s, where the River Rhone dried up when water-retaining sand was pumped out of it. This led to a temporary ban in sand mining activities in 1968 by the water authorities. The Dutch too, have been in the business of draining water and making land from extracted sand material since the twelfth century. Today, 17 percent of land in Netherlands is reclaimed from salt and freshwater lakes and the North sea.
Over time, as the growth of rich nations kept slowing down, sand mining also reduced in several European countries yet neoliberalism’s global ascent in the late 1960s meant that the demand for sand aggregates mushroomed exponentially with a slight technical change—the task of sustaining this influential model of economic flow was outsourced to poorer countries, under the garb of making these regions infrastructurally development-oriented. Major construction projects on dams, bridges, roads, buildings, skyscrapers, malls, and airports aided by international financial bodies and Western technical expertise were undertaken in Asian and African countries for this purpose. Historically, this process involved massive reclamation of land, sweeping regions clean of their rich biodiversity, people and culture, and provoking large-scale displacement under the banner of ‘greater common good.’
Today, countries such as India, Nepal, China, Morocco, Ethiopia, Singapore, and Cambodia have become significant players in the sand extraction business. In 2005 and 2006, almost 9 percent — 236 million cubic meters per year — of China’s demand for sand was met by Poyang Lake, which had replaced Yangtze river after a 2000 legislation that noticed ecological degradation in the river by mining activities. The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basins in the Indian subcontinent has been identified as rich sources of sand to feed the local needs of the economy in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia export sand to meet Singapore’s growing demand for land reclamation projects for urban development; Nepal extracts more sand than it internally uses so it has historically exported sand aggregates to the adjoining Indian state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; and Moroccan sand, half of which is illegally extracted for construction every year, is used in building hotels and restaurants in Southern Spain.
Sand’s appeal thus is for both licit and illicit economy. Its governance has been described as a major sustainability challenge of the twenty first century by the United Nations Environment Programme. In India close to 328.737 cases of illegal mining were reported across the country in last three years. Cambodian sand that finds home in Singapore is not always officially recorded making the government lose money on it. For the revenue-generating state, since sand is a resource mineral, there are jurisdictional overlaps and lack of clarity on legislations, policy and governance on mining activities of this resource, which is easily and abundantly available in plain sight making its ‘management’ rather difficult. But sand’s role is also crucial in politics. Major election campaigns and political funds are generated from the unaccounted sand business. The money that is circulated through this mechanism is embedded in violence. Between January 2019 and November 2020, 193 people have been killed in India due to sand mining operations and during December 2020 and March 2022, 418 people lost their lives. Sand business, therefore, is often described as mafiaesque in nature, a point extensively covered and documented in media and policy reports. Yet what remains less visible is the labour participation in sand mining, which, in most developing countries, is informal, artisanal, small-scale and (visibly) exploitative.
As the sand business grows and its movement across the supply chain network expands in the form of extraction, transportation, and consumption both locally and globally, questions emerge about what forms of social, political, environmental, and economic relations are evoked, transformed, sustained, and destroyed by the sand business. There is also a case to be made for what the extraction of sand from rivers, lakes, seas, oceans, and forests means for the species that inhabit these spaces. Put differently, if the economy of sand weighs on every other aspect of life and form, is it an institution worth supporting? What are the alternative ways of living and being that arise in taking sand as a necessary element of life, existence—not just economy?
But even so, the ‘benefits’ of sand to the economy have not been put to empirical test. As a result, most mining policies and research have only focused on the broadly perceived economic and environmental impact of sand mining. There is little that is known in terms of who are the people behind mining activities; how is it carried out; what is the site of sand extraction; where is it transported and sold; and which industries, other than the cement industry, consume sand-based products. These are pertinent questions to understand the inequalities and power hierarchies in the sand economy. Two projects on sand mining at the University of Ghent, Belgium and Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway aim to provide ethnographic perspective on sand mining business: one, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, looks at the political economy of riverine sand mining in South Asia (Nepal, India and Bangladesh), whereas the other, supported by the Belgium Development Corporation, studies mining activities, livelihoods perspectives and policy insights on sand, keeping Morocco and Tanzania as case study examples.
Saumya Pandey is a doctoral researcher working on sediments of the Himalayan river systems. Her research project follows world’s second most sought-after resource, sand, which is central to future-oriented economic structuring. She is affiliated to the CMI, Bergen, Norway and the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University.
This blogpost introduces a number of blogs and research outputs on the governance of sand mining. The reports can be found here