Between murder and corruption, the lucrative sand business

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It is a lunar landscape several kilometers long dotted with fissures and dunes. A few tens of meters from the coast of Gambia, a West African country, open pit black sand mines stretch as far as the eye can see. The coastal city of Sanyang is the epicenter of this trade in The Gambia. From the entrance to the city, hundreds of trucks loaded with sand multiply the rounds to unload their cargo. Countless police checkpoints check the cars without ever stopping these heavy trucks. In torrential rain, Gambian miners are exhausted and extract sand using Chinese machinery.

Since 2018, the mining company Gambia Angola China (GACH Mining) exploits black sand, which contains high concentrations of zircon, silica and quartz [1]. Headed by Abubakary Jawara, a Gambian entrepreneur who is also the Gambian Consul General in Beijing, this company exports this sand to China at a price of $200 per ton. ton, corresponding to 196 euros.

In Sanyang, a large mine makes it possible to extract the black sand from the basement. This sand is rich in zircon, silica and quartz. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

In a mine south of Sanyang, exhausted miners wander exhausted. Some doze in prison, others pray with their foreheads on the ground on an embroidered blanket. Under a makeshift shelter, twelve of them smoke Chinese cigarettes, surrounded by the smell of gasoline coming from the construction machines. Most of these workers do not have the luxury of being able to refuse this work, however exhausting. During the rainy season, frequent floods paralyze the entire city. Despite the monsoon, the trucks frantically cross the muddy roads.

On the dunes, miners investigate what comes and goes. Any foreign visitor is a potential threat. Climate activists or journalists are not welcome. To sink into this labyrinth of sand is to discover a huge metal structure, resembling a cathedral, facing the mines. This machine is thirty meters high and is used to suck up black sand from the groundwater, which lies several meters underground.

Trucks transporting sand from Sanyang to the capital Banjul. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

It has never been so rough »

You don’t have to go far to see the devastation caused by the exploitation of black sand in Sanyang. The huge quarry is surrounded by small farmland. In their plot of approximately 1 hectare, Mariama and Aminata [*] mainly grows rice and tomatoes. From their garden you can see the huge machine that extracts the precious black sand. Mariama lifts her black-and-white checkered loincloth with both hands and struggles to get through the water-invaded plot. From one side to the other of the field, everything is under water »torment this mother.

Due to sand mining, Mariama’s sea suffers from major floods that destroy crops. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

Years of sand mining have deeply damaged the soil. With each episode of rain, the water struggles to run away and floods the grounds. The phenomenon is particularly visible at the end of July. All this water drowns the plants and rots our fruits and vegetables.explains Mariama. If we can no longer farm because of the mine, we will no longer be able to feed our families. »

Aminata’s crops are poor due to the nearby sand mine. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

With her back bent in the middle of the field, Aminata uproots dozens of tomato plants that have drowned in the water. It has never been so hard, I barely earn anything anymore », she regrets with a defeated look. The two women explain that they previously earned between 25,000 and 50,000 dalasi per year, or between 450 and 900 euros approximately. This ridiculous salary made it possible to meet the needs of the household. This year they fear they will earn only a few thousand dalasis.

Due to sand mining, Mariama’s sea suffers from major floods that destroy crops. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

Faced with the destruction of their work tools, the gardeners in Sanyang tried to get compensation. My officials came hereMariana says. They took down the names of all the women and promised money. » The farmer is disillusioned when she is told that she will only receive 3,000 dalasi, or almost 54 euros. We accepted the money because all agricultural products were destroyed. We had no other option. »

In Sanyang, confront those responsible for GACH Extraction of damage caused by sand mining is a difficult task. At the mine site, only one supervisor represents the company and directs the workers. After negotiation, he declines any comment and returns responsibility for an interview to the Gambian Ministry of Geology. Reporters repeatedly contacted the ministry by phone. No answer.

Aerial view of the Faraba Banta quarries, where sand is being illegally looted. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

wild looting

In addition to the industrial exploitation of the precious black grains, another scourge afflicts the Gambian sands: the rampant looting that rages along the coast. The white sand is simply stolen to supply local construction sites with raw material. On a beach or by the side of a road, it only takes a few hours for a handful of men to fill the back of a van. This sand will then be used as backfill or turned into concrete.

The village of Faraba Banta, located on the banks of the Gambia River, is particularly the target of sand raids. A hundred meters from the houses, a gigantic wild quarry mars the landscape. Between the trees, the impressive dunes have been dug over several meters. Here, too, the water has flooded everything, giving the bush the appearance of a sticky swamp. In some places, traces of shovels are still visible, proof that the looters were there not long ago.

Aerial view of the Faraba Banta quarries, where sand is being illegally looted. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

In Faraba Banta, looting has been added to sand mining since 2007 by the Gambian company Julakay. As in Sanyang, this overexploitation of the sandy soil has damaged neighboring land, causing landslides and floods. Faced with this disaster, residents tried in 2018 to revoke Julakay’s mining permit without success. Several demonstrations broke out in Faraba Banta before being violently suppressed. On 18 June 2018, Gambia police opened fire on the crowd of angry villagers, killing three people. Since that day, the inhabitants have watched helplessly as their sand has disappeared.

Bubacar Darboe, shot by Faraba Banta. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

In the village’s streets, few dare to conjure up the drama even today. Among them, Bubacar Darboe, wounded by bullet. On June 18, 2018, this 69-year-old father attended the demonstration to convince his brother to come home before the first shots rang out. I tried to run away but I fell to the ground, I tried to get up but I couldn’t. » Bubacar Darboe is bleeding profusely. He’s just been shot in the right leg. Dragged to the ground by the police, he was lynched for long minutes. Transferred to a hospital in Banjul, he survived but remained severely disabled, unable to stand without the aid of a walker. My life will never be the same again. I can’t put food on my family’s table anymore »he breathes, pointing to his scarred leg.

We are sometimes afraid of being murdered »

Faced with this looting, young Gambians have been fighting for several years to condemn this environmental crime. You are going to the small town of Gunjur, in the Kombo district, to observe the work of the association Concern Youths of Gunjur.

Buba Janneh, Chairman of Concern Youths of Gunjur. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

Since 2018, a hundred young people have replanted trees along the coast. Their project titled A man, a tree », has paid off. For 350 dalasis (6 euros) a resident can buy a tree and plant it together with the association’s members. This motivates the villagers, it is their contribution to this disaster. We have already planted 5,000 trees with species such as coconut palms, rosewood and casuarinas »snaps Buba Janneh, general secretary of the association.

The government is implicated in this crime. »

Amid a sickening smell of fishmeal coming from a Chinese factory 100 meters away, Buba Janneh walks proudly between the coconut palms recently planted on the beach. These trees are not chosen randomly, their roots can go up to 20 meters deep into the ground. This technique makes it possible to gradually raise the level of the beach, thereby further protecting the coast and combating erosion.

The plot of female farmers suffering from the devastation caused by the exploitation of black sand in Sanyang. © Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton/Reporterre

Buba Janneh militates in fear, to condemn the sand trade and its ecological consequences can cost human lives. In 2020, members of the association and residents rioted to condemn the exploitation of sand mines in Gunjur, as in Faraba Banta two years earlier. Within hours, the soldiers were there and threatened the villagers with arrest.

We are always frightened because we publicly condemn the fact that the government is involved in this crime. You have to be very careful, sometimes we are afraid of being murdered, to be honest », confesses the young man, leaning against one of the trees he planted himself. The association is now working on planting trees on the coast, outside Gunjur. My dream would be to plant trees all the way to Banjul », says Buba. An action that can only be positive, knowing that in 2100, if the sea level rises one meter, more than 9 % of the country could be under water, including the capital Banjul.

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