Between murders and corruption, the lucrative sand trade

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It is a lunar landscape of several kilometers long, dotted with fissures and sand dunes. A few dozen meters from the Gambian coast, a West African country, black open sand mines stretch as far as the eye can see. The coastal town of Sanyang is the epicenter of this trade in The Gambia. From the entrance of the city, hundreds of trucks loaded with sand multiply the round trip to unload their loads. Numerous police checks check the cars, without ever stopping these trucks. In torrential rains, Gambian miners are exhausted from extracting sand with Chinese machines.

Since 2018, the mining company Gambia Angola China (GACH mining) exploits black sand, which contains high concentrations of zirconium, silica and quartz [1]. Led by Abubakary Jawara, a Gambian entrepreneur who is also Consul General of The Gambia in Beijing, this company exports this sand to China at a price of USD 200 per tonne, the equivalent of EUR 196.

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

In a mine south of Sanyang, exhausted miners roam wildly. Some doze in prison, others pray with their foreheads on the ground on an embroidered cloth. Twelve of them smoke Chinese cigarettes under a makeshift shelter, surrounded by the smell of gasoline emanating from the construction machinery. Most of these workers do not have the luxury of being able to refuse this work, however exhausting it may be. During the rainy season, frequent floods flatten the entire city. Despite the monsoon, the trucks frantically cross the muddy roads.

Miners keep an eye on the comings and goings on the dunes. Every foreign visitor is a potential threat. Climate activists or journalists are not welcome. Sinking into this labyrinth of sand is to discover an immense metal structure resembling a cathedral facing the mines. This thirty meter high machine is used to suck up black sand from groundwater, which is several meters below the ground.

Trucks transport sand from Sanyang to the capital Banjul. © Paul Boyer/Remi Carton/Reporterre

It’s never been so rough »

You don’t have to go far to see the devastation wrought by the exploitation of black sand in Sanyang. The huge quarry is bordered by small farmland. On their plot of about 1 hectare, Mariama and Aminata [*] mainly grow rice and tomatoes. From their garden you can see the huge machine that wins the precious black sand. Mariama lifts her black and white checked loincloth with both hands and struggles to make her way through the water-invaded lot. Everything is under water from one side of the field to the other »tease this mother.

Due to sand extraction, Mariama’s garden has to deal with major floods that destroy crops. © Paul Boyer/Remi Carton/Reporterre

Years of sand mining have deeply damaged the country. With every rain shower, the water struggles to run off and overflows the plots. The phenomenon is especially 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 cultivate because of the mine, we can no longer feed our families. »

Aminata’s crops are poor because of the nearby sand mine. © Paul Boyer/Remi 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’s never been so hard, I hardly earn anything anymore », she laments with a defeated look. The two women say they previously earned between 25,000 and 50,000 dalasis 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 that they will only earn a few thousand dalasis.

Due to sand extraction, Mariama’s garden has to deal with major floods that destroy crops. © Paul Boyer/Remi Carton/Reporterre

Faced with the destruction of their work tools, the gardeners of Sanyang sought compensation. Mine officers came heresays Marianne. They wrote down the names of all the women and promised money. » The farmer is disappointed to learn that she only gets 3,000 Dalasis, or almost 54 euros. We accepted the money because all agricultural products had been destroyed. We had no other option. »

In Sanyang, confront those responsible for: GACH Reclaiming the damage caused by sand extraction is a difficult task. On the mining site, only a supervisor represents the company and directs the workers. After negotiations, he declined to comment and returned the responsibility for an interview to the Gambian Ministry of Geology. news reporter repeatedly telephoned the ministry. Without answer.

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

wild looting

In addition to the industrial exploitation of the precious black grains, another scourge afflicts the Gambian sands: the savage pillage 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 roadside, it only takes a few hours for a handful of men to fill the back of a van. This sand is then used as backfill or transformed into concrete.

The village of Faraba Banta, located on the banks of the Gambia River, is a particular target of sand looters. A hundred meters from the houses, a gigantic wild quarry disfigures the landscape. The imposing dunes have been excavated over a few meters between the trees. Here, too, the water has submerged everything, making the bush look like 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 illegally looted. © Paul Boyer/Remi Carton/Reporterre

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

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

In the alleys of the village, few people dare to conjure up the drama. Among them, Bubacar Darboe, wounded by a bullet. On June 18, 2018, this 69-year-old father joined 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 was just shot in the right leg. Dragged to the ground by the police, he was lynched for minutes. Transferred to a hospital in Banjul, he survived but remained severely disabled and unable to stand without the help of a walker. My life will never be the same again. I can’t put food on my family’s table anymore »he takes a breath, pointing to his battered leg.

We are sometimes afraid of being killed »

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

Buba Janneh, President of Concern Youths of Gunjur. © Paul Boyer/Remi Carton/Reporterre

Since 2018, a hundred young people have been replanting 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 members of the association. 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 »slips Buba Janneh, secretary general of the association.

The government is involved in this crime. »

Amid a sickening smell of fishmeal coming from a Chinese factory 100 meters away, Buba Janneh proudly walks among the coconut trees 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 beach in order to further protect the coast and prevent erosion.

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

Buba Janneh fights in fear, because denouncing the sand trade and its ecological consequences can cost lives. In 2020, association members and residents revolted against 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 intimidated because we publicly denounce that the government is involved in this crime. You have to be very careful, sometimes we are afraid of being killed, to be honest », confesses the young man, leaning on one of the trees he has planted himself. The association is now planting trees on the coast outside Gunjur. My dream would be to plant trees up to Banjul », says Buba. An action that can only be positive, knowing that by 2100, if the sea level rises one meter, more than 9 % of the country could be flooded, including the capital Banjul.

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