Cambodian Seahorses sucked up with Singapore sand

Banned from Indonesia because of environmental damage, Chinese and Vietnamese barges supplying Singapore's massive appetite for sand for landfill have simply shifted to the pristine islands and reefs of Cambodia, with its lax laws. Yet a surprising halt to disastrous dredging has provided a respite for the coastline, and a rare population of seahorses, but the question is whether it will be enforced, and for how long?

By Ron Gluckman /Sihanoukville, Koh Rung and Phnom Penh, Cambodia

CAMBODIA'S SHORELINE RAPIDLY RECEDES behind waves of white foam as our boat roars out of Sihanoukville port, bound for what have long been uncharted waters. Across the border in Thailand, the coast long ago shifted from Robinson Crusoe retreats to a grand esplanade of beach huts, banana pancakes and Jack Johnson music. Yet Cambodia’s palm-fringed beaches still look like a sepia photograph from half a century ago.

  Credit, if you call it that, belongs to decades of war and the world’s worst genocide. But growth and stability has swept these shores in recent years, bringing adventurous investors to this longtime Asian backwater, like Rory and Mel Hunter, an Australian couple guiding me to a pair of islands where they are building a small, upscale resort.

  At least, that was the plan before the meltdown burst Cambodia’s bubble; in recent years growth had been among the heartiest in the region, ranging to 13 percent. Now, it’s reeling, and investors have fled or melted away, like Hong Kong’s Millennium Group, which trumpeted a US$10 billion development on Koh Rung, Cambodia’s largest island. Millennium wanted to add roads, resorts, residential estates and an airport in a scheme modeled on Thailand’s Phuket. The Hunters had modest plans for Koh Ouen and Bong, two tiny isles near Koh Rung, cuddled so close together locals call them Song Saa – the Sweetheart Islands. But as boom became bust, Millennium closed its Cambodian offices leaving Koh Rung in the raw. Longtime Cambodian residents, the Hunters will stay and scale down from $1,000-per night villas to a more ecological and affordable resort.

  “In some ways, this may be a good thing,” Rory reflects on the slowdown. Many with a stake in Cambodia’s tourism growth feel much the same, that the boom was too sudden, threatening the pristine environment. As we pass a Koh Rung beach, stretching for miles without a single footprint, Rory adds: “Now, we all have a chance to rethink things, and maybe plan better.”

  Better planning would not only help a tourism industry that topped two million visitors for the first time in 2007 – an astonishing 50-fold increase in 15 years – it could benefit every sector. Transparency International ranks Cambodia among Asia’s most corrupt countries; only Myanmar gets worse grades. It’s also among Asia’s poorest nations, and wealth disparity has widened despite the boom. Land evictions have become epidemic - greedy developers partnered with corrupt officials have swept aside entire villages in real estate scams. All of Cambodia’s islands have been leased to foreign investors in the last few years. “Country For Sale,” was the title of a scathing report from watchdog Global Witness, detailing rampant corruption that reached across every sector and implicated longtime ruler Hun Sen and his family.

  The response was typically Cambodian. The report was banned, and Global Witness barred from returning. "If they come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken," said Hun Neng, a provincial governor and brother of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

  Originally welcomed to Cambodia to help monitor its resources, UK-based Global Witness has become a recurrent thorn in the side of the administration, detailing illegal exploitation of forests, gems and, invariably, people. So the latest news from Cambodia comes as a complete shocker. Global Witness and the government agree on an issue.

  In May, Cambodia banned the export of sea sand. Sucked from the seabed by massive dredgers, it has increasingly filled the cement and landfill needs of expanding countries – mainly Singapore. Already banned across Asia, dredging rips up reefs and destroys marine environments, as detailed by Global Witness. “The government hasn’t exactly agreed with us, but this certainly draws a lot of attention to the problem,” says researcher Eleanor Nichol. “We welcome the ban and hope it is effectively enforced.”

  Hailed as a rare victory by environmentalists, and welcomed by the fledgling resorts and dive shops that are starting to attract tourists to Cambodia’s coast, the ban’s biggest boost comes to a small but largely silent local population – seahorses.

  Harvested to the brink of extinction around the world, seahorses have surely benefited from Cambodia’s decades of turmoil. As tourists flocked to Thailand and later Vietnam, Cambodia’s lost coast was the scene of fierce fighting from the 1970s through 1990s. Bullet and mortar holes are still visible in seaside villas in Kep, a charming coastal resort called La Perle de la Côte d'Agathe in the 1960s. Soon after, the only idyll in these parts was underwater, among the thick grasses filled with seahorses around Koh Rung.

  “We have seen groups of 50 together at one time,” says Paul Ferber, a British dive instructor who moved from Phuket to the more remote and rich waters around Koh Rung. Such sightings are exceedingly rare, only reported in a handful of sits around the world, according to the international group Project Seahorse.

  There are 33 known species of seahorses, which are actually fish, akin to tuna and salmon, all listed as endangered by international treaty or believed threatened. America is the largest market for seahorse tropical pets, but this is a sliver of sales. Some 20-24 million seahorses are taken from the seas each year, mainly by exporters from India, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. Practically all are shipped to China, and ground up for medicine. Chinese believe the tiny creatures help male virility. Seahorse activists say consumption in China is still growing by about 10 percent per year.

  Some believe global seahorse stocks have declined by 50 percent or more in recent decades, despite the almost universal appeal of the unique creatures. They mate for life, and the female impregnates the male, injecting eggs into his pouch, where they are incubated, kangaroo-style. Seahorses are incredibly fragile - life spans range to four years and few reach adulthood. Death results from practically any disruption to their environment. Ferber reports that they have been decimated by dredging, dynamite and net fishing. Sightings are down to about 10 per dive, he says.

  The sand wars swept into Cambodia in 2007, after Indonesia enacted its own ban on dredging, due to disastrous impacts on islands where fisheries were destroyed and sinking reported. Most of that sand was shipped to Singapore, which expanded almost 15 percent in size since 1960. To serve its growing population, the island state plans to add another 100 square kilometers to its borders by 2030. “They don’t have much coast, so they have been taking ours,” a resident of Sihanoukville quips.

  Singapore isn’t the only recipient of Cambodia’s sand, prized for its coarseness and purity. “It’s from coral reefs,” note Ferber, “so it’s high grade.” China has also mined and traded the sand. “Cambodian coast for sand,” read one posting on Alibaba, China’s own version of EBay. Even post-ban, sellers still tout Cambodian sand. Under a listing for “700 millions cubic meters of Sea Sand from Cambodia” a current vendor notes: “We are looking for a serious buy from Singapore or other countries. We have more than 700 millions cubic meters of sea sand for exploiting.”

  Global Witness estimated that the sand exports on the southern coast might total US$35 million annually, based on exhaustive undercover investigations and a lot of extrapolation. Even to a poor country, that is shortsighted, as Cambodia is essentially selling its pristine shoreline for low-value landfill.

  The hope, from the main beaches of Sihanoukville to the quiet cove of Kep, where a new Sailing Club recently opened at the stylish Knai Bang Chatt resort, is that the ban can slow growth to the peaceful pace that brought Europeans to this Riviera of Asia.

  Cambodia’s coastal growth is central to government plans to shift tourism from the temples of Angkor Wat in the north, to promote longer stays in the country. The old Chinese-built airstrip at Sihanoukville was expanded two years ago into an international airport, but no regional carrier has added the route. Operators note that there are still too few hotels and tourist services in the area to make flights viable.

  Seahorses could help put the area on the map, and perhaps convince Cambodia to make protection permanent. Environmentalists fret that the ban remains temporary and doesn’t apply to domestic dredging. Divers report that Chinese and Vietnamese ships continue to operate while Global Witness worries that enforcement will be lax.

  Still Hunter is optimistic; noting enthusiastic local support for his resort’s privately funded marine preserve. When the resort opens next year, a resident marine biologist will be on hand to suggest ecological trips. “Imagine Thailand from 40 years ago,” he says, “and you get an idea of the potential of Cambodia’s islands.”

  For seahorses, the odds seem long the world over. But one bright spot on the horizon glimmers near Bohol, in the Philippines, another nation known for bad governance. A rare luminous variety of seahorses are protected in the Handumon marine sanctuary, which draws divers and tourists from around the globe. It’s proof that with planning and the right protection, this needn’t be the last roundup for seahorses.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia since 1991, roaming widely around the region to cover events for various magazines, like the Far Eastern Economic Review ( which ran this story in June 2009.

Words and all photos copyright RON GLUCKMAN

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