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The long arm of illegal sand mining in Kenya

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – Unsustainable sand-mining can cause serious degradation of river systems. Fine sand takes millions of years to form in waterways but just hours to strip and forward along a vast illegal chain of trade, which is costing Kenya and other east African countries millions of dollars in lost revenue annually, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

Sand has been the cornerstone of civilisation since humans began using tools. Many historians believe that the first evidence of man-made shelter is in Terra Amata in France. Dating back to 400,000 BC, these temporary huts likely provided shelter for early humans to use during the hunting season. This is one of the first known instances of man using mud, a mixture of sand and water, to reinforce a shelter.

Today, the construction industry is one of the industries in the world with sand being a major contributor in everything to do with almost all construction materials. Sand Shifters, a local South African sand supplier, estimated that annually, over 50 billion tons of sand is used in construction globally.

Not all sand has the same properties, and therefore, different sands are used for different supplies. Beach sand, for example, would be a rare ingredient in construction, due to the composition being irregular.

In this piece, we will be discussing river sand and the impact of illegal sand mining, particularly in Kenya. River sand can be coarse or fine, depending on the requirements. It is more common to find coarse river sand in construction and it is used as screed to level out floors and as bedding sand for paving.

This fine sand takes millions of years to form in waterways but just hours to strip and forward along a vast illegal chain of trade, which is costing Kenya and other east African countries millions of dollars in lost revenue annually.

A study commissioned by ENACT, a platform that builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime, implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and Interpol, published in May this year, painted a bleak picture of how illegal sand mining in Kenya has had devastating impacts on local youth and the environment.

The study, titled Kenya’s sand cartels: ecosystems, lives and livelihoods lost researched by Mohamed Daghar, regional co-ordinator for ENACT Eastern Africa, found that weak legislation, ineffective controls and an insatiable demand all contributed to illegal and unregulated sand mining in Kenya and east Africa as a whole.

Run by violent criminal cartels, the trade is destroying local livelihoods and the environment, as well as increasing conflict in the communities living in sand-producing areas, the study shows.

The sand is sourced locally in most of Kenya’s semi-rural counties in the east, west, central and coastal parts where informality and lawlessness reign. The chain of activity is mostly covert with very little support from authorities to resolve the tensions or advocate against the actors.

The study noted that sand is the most used natural resource in the world after water and while sand is a renewable resource it needs to be harvested rather than mined as harvesting is carefully regulated to ensure sustainability as it conforms to the extraction of sand up to certain levels and in ways that allow the resource to replenish itself naturally.

Sand mining, on the other hand, involves the complete removal of sand from the source with criminals extracting massive amounts of sand up to bedrock level by, for example, driving trucks into waterways and mining riverbanks, completely eliminating the prospects for future replenishment.

Despite improved government regulations, cartels illegally mining sand in Kenya are sophisticated and include brokers, loaders and gangs who operate at local levels where the sand is sourced. Transport companies use brokers to source sand locally where loaders fill sand trucks for brokers, gangs offer protection and prevent conflict with local communities or other cartels. Very similar to how South American drug cartels operate.

The immense destruction of ecosystems due to illegal, unsustainable sand mining activities not only affects the immediate environment but has a multiplier effect on waterways and land surfaces. Such destruction leads to the loss of birds and animals that live or depend on water bodies. Trees and other vegetation whither and, over time, this environmental degradation makes the land unproductive for farming – a subsistence livelihood practice that local communities depend on.

The study found that even state officers were an integral part of this illicit trade, working together with the transport companies that sell the sand to the end user. State officers would demand a fee to protect the cartels so the criminal value chain can operate with impunity.

Sampling four Kenyan counties, Machakos, Kajiado, Nairobi and Makueni, the findings revealed that the main market for this illicit sand is Nairobi City County where the demand for construction is the highest in the country.

People’s lives are also affected as communities are divided, with those in favour of sand mining as a source of income and those against it due to the negative consequences. This dilemma increases community tensions, leading to sand-related violence and even deaths.

Those who support illegal sand mining feel they are entitled to the resource and see it as a godsend that will pull them out of poverty and hopelessness. Some women with no other sources of income have been indirectly driven into commercial sex work to serve the sand workers at the mining sites.

Children are also used for labour in sand mining. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when schools were closed for long periods, opening only erratically, more children became involved. It provided them with a daily income. With the pandemic subsiding, schools have reopened. But parents are struggling to get their children back to school as they want to continue earning, says Jacob Maluki of Kenya’s Water Resources Authority.

But there are some positive findings to the study with the county of Makueni being the only county in Kenya with a solid framework to guide its sand mining activities. The county, once an epicentre of sand mining, established strict policies as well as a central sand authority to regulate sand harvesting and trading in 2015.

In seven years, Makueni has managed to eliminate the cartels and replenish sand on its land surfaces and in waterways. The county now has enough sand for commercial trading and is planning to set up centres where ethical trading of sand can commence.

Further afield, there are little to no regional frameworks from bodies such as the East African Community or the African Union to regulate sand activities. There are also no international frameworks on sand extraction activities.

However, even if regional and national frameworks are developed, they can only be applied effectively if national efforts proactively include responses from the local levels in sand-producing areas as community voices are critical in informing inter-local policies and thus national frameworks to regulate sand activities.

Naidoo is a environmental multimedia journalist and activist

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.