All graphics by Ruth Govaerts

Who stole the beach?

As part of a special series, META looks at how different cases of environmental injustice are causing inequality around the world.

When hitting the beach this summer one of the only worries you might have is if a pick pocket nabs your wallet as you take a dip.

But in an increasing number of places local people worry about organised criminals stealing the whole beach.

Beaches are the target for organised gangs all over the world. The building boom in countries like China and India and worldwide demand for consumer goods containing sand minerals has enriched criminals who specialise in stealing beaches.

These gangs have become known as ‘sand mafias’ and their impact, if understood globally, is massive. Illegal sand mining is bigger than all other environmental crimes combined.

Dying to save the beach in India

Ruth Govaerts
75 to 90% of all beaches in the world are disappearing

India is a particular hotbed of sand mining conflicts, from beach sand mining in the South to riverbed sand mining in the Himalayas. Hundreds have been killed by various branches of sand mafia, including activists, police officers and investigative journalists. Sumaira Abdulali is one of those Indians who survived this struggle, although she too faced a beating and an assassination attempt. In 2004, she noticed that the beach near her house in Alibaug, near Mumbai, was shrinking. She heard trucks at night that she suspected were carting the sand away and decided to take action. She called the police, took her car and drove to where the road ended at the beach, expecting to meet them there.

“Instead of rushing to the crime scene, the police apparently warned [off] the illegal sand miners”, said Abdulali. As she waited in her car for the police to arrive, the men present at the beach pulled her out and assaulted her. She survived, but was hospitalised. As she was beaten, a man from the mob asked: “Do you know who I am?” His father was the owner of a construction materials company with a near-monopoly in the area and an important local politician. The point he hammered down was: don’t mess with us. The same mafia boss later became a minister for the whole state, Minister for the Environment.

But Abdulali did mess with them. Two years later, she started a lawsuit. With success. The Bombay High Court banned sand extraction, which remained in place until 2015. Abdulali tots up the cost of sand extraction in India: soil erosion, landslides, falling water tables, infertility of farmland, disturbances of ecosystems and marine life, beach disappearances and collapsing infrastructure. That includes train bridges that collapse due to illegal sand mining in the river beneath.

Bye bye beaches: the elephant in the room?

Ruth Govaerts
The world is running out of sand

For a number of reasons, 75 to 90 percent of all natural sand beaches are currently disappearing. The causes of the surge in demand for sand are attributed to a number of reasons. They range from a booming building industry to land expansion to mining of minerals at beaches. An element of global injustice is that only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in North America or Europe but they consume about 50 percent of all titanium dioxide, which is mostly extracted from beaches in the global South.

Illegal sand mining has ten times more economic value than all wildlife crime. In fact, illegal sand mining is bigger than all other environmental crimes combined, according to a study by Luis Fernando Ramadon, a police investigator and mining crimes professor at the National Police Academy in Brazil. Professor Ramadan explains: “It’s an easy form of enrichment with less risk and costs than trafficking of drugs, humans or organs.” He adds that aside from being so profitable, “it is maybe also the most harmful to the environment”.

From sand scarcity to sand wars?

Ruth Govaerts
Will wars be fought over access to sand?

In Indonesia it’s not just beaches that are stolen, whole islands have disappeared after the mafia razed them for selling the sand to Singapore. In the booming city state, 1 kilo of sand was at one point more expensive than 1 liter of crude oil. The reason for that was a sand export ban from a whole bunch of regional sand exporting countries, which came in effect after an explosion of problems related to sand mining in those countries. After the islands were erased from the map, a dispute between Singapore and Indonesia arose as to where the international border between them lay. And in the South Chinese Sea the tensions between the US and China have many angles but as The Economist wrote a while ago: the elephant in the room might be the enormous reserves of sand available for extraction in the shallow sea.

It’s obvious from the story of sand mining that a singular focus on recycling materials won’t take the cut. To reverse the trend, we’ll need to build and consume less – globally. That, in turn, requires a radically different view on the economic system that currently reigns supreme. To live well within planetary boundaries, we’ll need a postgrowth strategy for the economy. The European Parliament is ready to discuss this – but it remains unclear who from the European Commission will listen.