Faced with rising sea levels and coastal erosion caused in part by coastal sand mining, carting away of free beach sand for commercial uses, the national government has begun a campaign to save its coastal sand by digging up sand inland, instead. But communities near these newly-created sand collection spots are fighting back.
Paul Gbogbo, a farmer from one of the river sand mining sites, Abomey Calavi, told IRIN, “We want our compensation to be clear. We are from the countryside. The state cannot just take our land like that. We are not declaring war; we just do not want to be taken advantage of.”
Disappearing coastal sand
Along West African coastal countries, rising sea levels linked to warming global temperatures have wiped out homes, hotels, roads and harvests.
An increase in construction in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, in recent years has driven up demand for sand, which is mixed with cement to pour into foundations.
The government is driving the building boom, according to Benin’s Minister of Mines, Saka Lafia. “The government has its role to play [to fight coastal erosion] because we know that the biggest consumer of sand is the state. On all the government’s construction sites, we will no longer be able to use coastal sand,” he told IRIN.
Since 2001, the government’s Ministry of Housing, Planning and Control of Coastal Erosion has been searching for ways to fight coastal erosion, said its spokesman, Cesaire Agossa, “The state should have done this [find alternative sand sources] a long time ago, but fearing an unmanageable and costly situation, it decided not to. We cannot forbid coastal sand mining until we propose a solution.”
Since September 2008, the government has accelerated its hunt for alternative sand, and has begun digging up sand at more than 30 places along rivers and lakes in Cotonou and surrounding inland cities Abomey Calavi, So-Ava, Ouidah and Seme Kpodji.
Weighing the risks of mining coastal verses non-coastal sand, the government chose the latter, said a director from the Ministry to Control Coastal Erosion, Roukaiyatou Sobabe Fadikpe, “There can be long-term risks to this plan [dredging sand inland] but specialists say that in the short term, it is not as risky as coastal sand mining. On the coast, it is harder to manage the risks because of the marine environment.”
But international environmental campaign group, Greenpeace, has denounced river sand mining, along with other forms of mining, because the chemicals used to separate the sand from minerals can pollute the water.
Benin’s government plans to charge for the non-coastal sand starting in January 2009, when a new ban on coastal sand mining is to take effect.
Though banned for more than 15 years, coastal sand mining is still common in Benin.
Fadikpe told IRIN without enforcement, nothing will change. “Just two weeks ago, we saw trucks lined up along the beach. But once a ban is enforced, people will no longer have the right to do that.”
The owner of a Cotonou construction company who requested to remain anonymous told IRIN he is not changing habits yet, “I will continue until there is a decree and it will no longer be possible for me to dig for coastal sand.”
He said he pays sand diggers between US$87 and US$125 per truck load. Benin’s average monthly salary is less than US$50, according to the World Bank.
The only cost for sand diggers is US$2 paid to city governments each time they collect coastal sand. But this will change with the new inland sand quarries where people will need to pay taxes to both the federal and local governments, according to the Ministry of Mines.
In early 2007, the government paid for the relocation of residents from Seme Kpodji to other zones to make room for a sand quarry. But the local non-profit Front United Against Coastal Erosion (FULAM) said the government awarded land and housing to people based on favouritism rather than need. The government has since suspended the relocation program.
FULAM also said the government did not involve waterfront communities in their planning.
Despite early challenges, the government is moving ahead with inland sand mining, funded in part by US$45 billion pledged by Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
“We cannot drag our feet,” said government spokesman Agossa, “because time is running out.”