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Palau small community voices outrage over 50-year sand mining proposal

Koror- The Ngarchelong State community is outraged over a proposed sand mining project by a Japanese company, calling the plan a serious threat to their environment and livelihood.

The proposed project is due to be located on the home reefs and seagrass bed of a small community in the north of Palau.

The same areas are home to numerous endangered species such as dugongs, turtles, stingrays, eagle rays and other fish species.

The local community relies heavily on subsistence fishing and food gathering in these areas. According to the Environmental Assessment of the project, the proposed sand mining is a joint venture between the Ngarchelong State Government, RAM Corporation, Inc- a Japanese company.

Ann Singeo (standing) speaks passionately to the local community at a public hearing on the proposed Sand Mining project in Ngarchelong. State. Photo by Richard W. Brooks

The proposed project aims to dredge an unlimited amount of sand for the next 50 years. The venture gives 35 percent of the sand mining profits to the state while the rest is for the Japanese RAM Corporation.

The former governor of Ngarchelong State, Browny Salvador, reportedly signed the joint venture agreement on behalf of the state in August of 2017.

On Saturday night, dozens of Ngarchelong State residents filled the community center to voice their concerns over the proposal, with many angered by the lack of the state officials’ communication regarding the project. The RAM Corporation said as part of the project, they will also be improving existing harbors and development of marine navigational channels to aid access to the mining sites.

The company said it is investing $1.8 million in the project and the State is estimated to earn $378,000 per year for the sale of the marine sand. RAM Corporation also claimed in their EA in June that the project has an overwhelming support from the people based on a socio-economic survey from 14 interviews conducted with individuals mostly government employees.

However, in the public hearing on Saturday, most of the residents were surprised by the magnitude and the duration of the sand mining project. Residents opposed the plan; calling on the Environmental Quality Protection Board (EQPB) to turn down the project as the sand mine was a threat to the livelihood of community that depends on the ocean.

A small group of dugong seen close to Ngerkeklau island. The animals use the area for feeding and resting, the same area proposed for sand mining. Photo by Richard Brooks

One of the residents during the public hearing also pointed out that the location of the sand mining is a major fishing ground, contrary to the claims by the company that the marine life will not be affected because the area is all composed of dead corals and sand.

The residents are also concerned that the sand mining will disturb the numerous vulnerable and extremely rare species’ habitat.

The area is a known mating site for stingrays, feeding ground for large numbers of dugongs and ornate eagle rays.

Ann Singeo , Executive Director of Ebiil Society, an NGO group in Palau, said that the community will continue to fight the proposed sand mining.

“Last night was a good demonstration of how small communities can join together to stand up against these bad corporate practices that steal away peoples lives in the hope that we do not have the capability of understanding the technicalities around contracts and environmental assessments and cannot question project integrity.”

Members of the EQPB board who conducted the public hearing assured that they understood the community’s standpoint and wanted to ensure that last night was a critical part of the process that informs their decision making.

The new governor of Ngarchelong State, Richard Ngiratrang vowed to take into account the wishes of the community and will re-visit the agreement signed between the former governor and the Japanese company.

Marine Protection Pioneer

Palau has long been a pioneer in marine protection, banning commercial fishing from 80 percent of its territorial waters. Last year it introduced the "Palau Pledge" requiring tourists to sign a promise stamped into their passport that they will not harm the environment.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. is an award-winning environmental advocate who has repeatedly stressed that the “environment is the economy and the economy in the environment.”

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