Sara Lira

Dredging activities near the shore of Poyang Lake in China. Photo: Lu Jian VCG.

Crime feeds Ilegal Organizations in several countries, which has found in this activities a easy way to get financial returns, causing irreversible ambiental damages.

Illegal sand extraction in the world moves, annually, between US $ 181.96 billion and US $ 215.14 billion,  on the third position  of  the  main  global  crimes.  The  activity  looses  only  for  piracy  and counterfeiting, which accounts between $ 923 billion and $ 1.130 trillion and drug dealing, with the income between $ 426 billion and $ 652 billion.

In the month in which World Water Day is celebrated, the magazine Mineração & Sustentabilidade brings  a  special  story  about  one  of  the  most  recurrent  and  most  harmful  crimes  to  the  environment, especially rivers, lakes and seas, from where the sand is removed without control.

The information found in the beginning of this report are from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) and they are presented in the study "The Illegal Extraction of Sand in Brazil and in the World", released on January. The research was developed  by  the  agent  of  the  Federal  Police  (PF)  and  specialist  in  environmental  law, Luís  Fernando Ramadon, in the third serie about the subject. In 2016, as published on the magazine Revista Mineração, the specialist approached the illegal extraction in the country. However, in 2015, he developed an analysis called "Accounting for Illegal Mineral Extraction in Rio  de Janeiro". Now  Ramadon has expanded the  debate to other  nations, where illegal logging is profitable for criminals.

Updated Ranking of the Top Global Crimes

Updated ranking of Major Global Crime - GFI/LFR
Estimated Annual Value 2017[1]
US$ billions
923,0 - 1.130,0
Drug Trafficking
426,0 - 652,0
181,96 - 215,14
Human Trafficking
Illegal Logging
52,0 - 157,0
Illegal Mining
12,0 - 48,0
IUU Fishing
15,5 - 36,4
Illegal Wildlife Trade
5,0 - 23,0
Crude Oil Theft
5,2 - 11,9
Trafficking in Cultural Property
1,2 - 1,7
Small Arms & Light Weapons Trafficking
1,7 - 3,5
Organ Trafficking
0,84 - 1,7
Source: Global Financial Integrity – GFI/Study "The Illegal Extraction of Sand in Brazil and in the World", by Luis Fernando Ramadon.

‘’There are some places where this activities has more impact, where mafias has the control. Sand is an cheap resource, but it becomes very expansive when taken from nature without inspection control.In addition, it is not a renewable resource. Developing countries usually need this material to make builds and , so the inspection is very difficult for the police, who initially had no idea of this problem, "said the author of the study.

The  United  Nations  Environment  Program  (UNEP)  warned  in  2014  about  the  possibility  of  sand shortage  in  the  world,  due  to  the  growing  demand  for  construction  and  public  works.  The  resource  is accessible  and  available  in  rivers,  beaches,  and  deposits,  but  the  activity  comes  at  a  price:  irreversible environmental damages. 

The  problem  is  more  common  in  underdeveloped  or  developing  countries  that  require  sand  for construction and urban infrastructure works. At the top of the list are countries in Asia and Africa, such as China, India, South Africa, and other continents, such as the Americas, where Brazil stands out.

However,  according  to  the  Director  of  Global  Policy  and  Sustainability  Projects  at  the  European Environmental  Bureau,  Europe's  environmental  protection  organization,  Nick  Meynen,  the  problem  is noticeable worldwide. "Unlike oil or uranium, sand is distributed much more evenly throughout the world and problems arise all over the planet as well. It would therefore be a misrepresentation of the reality to point three or four countries where the problem is particularly  big - because this problem is glocal = global and local. Moreover, it rarely occurs at the national level, since it usually involves regional or local mafias fighting against local resistance to them", he points out.

In China, for example, cement demand has risen  by 400% in the past 20 years, according to UNEP data.  


This is the largest lake in China, with 3,585 km2, being 170 km length, 17 km width , and depth between 8 and 25 m. The place also holds the world's largest sand mine, from which 236 million cubic meters of raw material are extracted per year.

The activity led to the lowering of the water table, causing damage to the fauna, flora and residents of the area. However, according to the study, the Chinese authorities are addressing the issue, combating the construction of illegal vessels and conducting seizures and arrests, to the extent that it is possible to monitor.

 Cargo boats on Poyang Lake, China. Photo: Imagine China via Associated Press.

Singapore on the illegal sand route

In  Malaysia,  the  biggest  problem  is  related  to  the  export  of  illegal  sand,  usually  delivered to Singapore, a country that has grown considerably in recent decades.


In 2008, legally, the country imported more than $ 273 million in sand, more than any other country in the world.

The necessity of sand in Singapore has also affected areas in Indonesia, that saw the demand as a form of profit. The Indonesia population even destroyed entire islands in the seas between the two countries, due to illegal dredging. In 2003, approximately 300 million cubic meters of sand were shipped from Indonesia to Singapore for US $ 2.5 billion.
Another country that illegally exports to Singapore is Vietnam. According to the study, only in the first two months of 2017, 900.000 cubic meters of sand were transported to Singaporeans - all illegally.

Cambodia is also one of the nations where sand used in Singapore comes from. According to the study, "United Nations data showed $ 752 million worth of sand imports from Cambodia since 2007, although Cambodia reports only about $ 5 million in exports to Singapore."


In India, the problem is so serious that those who dare to report can face serious threats or even be killed. In addition to illegal dredging, some people extract the sand manually, at the risk of life. They dive about 30 meters deep to collect sand at the bottom of the river and deposit in buckets without any kind of security.

According to the Washington Post , a mafia acts in the country, controlling this millionaire and illegal market. The activity is fed by the country's unbridled growth, which represents the world's third largest construction business , behind only to China and the United States. The demand for sand is  high,  however, the  country has no  regulations on the  extraction of the material, which  causes environmental damage in the regions where the dredges operate.

Illegal sand mining in the state of Tamil, India. Photo: Sibi Arasu.

In the country, the illegal extraction of sand accounts, per year, about $ 2.3 billion, according to a survey published by the Times of India. But fight agaisnt this activity is pretty difficult by corruption and the involvement of politicians and  police  authorities in illicit  operations. Only  in  the  state of Tamil Nadu are illegally  removed  50,000  sand  trucks  per  day.  India  has  another  eleven  points  in  the  country  of  illegal dredging.

Fight against corruption

The Corruption is common in several places where extraction takes place. According to Nick Meynen, when there is no local rule, no one can expect acction from a national government.
According to him, in India, for example, the main force of attack is the combination of grassroots activists and the Supreme Court. Some people in government are accomplices of the sand mafia.

Therefore,  he states that there are  attitudes  that  non-corrupt  governments can perform  such  as regulating  the  sand  mining  sector,  setting  limits  for  extraction,  and  correct/reversible  policies  that can contribute to the growing demand for sand - for example in the construction. In some countries, builders are forced to recycle the waste from the building before turning to the production of new concrete (requiring sand).

"In  general,  a  combination  of  strong  and  binding  circular  economy  policies  as  well  as  extractive policies should be endorsed to tackle the main problem, which is the lack of ability of the so-called free market to internalize the real cost to the society of the extraction of sand ", he emphasizes. 


Occurrences of illegal sand extraction are also recorded in the Bay of Monterrey, California (United States); in South Africa; and Australia. The environmental damage, according to Luis Fernando Ramadon, is uncountable, from increased silting of  rivers to  destruction of biomes and water  courses used by communities in general. Rivers, beaches and lakes are often seriously degraded. 

Areal of Cemex, Bay of Monterrey, California (USA). Photo: Edward Thornton.

Another problem is the change in water courses, the decharacterization of the relief with  erosion, the destruction of areas of permanent preservation and even air pollution due to the increase of the amount of dust, when the miner extracts outside the authorized area or without having the licenses required.

"I am aware that the world does not develop without mining, but it must be done with sustainability and with the permanent supervision of the State, which must be aware that this is a very profitable crime, being  the  third  in  the  world  in  profitability  and  the  first  one  in  degradation.   All  other environmental crimes  do not achieve illegal sand extraction, "says Ramadon.


Brazil, is not outside the target of criminals. Here, annual revenue from illegal logging is around R $ 7.665 billion and R $ 8.078 billion, according to the data. The extraction considered illegal  when  violates the Code of Mining, which legalizes two forms of extraction of the sand.

The first is class II, when sand is used in construction, whose operating license is the responsibility of the municipality. The second is Class VII, when used for industrial purposes, with mining concession granted by the Mines and Energy ministery. 

Due to insufficient enforcement, criminals can divert legislation and operate leaving a trail of destruction wherever they go. In Brazil there are records of this illegal activity in all regions of the country and in practically all States.

However,  the  cases  that  stand  out  most,  according  to  the  study,  are  from  the  municipalities of Seropédica and Maricá, in Rio de Janeiro. The first is the main source of sand in the country, and it consequently suffers from degraded areas. In the place, the sand  is  extracted leaving cavas  that  are filled with groundwater of  the Piranema Aquifer.

Illegal sand extraction in Seropédica (RJ). Photo: Luis Fernando Ramadon.

"Because of my work, I made several helicopter flights over the sandy beaches of Seropédica, about 60 km from the center of Rio de Janeiro. In this way, I had the opportunity to see how the illegal extraction of sand compromises and degrades not only the environment but also all the places where it occurs, "says Ramadon, who has also served as Head of Operations Nucleus of the Combat Police Station Environmental Crimes and Historical Heritage (DELEMAPH).  
Already in Maricá, where there were sandy beaches and even with dunes in the past, nowadays there is still only degradation. In one of them, a large crater was opened, called by the residents of "maracanã".

"The reason for this work at the state, national and global level is to make the State and Society aware that there is a very important crime that must be faced to protect the environment effectively, to avoid such degradation,  and  to  be  a  way  to  protect  our  water  resources,  the  subject  of  upcoming  studies", says Ramadon.

What does the law say in Brazil?

According to the lawyer, Master in Legal Sciences of the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB) and author of the book Mining Law, Pedro Ataíde, mining sand in the country without the proper licenses constitutes two crimes. The first one refers to the usurpation of the patrimony of the Union, based on Federal Law 8,166, of February 8, 1991. The second is the committing of environmental crime, provided for in article 55 in the Environmental Crimes Law (9,605 / 1998).

In the opinion of the expert, strengthening enforcement is the most effective means of combating crime. "Improving supervisory work is one way to solve it. The problem of illegal sand extraction is that it is often not known where the enterprise is located, usually in dark places, so it needs a more intense inspection and also with popular reports", he says.

Another point of illegal sand extraction in Seropédica (RJ). Photo: Luis Fernando Ramadon.

Another point of illegal sand extraction in Seropédica (RJ). Photo: Luis Fernando Ramadon.  According to Flávio França Nunes da Rocha, the federal criminal expert, a member of the Environmental Skills Group  (GPMA), there is still  a  great  deal  of  informality in the area of mineral extraction  and  the  lack  of articulation and performance of the public agencies responsible for regulating and supervising. This way, the contribute to crime being strengthened.

"We hope that the newly created National Mining Agency (ANM), a claim of more than 20 years of the career staff of the former National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM), will bring order to this, which is a fundamental  sector  for  the  economic  development  of  Brazil,  "he  added,  citing  ANM,  created  through  a Provisional Measure at the end of 2017.