Sandwars: the mafias whose illegal sand mines make whole islands vanish

Singapore's insatiable appetite for sand to use to expand its island's territory has led to a worldwide boom in illegal sand-mining, run by criminal gangs who are responsible for the destruction of entire islands in the Pacific rim.

Sand smugglers also serve the construction industry, especially in Morocco. The illegal sand mines are all over the world, but they're at their most vicious in India, where sand mafias murder and intimidate as they steal whole beaches and turn the land into moonscapes of house-sized excavation pits.

An essential and chilling Wired article by Vince Beiser tells the story beautifully, and Adam Ferguson's accompanying photos are brilliant.

All of that has spawned a worldwide boom in illegal sand mining. On Indonesia's island of Bali, far inland from the tourist beaches, I visit a sand mining area. It looks like Shangri-la after a meteor strike. Smack in the middle of a beautiful valley winding between verdant mountains, surrounded by jungle and rice paddies, is a raggedy 14-acre black pit of exposed sand and rock. On its floor, men in shorts and flip-flops wield sledgehammers and shovels to load sand and gravel into clattering, smoke-belching sorting machines.

Multinationals dredge it up with massive machines. Locals dig it out with shovels. Everywhere, sand mining wreaks havoc.

"Those who have permits to dig for sand have to pay for land restoration," says Nyoman Sadra, a former member of the regional legislature. "But 70 percent of the sand miners have no permits." Even companies with permits spread bribes around so they can get away with digging pits wider or deeper than they're allowed to.

Today criminal gangs in an estimated 70 countries, from Jamaica to Nigeria, dredge up tons of the stuff every year to sell on the black market. Half the sand used for construction in Morocco is estimated to be mined illegally; whole stretches of beach there are disappearing. One of Israel's most notorious gangsters, a man allegedly involved in a spate of recent car bombings, got his start stealing sand from public beaches. Dozens of Malaysian officials were charged in 2010 with accepting bribes and sexual favors in exchange for allowing illegally mined sand to be smuggled into Singapore.

But nowhere is the struggle for sand more ferocious than in India. Battles among and against "sand mafias" there have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent years—including police officers, government officials, and ordinary people like Paleram Chauhan.

The Deadly Global War for Sand [Vince Beiser/Wired]

(Image: Adam Ferguson)