15 Jan 2020

Vince Beiser - black market sand

From Summer Times, 9:20 am on 15 January 2020

Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, and concrete is what makes our roads and buildings. With the developing world building at an unprecedented rate, sand is scarce and a black market has emerged.

US Journalist and author Vince Beiser has been investigating the history and use of sand says the world uses 50 billion tonnes sand every year and that is fuelling a sand mafia in some countries.

He is the author of the 2018 book The World In a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilisation and joined Emile Donovan to discuss the issue. 

Sand is mined in a pit in central Hessen. Hesse is a country rich in raw materials. However, sand and gravel pits are not permitted in many areas - for example to protect groundwater. Important building materials could possibly become scarce on the construction sites.

Photo: AFP

Beiser says humans having been using sand as a material for as long as recorded history.

“We know that the ancient Egyptians used it to help them build the pyramids, we know that ancient Mayans also came up with a primitive form of concrete and the ancient Roman Empire was full of concrete.” 

He says in today’s world, we use sand for a huge variety of things. 

“It’s the most important solid substance on Earth, it’s what modern civilisation is built on. First and foremost, we use it to make concrete which means every building, every shopping mall, every office tower, every airport runway that gets built anywhere in the world is made out of sand.” 

And every glass window in each of those buildings is also made out of sand, as are the silicon chips in our computers. Even the elastic band in our underwear is likely made out of sand.

“I love telling people they have sand in their underwear,” he jokes. 

The primary use of sand, however, is for concrete and that’s found at the bottom of rivers and lakes and on beaches. 

“On of the reasons we use it is you can find it in pretty much every country in the world. The problem is, we are using so much of it - more than any other natural resource on Earth except water - we use so much that we’re causing massive environmental damage.”

It may seem logical that we be able to use sand from vast, uninhabitable deserts across the globe instead of combing it from beaches, river beds, and lakes, but Beiser says that sand is pretty much useless.

“The reason is, the grains are the wrong shape. Sand in deserts have been eroded by winds over millions of years and that has given it a rounded shape which means it’s too smooth to lock together and form a stable structure which is what you need when you’re making concrete.”

Beiser says he first got into researching the sand black market when he came across a story about a farmer in India who was murdered over sand. 

“I just thought, sand? I’d never even thought about it before - who cares about sand, right? It’s everywhere. Why would anybody want it enough to kill somebody for it. So I started digging into and found out that not only was this guy killed for sand, but hundreds of people have been murdered over sand in the last few years.”

He says there’s so much demand for sand, especially in the developing world, that a black market has sprung up. 

“You have criminal gangs illegally digging up millions of tonnes of sand to sell it on the black market and if you get in the way of these guys, they do whatever organised crime does everywhere. They pay off police, they pay off government officials so they leave them alone. And if you really get in their way, they will kill you.”

Taking sand from river beds and beaches can be environmentally devastating, particularly when wildlife depends on it for survival. Beiser says that while there are ways to make sand, for instance by crushing rock, it’s much more expensive than simply harvesting naturally occurring sand. 

Until that process is cheaper and more efficient, he says we need more rules and regulations and where and how sand is collected. 

“All the kinds of rules and regulations we have around most other natural resources. Most places have just never come up with those rules around sand because everybody takes it for granted.”

He says the only really solution is to change our lifestyles and recognise that it’s impossible for every person in the world to consume at the rate most in the western world do. 

“We are just consuming too much. The way we live on this planet, especially in the west, is just not sustainable. We just can’t have a world where everybody has a car and everybody has a big house. We can’t have that in a world with 7 billion people. We’ve got to find ways to live our lives and build our cities in ways that consume fewer resources.”

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