Organized criminal groups that deal in sand are perpetrating violence and undermining governments around the world.

Sand is the world’s second most consumed natural resource and a critical component of the world’s construction and manufacturing industries. Some governments have attempted to regulate excessive sand dredging, which has led to the rise of black market “sand mafias.”

What Are Sand Mafias?

Sand is a critical element in concrete, glass, silicon chips, cosmetics, detergents, and many other daily products. Organized criminal groups illegally mine sand from beaches and riverbeds to sell through the black market, often perpetrating violence to protect their interests. Sand mafias are located in over a dozen countries including India, Algeria, and Morocco.

Inconsistent and ineffective government regulations have allowed sand mafia operations to prosper. Governments struggling with sand mafias are either incapable or unwilling to regulate it. For instance, some states in India strictly enforce regulations, while others ignore them. Furthermore, various corrupt government actors support sand mafias for a cut in the profits.

The Human and Environmental Toll

Sand mafias threaten and perpetrate violence against those undermining their operations. People with alleged ties to the sand mafia have been charged with violent crimes in a number of countries. They often intimidate and abuse owners of property they seek to exploit.

Illegal sand mining engenders environmental consequences as well. Massive removal of sand from beaches and riverbeds increases flooding, pollutes rivers, destroys beaches, and undermines biodiversity. In fact, sand mafias have erased at least two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005.

Alternative Solutions to Black Market Operations

There are a few strategies to mitigate the sand mafia business. First, governments should reduce internal corruption and more consistently enforce their own laws. Second, industry and academia should increase research and development of artificial and manufactured sand.   

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About the Author
Drew Casey received his M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University’s Elliott School. He is the Director of Development for Matters of State and a regular episode contributor. He previously graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in International Business. Drew has lived in multiple major cities in the U.S. and spent a year and a half teaching English in China.