Lost Footprints in the Sand

A NextGen Blog by Paige Aldenberg, University of Vermont

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Paige Aldenberg is an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont, majoring in Environmental Science with a minor in German. Her interest in No Water No Life started after writing for her university’s environmental publication. She is currently focusing on water quality research and environmental justice.

Whether you visit the beach on a summer day or take a walk barefoot along your local river, little sand grains undoubtably make their way into your shoes, clothes and washing machines. Many are unaware that these same pesky sand grains are used in the roads we drive on, the houses we live in and the technology we use daily. Sand is seemingly everywhere, yet it is another critical resource that is quickly running out.

Sand settles at the bottom of the endless sea floor and flies off the sand dunes in the Sahara. So how is it possible for sand to run out? First, it is key to recognize not all sand is the same. The sand found near bodies of water, known as silica sand, is highly valued for its texture – a natural result of water erosion. Thus, sand mining industries focus their efforts on harvesting silica sand along shorelines, riverbanks and ocean floors. However, demand for this desired sand grade has created unsustainable practices that threaten the surrounding ecosystems, water quality and Indigenous communities.[mfn]Beiser, Vince[/mfn]

From California to Cambodia, sand extraction involves a number of long-term environmental concerns. Since silica sand is found near water sources, its mining and transporting processes often lead to runoff carrying acidic pollution into neighboring watersheds. Native species are at risk, causing habitat loss as wildlife corridors shrink. The global practice of harvesting silica sand often disregards ecological and social concerns as Indigenous communities across the world struggle to protect their land from invasive mines.

A sand mining operation in the Red River, in Jinping County, Yunnan. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Manitoba, Canada

In Vivian, Manitoba, Canada, the Can White Sands Corporation (CWS) recently proposed a new plant to mine and process the silica sand of the Winnipeg Formation. Processing silica sand uses large volumes of water; thus it is unlikely this aquifer will recharge itself following mining operations. Also, CWS’s proposed nonstandard mining method creates bore holes, allowing surface water runoff and acidic outputs to contaminate Manitoba’s drinking water.[mfn]Sullivan, Don.[/mfn] This depletion of natural resources has also been negatively impacting Manitoba’s Hollow Water First Nation for centuries.

Map of Lake Winnipeg. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

From 1929 to the late 1980s, silica sand has been mined on the sacred “Black Island” land of the Hollow Water First Nation on Lake Winnipeg – north of Pine Falls, Manitoba. The land continues to be targeted for more sand mining with few plans to prevent future pollution. Acidic, poisonous metals released during mining and processing leads to dark red polluted lake water. Since the same processing procedures are standard across all silica sand mines, similar contamination is expected to continue internationally.[mfn]Betcher, Robert and Frost, Laurie[/mfn]

In 2018, Canadian Premium Sand (CPS) began clearing more land for a new silica sand mine and processing plant.[mfn]Sullivan, Don[/mfn] The most recently targeted land was a space for healing ceremonies for perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse. That year, the nonprofit “What the Frack Manitoba” was created to provide fracking news to Manitoba citizens. In 2019, Camp Morning Star was founded as a ceremonial and educational gathering space near the sand mine.

Contaminated stream in “Black Island”, Manitoba, Canada. Courtesy of Don Sullivan and What the Frack Manitoba.

The Manitoba government has failed to acknowledge Indigenous rights of the Hollow Water First Nation in this sand mining dispute. Spiritual leader of Hollow Water, Marcel Hardisty, stated that elders believe the Eurocentric regulatory process has a “lack of respect for protocol that honors traditional agreement making.”[mfn]Hardisty, Marcel[/mfn] The Environmental Act License granted to CPS contains conditions that acknowledge the community’s concerns, yet do not require any preventatives. Plans for this sand mine are paused due to current economic conditions, so organizations like What the Frack Manitoba and Camp Morning Star are focused on holding the government and CPS accountable for harming Indigenous lands and rights.

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Juristac, the sacred land of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains is also at risk of a 30-year quarry operation planned by the Debt Acquisition Company of America (DACA). Protect Juristac was founded to conserve the spiritual significance and culture of the tribe. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairman, Valentin Lopez, stated, “Without these spiritual sites, we lose our purpose for being here.”[mfn]Protect  Juristac[/mfn] Juristac is one of the last remaining undeveloped Amah Mutsun areas and historically used for spiritual healing ceremonies. Countless native species key to maintaining  ecosystem and watershed health are also threatened.

Location of Santa Cruz Mountains in California, Juristac being located on the southern edge. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Various legislative actions are being taken. For DACA to develop the mine on the Amah Mutsun land, an environmental impact report must first be released by Santa Clara County. In January 2020, the Amah Mutsun rally outside of the Morgan Hill City Hall prompted the Santa Clara County resolution opposing mining operations. The following month, the City of Santa Cruz joined Morgan Hill’s efforts.[mfn]Protect Juristac[/mfn] International and comparative law has been a critical component in their arguments.[mfn]Zartner, Dana[/mfn] Plans will be concluded after a period for public comment and a report.

Cambodia’s Mekong River

Spanning continents and waterways, environmental hubs in Cambodia are experiencing similar systemic destruction. Since the early 1990s, sand mining has been used to promote development. Now the Mekong River is being dredged to build apartments and industrialize the capital, Phnom Penh.

Map of Mekong River. courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Sand dredging is affecting all who live on the Mekong River, specifically indigenous and farming communities. Local farmer Mon Mut said to NPR News, “We have no power against them (the sand miners) because they have the law.”[mfn]Sullivan, Michael[/mfn] However, Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC) has been founded to resist these destructive environmental operations in order to conserve the natural beauty and communities of Cambodia.

Since 2013, MNC has advocated protection of Cambodia’s natural areas by organizing demonstrations that support local communities. Despite risks involved, the activists’ mission is to hold these mining organizations accountable and influence public opinion through peaceful campaigns. In 2017, mining and exportation of sand was banned on the coast of Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.[mfn]Mother Nature Cambodia[/mfn]

Community on the Mekong River. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attrribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.


Environmental injustice, deeply rooted in colonization, is still seen in today’s modern sand mining practices. Ecological concerns and cultural practices are often disregarded in the quest for financial and developmental gain. As our natural resources keep being exploited, Indigenous and local communities continue to be displaced and put at risk for health, economic, social and environmental hazards. These concerns should not be ignored. Listening, support and action are needed to confront ongoing systemic racism and classism that will continue to exacerbate environmental injustices.

If you share these concerns or want to learn more, here are links to the organizations mentioned in this post.


“About.” Protect  Juristac, 2020. Accessed July 4, 2020 by PA. http://www.protectjuristac.org/about/

Beiser, Vince. The World in a Grain. New York: Riverhead Books, 2018.

Betcher, Robert and Frost, Laurie. “Distribution of the Trace Elements As, B, Ba, F and U in Groundwater in Manitoba.” Manitoba Conservation, 2003. Accessed Aug 6, 2020 by PA. http://www.manitoba.mb.ca/sd/waterstewardship/reports/groundwater/quality/distribution_trace_elements.pdf

City of Santa Cruz votes unanimously to oppose mine at Juristac.” Protect Juristac, Feb 12, 2020. Accessed July 14, 2020 by PA. http://www.protectjuristac.org/updates/santa-cruz-opposes-mine-at-juristac/

Hardisty, Marcel. “Time to move forward with respect.” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, June 5, 2019. Accessed July 14, 2020 by

“Sand Mining Scams.” Mother Nature Cambodia, n.d. Accessed July 16, 2020 by PA. https://www.mothernaturecambodia.org/sand-mining-scam.html

Sullivan, Don. “Fast Facts: It’s High Time to Revoke Canadian Premium Sand’s Licence.” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Feb. 20, 2020. Accessed July 9, 2020 by PA. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-its-high-time-revoke-canadian-premium-sands-licence

Sullivan, Don. “Massive Silica Sand Mine Proposed for Southeastern Manitoba.” Facebook, July 21, 2020. Accessed July 21, 2020 by PA. https://www.facebook.com/notes/don-sullivan/another-silica-sand-mine-proposed-for-southeastern-manitoba/1368930906634456/

Sullivan, Michael. “’Houses on The River Will Fall’: Cambodia’s Sand Mining Threatens Vital Mekong.” NPR, Feb 27, 2020. Accessed July 9, 2020 by PA. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/27/808807512/houses-on-the-river-will-fall-cambodia-s-sand-mining-threatens-vital-mekong

Zartner, Dana. “Justice for Juristac: Using International and Comparative Law to Protect Indigenous Lands.” Santa Clara Journal of International Law, June 3, 2020. Accessed July 4, 2020 by PA. https://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1238&context=scujil

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