Fiji, built on sand
Pacific / Fiji
Sand, gravel and stone are the bed rock of modern society. After water and air, sand is the most consumed natural resource on the planet, but we rarely pay it any mind. Sure, we know that the sand on Fiji's beaches attracts around 700,000 tourists a year, but the sand, gravel and crushed stone of Fiji's quarries construct the nation's bridges and buildings, ports and plazas, jetties and roads.
Our reliance on sand, gravel and stone is hidden. How hidden? Well, that pre-faded look of your new jeans, that's from sand. The gel stripe in your toothpaste. Also sand.
Demand for quarried materials has skyrocketed in Fiji. Natural disasters, like Cyclone Winston, and a tenfold increase in road funding over the past decade, have led to surging demand and a doubling of the number of the nation's hard-rock quarries (from 13 in 2010 to 29 in 2016). According to the Fiji Roads Authority more than 500,000 cubic metres of stone is needed in 2016-2017 to build Fiji's roads, bridges and jetties and to protect Fiji's coasts. Of Fiji's FJ$600m annual road budget, around FJ$35 - $40m will be spent on sourcing stone.
Globally, more than 40 billion tonnes of sand and gravel are quarried each year. This makes sand and gravel the most mined global commodities, with their value estimated conservatively at more than US$280 billion per year. By way of comparison, the global production of gold is only 2,000 tonnes per year, with global value estimated at US$80 billion. What's more, sand, gravel, stone and other Neglected Development Minerals fuel domestic development, whereas metals like gold are exported, largely for the development of the global north.
International development agencies and governments have been slow to realize the significance of the sector. With closer links to local and national economies, there is great potential for the quarry sector to contribute to sustainable development, but the historical lack of oversight has exacerbated environmental, social, health and safety, conflict, labour and market risks.
"I learnt all aspects of this profession from my late father-in law, who was an astute and hardworking businessman" said Sharmila Sanehi. "Now I am ready to step into his shoes."
For small quarry and dredging businesses to succeed in Fiji, they need more than simply strong demand for their products. The sector requires support in the areas of business development, marketing, access to finance, quarry management and access to geological data. Moreover, to ensure that the extraction of sand, gravel and stone meets high standards in the areas of environment, community and Mataqali relations, and health and safety, guidance and oversight are needed.
Take Sharmila Sanehi as an example. Sharmila owns a small dredging business on the Rewa River, just one of the 43 river sand and gravel dredge sites in Fiji. She is an entrepreneur with big dreams for her business. "I learnt all aspects of this profession from my late father-in law, who was an astute and hardworking businessman" she said. "Now I am ready to step into his shoes." Sand dredged from the site was once manufactured by her father-in-law into wash tubs, road curbs and concrete blocks, but now Sharmila's business trades solely on the sale of sand. Sharmila would like to capitalize her business with a tip truck so that she can get a premium on her product by delivering the sand to the customer. She would also like to move up the business value chain and purchase a machine to manufacture concrete blocks, of which sand is the major ingredient. Moving her business from a producer of sand to a producer of blocks will giver her self-sufficiency, help her to expand and bring on new employees.
Finance will be needed to reach Sharmila's goal, but Fiji's sand entrepreneurs also require geo-technical, market and environmental know-how to ensure their investments lead to sustainable livelihoods. She needs to know how much sand can be sustainably extracted from her site and how she can work within the rhythms of the river to ensure her sand banks are replenished?
Getting this assessment wrong can have major financial and environmental consequences. One major hard-rock quarry in Fiji invested in the legal, marketing and operational set-up of their business, but did not undertake a detailed geological assessment. After quarrying began they quickly realized that the quality of the rock was lower than they had anticipated and they could only sell the rock as lower quality road base, not the high quality road chips that command top dollar. Other river dredging sites in Fiji have been plagued by the problems of river bank erosion, river turbidity (where sediment gets suspended in the water and can cause environmental and river navigation challenges), and conflicts with other river users, such as tour operators.
The African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme are working together with the Fiji Minerals Resources Department, the Pacific Community (SPC) and other civil society and private sector stakeholders to support sustainable development of the quarry sector in Fiji and promote knowledge exchange across the Pacific. By raising the profile of these neglected, yet crucial natural resources the ACP-EU Development Minerals Programme hopes to contribute to Fiji's sustainable development and the livelihood of her citizens.
Dr. Daniel Franks is the Chief Technical Advisor and Programme Manager of the ACP-EU Development Minerals Programme, which is implemented in partnership with UNDP.
This article was published in the Fiji Times, under the headline 'Well hidden reliance', Thursday August 25, 2016. p 11.