Minding or Mining Our Beaches?
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Minding or Mining Our Beaches?

"Tobago's unspoilt charm".... "Tranquil and idyllic nature".... "Pristine beauty"....

Phrases such as these can be found all over Tobago travel brochures. It is called marketing. Tobago is competing with the world, trying to sell our island as a tourist destination. This marketing is aimed at the nature/culture oriented travellers as well as the sun, sand and sea bunch. One of the core components of the "product" is our environment. Look at the postcards -- blue sea, palm trees and beautiful crescent-shaped beaches.

Beaches -- besides being such an obvious asset as a tourist draw, they protect the coastline from erosion by the action of the sea. Our beaches are of tremendous importance. They need minding. And yet, for the past fifteen years Tobago's beaches have not been minded--they have been mined.

The Situation

Hard data dealing with Caribbean environmental issues is hard to come by. But we know beach mining is not a problem particular to Tobago. In a 1995 study of twenty Caribbean islands by Island Resources Foundation, Beach Mining tied for second with Coastal Erosion (a related problem) behind first place Sewerage and Solid Waste as the most pressing coastal problem on the islands studied.

In Antigua, entire beaches on its West Coast have been lost to sand mining. In Barbuda there has been so much mining of the sand dunes that the fresh water aquifers have been contaminated with salt water. The government of Monserrat has recently banned all beach mining.

Beaches mined in Tobago in the past fifteen years include Crown Point, Kilgwyn, Lowlands, Milford Road (Scarborough), Bacolet (Minsky Bay), Hope, King Peters, Richmond, Kendall, Goldsborough, Turtle Beach (Courland Bay), Black Rock and Back Bay. Mining is currently (April 1996) being done at Lowlands and Milford Road, Scarborough. At Milford Road where an esplanade/sea wall is being constructed.

The then Secretary for the Environment, Tobago House of Assembly (THA), Mr. Gerald MacFarlane, at a Public Forum on Sand Mining held on 15th of September, 1995, presented the following history of beach sand mining on Tobago:

1978 -82 Sand mining increased significantly due to increased activity of WASA and construction of public facilities. Heavy equipment was being used for the first time.

1980 THA began to restrict removal of sand from some beaches; education on issue initiated.

1983 Seminar on Environment held in Tobago w/beach mining discussed; legal situation determined; work began to establish quarry/crushing plant - process took 10 years; studies conducted on alternatives to sand for use in foundations, backfilling; dump moved from Friendship to Studley Park and practice of covering fill with beach sand stopped.

1994 THA banned beach mining from "most" beaches; only for clearing river mouths; private sector encouraged to import sand.

1995 Study of offshore mining in progress; decision in near future.

It has been plainly evident that "clearing river mouths" is not all that is being done. Beaches have been mined where there are no real rivers, and more importantly, all sand cleared from river mouths has been trucked away to be used or sold when, if clearing the river mouth was all that was being done, the sand could have been more easily moved down the beach.

To date, no study of offshore mining has been made public

At the same forum Mr. U. Job, then Chief Technical Officer of the Works Division, stated in his report on Demand and Supply Situation of Aggregates in Trinidad and Tobago:
  • Tobago's annual overall requirement of sand is .75 - 1 million cubic yards.
  • Demand will double in next 7 years
  • Draft legislation is being prepared to control mining based on study and report submitted to Cabinet to deal with absence of Policy Framework.
  • Total sand projected to be mined annually from beaches: 3,897 tonnes (rivers: 1,299 tonnes).

To date, no legislation to control beach mining has been made public.

Mrs. O'brien-Delpeche, Marine Biologist, Institute of marine Affairs (IMA), recommended that no beach sand mining be conducted in Tobago until sufficient studies are done to show which beaches could be mined and how much sand could be taken.

It is inconceivable that such studies would result in the location of enough sand to satisfy Tobago's long term needs.

Beach sand is not a good building material. The salt in the sand corrodes reinforcing beams and degrades the quality of the concrete.

The question is this: if we need great quantities of sand to build our infrastructure, our hotels, homes, schools and hospitals, and we don't take it from our beaches, where will we get it?

The Alternatives

Sand Produced by Crushing Quarried Rock

Crushing rock produces sand or "crusher dust". The THA crushing plant became operational in 1993. We understand that it has not been properly maintained, it was not placed in the originally recommended location--the rock at its present location is too hard to get to, and plant operators are not sufficiently trained. It runs on average one hour a day. If properly run and maintained the plant could satisfy a good portion of Tobago's sand requirements, but not nearly all.

Offshore Sand Mining

Often proposed as an alternative to beach mining, extensive (and expensive) studies must be conducted before any offshore mining can be attempted. Offshore sand banks, coral reefs and seagrass beds diffuse the energy of storm waves; if large quantities of sand are removed from offshore sand banks in locations where replenishment would not occur, serious coastal damage would result in the event of a major storm. A complex relationship exists between sand banks, coral reefs, marine biota, current circulation, waves and swell patterns. Offshore mining does present a possibility with an initially high price tag.

Using Alternative Materials

The demand for sand as a building aggregate can be reduced by building with wood. Wood from tree farms would be an environmentally acceptable building material. When an alternative source of sand is found and beach mining is banned (and we feel this is inevitable), building with wood will become a more attractive option and should be promoted. As long as the present situation prevails with the availability of relatively inexpensive cement (Trinidad is a major manufacturer of cement) and very inexpensive sand, builders will continue to use concrete. Using an alternate aggregate as backfill would also decrease the demand for sand.


Guyana has offered to negotiate a trade of Tobago gravel for Guyanese sand. Trinidad has sufficient quantities of sand to supply Tobago for the foreseeable future. The problem is cost. No alternative source will ever be as cheap as beach mining. One truckload of beach sand costs TT$100 and TT$200 to transport. A truckload brought over by ferry from Trinidad costs TT$1,600. Even with an efficiently operated crushing plant, importation remains the unavoidable alternative to mining our beaches.

There is the question of scale. When the "small man" needs a few barrows full of sand he will get it from the nearest beach. (It is presently difficult even for those who can afford crusher sand to get small quantities as one cannot buy less than a truckload from the crushing plant). Government subsidies could be put in place to provide the "small man" with low cost sand once an alternative source is found. Without subsidies, it is likely that Tobagonians taking small quantities of sand from "their own" beaches will continue for some time.

But large scale beach mining operations must be stopped immediately. It is economic suicide. Tobago is now developing at such a pace as to make beach mining totally unacceptable. The real price of beach sand is too high. Environmentalists have been crying out for a solution to this problem for decades. Once large scale beach mining is truly stopped, the demand for sand will force the private and public sector to work together to find an alternative source.
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