27 Apr 2021

Illegal sand extraction threatens Morocco’s tourism economy

Meeting the demands of the construction industry in Morocco is putting vulnerable coastal ecosystems at risk.

Morocco relies on its beautiful beaches to attract tourists. Tourism is essential for the country’s economy. In an ironic Catch-22 situation however, meeting the demands of this industry is indirectly destroying the very coastline that tourists are coming to enjoy.

Construction companies are competing to meet the need for new housing, hotels, roads and infrastructure. In Morocco, half of the sand used every year in the construction industry is illegally extracted from the country’s coast.

Concrete – a mixture of cement, aggregates (sand or gravel) and water – is an essential material for the construction of buildings and roads. Sand accounts for four-fifths of the makeup of concrete and is the world’s most consumed resource.

Sand accounts for four-fifths of the makeup of concrete and is the world’s most consumed resource

But the rapid extraction of sand is having a devastating impact on the environment. With estate developments requiring an estimated 30 million tons of sand every year, coastal sand along the western seaboard and Mediterranean is increasingly extracted, legally and illegally, by both registered companies and traffickers. The result is a series of lunar-like landscapes along Morocco’s coastline, which increases the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure to storms and rising sea levels.

In December 2020, Moroccan police arrested four people working for a construction firm involved in illegally extracting beach sand near Casablanca and operating an unregistered cement unit. These arrests are not isolated. They point to a well-developed transnational industry that can only be stopped through stringent efforts from both government and industry.

Illegal sand extraction is however a complex issue with multiple impacts and angles that need to be addressed. These range from poor governance and corruption to criminality, environmental and biodiversity degradation, child labour, building safety and transnational commerce.

Illegal sand extraction is a complex issue with multiple impacts and angles that need to be addressed

The line between legal and illegal sand extraction is often blurred and is facilitated by corruption allegedly involving state employees. Although registered companies usually have a licence to extract sand, they often do so beyond the granted extraction zone, at times extracting up to 10 times the declared quantity.

The illegal sand extraction business is run by a syndicate second in size only to Morocco’s drug mafia. The latter are also believed to be involved in sand trafficking, especially in the northern Rif region where hashish is grown.

Illegally extracted Moroccan sand often involves foreign companies. In Southern Spain, for example, Moroccan sand is used by construction companies to build hotels and restaurants. Likewise, Iberian companies operating in the Spanish enclave of Melilla (north-west of Morocco) use sand illegally extracted from the nearby Moroccan province of Nador.

There, trucks often belonging to Moroccan government officials and politicians regularly transport sand for construction projects, selling it to Spanish companies such as SEROM. To complicate an already complex transaction, the quantity is usually undeclared, so tracking these transactions is difficult.

In Morocco, half of the sand used every year in the construction industry is illegally extracted from the country’s coast

This demand from Spanish companies makes the trade very attractive for Moroccan sand traffickers. Without robust policy and regulations, this valuable commodity will continue to be illegally extracted and trafficked. This includes bilateral cooperation to tighten controls at borders and clear oversight by Spanish authorities of companies in their jurisdiction to control the trade and use of trafficked Moroccan sand.

Specific legislation has been initiated to regulate the industry. Since hosting the Conference of the Parties in 2016, Morocco’s government regularly prioritises protecting the ecosystem. In November 2017, a new decree regulating sand extraction entered into force.

Although these measures are positive, they may not be enough as they don’t specifically deal with illegal sand extraction in Morocco, or with trafficking’s transnational aspects. The decree is only a partial solution. It limits the quantity of sand extracted but not the locations from which it can be extracted.

The decree also only targets registered companies that break fiscal and environmental laws. This creates the incentive for unregistered sand businesses to either extract sand from zones that registered companies cannot exploit, or to accept ‘sub-contracts’ from the same registered companies. These are often fake contracts or merely verbal agreements.

More importantly, according to an anonymous source, decree regulations are simply not implemented or enforced. One reason is the alleged involvement of high-ranking army officers, lawmakers and government officials in facilitating and benefiting from these lucrative illegal businesses.

The failure to implement existing decrees or develop targeted solutions is carries considerable risk. While profits will continue to roll in for criminals, Morocco’s beaches may be permanently disfigured. As a result, the tourism industry could decline, eroding the economic and environmental ecosystems for the people who depend on both.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, ENACT Senior Researcher, ISS Dakar

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