Peak Sand : Planet Money Sand. It's in buildings, windows, your cell phone. But there isn't enough in the world for everyone. And that's created a dangerous black market.

Peak Sand

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SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

There's this rustic little beach town in northern Jamaica, one reggae bar on the beach with a tin roof. When the tropical rain comes out of nowhere, everyone runs into this bar. A self-described rasta man is in there singing reggae, calling everyone girlfriend.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Girlfriend, from the very first time I place my eyes on you, girl...

GONZALEZ: It's not the kind of beach town that tourists flock to. This is a local beach.

SANDRA JAMES: OK. It's called Silver Sands. And it's because it's white, glistening sand against blue waters.

GONZALEZ: Sandra James (ph) loves this water.

JAMES: Oh, live on the beach, water girl. The waves just calms you.

GONZALEZ: But Sandra feels protective very specifically of that white glistening sand because everyone seems to want it.

JAMES: It happens a lot in this area - sand theft.

GONZALEZ: Sand theft.

JAMES: A lot in this area. You can hear the trucks at night moving with sand.

GONZALEZ: In Jamaica, sand is valuable.

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

So valuable that a few years ago, just down the road, an entire beach was stolen.

GONZALEZ: Thieves showed up in dump trucks and just took off with the whole thing. Hundreds of tons of powdery, white Caribbean sand - gone. It happened in 2008. And this sand theft was huge, and, not just in Jamaica. It was a warning sign to the world that sand had become this thing worth stealing and smuggling. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, there's not enough sand in the world for everyone. And we need sand.

DUFFIN: Sand is a miracle material that is used in a whole bunch of things that we can't live without. Like, if you just looked around right now, the building that you are in or the sidewalk that you're on, it is made of sand because sand is a main ingredient in concrete, also in glass. So your cell phones, your windows, that bottle of beer you drink last night - all made out of him.

GONZALEZ: This episode involves a helicopter sand chase...

DUFFIN: ...Death threats...

GONZALEZ: ...The queen of England...

DUFFIN: ...And teams of scientists who specialize in sand forensics.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEROME FABY'S "BLACK SURF DUEL")

GONZALEZ: There's a lawyer in Kingston, Michael Hylton - real quiet talker, born and raised in Jamaica, claims to be the only person on the island who likes baseball. He's a Yankees fan. And he's modest.

And what's your title?

MICHAEL HYLTON: Mister.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Mister. That's his title. Lawyer?

HYLTON: Attorney at law in private practice.

GONZALEZ: Mr. Bob Marley's lawyer.

You are the lawyer for the Bob Marley family?

HYLTON: Yes.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter)

See what I mean? Modest.

I can't believe that. I don't know because it just feels like...

HYLTON: Somebody has to do it.

GONZALEZ: Huh?

HYLTON: Somebody has to do it.

DUFFIN: Michael was running what is essentially the Justice Department in Jamaica. And then he decided to go into private practice. And in 2008, he gets a call.

GONZALEZ: A beach has been stolen, taken in the dead of the night, hauled out in dump trucks.

HYLTON: So there were witnesses who saw trucks in the night moving sand but who could not see where the sand was being taken.

GONZALEZ: And Michael Hilton - his job was to find this missing sand.

HYLTON: The challenge would be to prove where the sand went, who took it and who benefited from it.

GONZALEZ: So Michael heads to the scene of the crime, drives down a rocky, overgrown dirt road, goes past herds of goats and through a mangrove forest. There's a crumbling, medieval-looking stone castle on a hill, and peeking out through the beautiful mangrove trees is that aqua blue Caribbean sea. And then he sees it.

HYLTON: There were holes that were probably 10 feet deep.

GONZALEZ: Oh, there were holes.

HYLTON: Well, there were trenches.

DUFFIN: Deep trenches - like, if someone went down one of these, you probably would not be able to see them. Digging trenches like this would require some kind of excavator-type of equipment.

GONZALEZ: And was there any way that you can, like, fill the hole, like, just kind of move it around to fill the holes or...

HYLTON: No, no, you'd need a lot of new sand to do that.

GONZALEZ: They took almost all the sand with them. So if you were in a boat, you saw water, rows of clawed-out sand trenches and then trees - no beach.

DUFFIN: The amount that was stolen was not something that you could just hide in some warehouse. It was way too much sand. So Michael thinks there has to be a huge, just, pile of sand somewhere on this island.

GONZALEZ: They're looking all over Jamaica, but they don't find any big pile of sand. So Michael thinks this sand - it must have been spread out somewhere. And where would sand be spread out?

DUFFIN: And who has the money to buy a million dollars' worth of sand?

GONZALEZ: Beachfront resorts. They become Michael's primary suspects.

HYLTON: Given the quantity that was taken, it would almost certainly have gone to do beach building.

GONZALEZ: You said it would have likely gone to new beach building.

HYLTON: People building beaches that weren't there before.

GONZALEZ: Sometimes sand is also used for sand. Michael sends one of the owners of the stolen beach a sand scientist and a justice of the peace on a mission up on a helicopter. The justice of the peace is kind of like a notary whose only job is to corroborate what happens on this helicopter and make sure no one tampers with the evidence.

DUFFIN: And this scrappy, eagle-eyed sand squad - they noticed something at two particular hotels.

GONZALEZ: These hotels looked like they were built on beaches that had brown sand. And it kind of looked like white sand had been sprinkled over the brown sand.

HYLTON: There'd be an area where the sand was either brown or sparse, and then suddenly, there was a very large stretch of new, white, expansive sand.

DUFFIN: And Michael thinks this is my stolen, white sand. I just need to prove it.

GONZALEZ: The pilot lands the helicopter on the border of one of these private resorts. The sand scientist runs out, collects some sand samples and then runs back onto the helicopter.

DUFFIN: And while they were flying around in helicopters, a guy from the United Nations was wandering around the beaches.

GONZALEZ: Hello. Can you hear us over there?

PASCAL PEDUZZI: Yes, absolutely. Hello, Sarah.

GONZALEZ: This is Pascal.

PEDUZZI: And Pascal Peduzzi. I'm from Switzerland.

GONZALEZ: Pascal is with the environmental arm of the United Nations. He happened to be in Jamaica at the time doing research for the U.N., talking to the locals.

PEDUZZI: In one village we were in, people told us that some people came overnight. Their had guns and trucks. And they stole the sand. They stole the beach away overnight.

DUFFIN: And Pascal studies coastal erosion, so he's used to beaches disappearing but, like, over hundreds of years. And here, they're telling him a beach vanished overnight. How could that happen? So he starts studying the sand business.

GONZALEZ: And he discovers that this sand theft in Jamaica is just one tiny part of a huge and growing sand shortage, and a ton of money is at stake.

PEDUZZI: Oh, the sand business is big - at the very minimum, $250 billion per year.

DUFFIN: Most sand is actually just bought and sold legally, but humans are extracting sand faster than the Earth can create sand because it takes forever to make.

GONZALEZ: And we don't recycle sand. Once sand is trapped into concrete, it's trapped in there forever. It doesn't come back as sand. This makes the sand industry a linear economy.

DUFFIN: So Pascal takes all of his research, and he publishes a report - calls it "Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks."

PEDUZZI: You would think, like, sand is just this common material that we all know. We go on the beach. We are very familiar with that, and we think it's just infinite. And it's not.

DUFFIN: And where sand is running out, things are getting violent.

PEDUZZI: And in fact, people have been killed in Mexico and India and probably many other areas just for sand destruction.

GONZALEZ: There is a ton of desert sand on the planet, but nobody wants that sand. And that's because not all sand is created equal. Desert sand, like from the Sahara, it's too smooth and silky to be used for construction.

DUFFIN: So when Dubai, which is, of course, a place surrounded by desert sand, was trying to build the tallest building in the world, they had to import the right kind of sand from Australia.

GONZALEZ: They needed the grainy, gritty kind of sand, the kind that comes from either river bottoms or beaches. That's the good stuff. That's the stuff that can be used for construction and beach replenishment.

DUFFIN: And Pascal says the biggest sand importer in the world these days is Singapore. They have imported hundreds of millions of tons of sand.

GONZALEZ: Singapore's - in terms of land mass, they don't have a whole, whole lot. Where do they put their sand?

PEDUZZI: Oh, they do sea reclamations. So they take - they expand their territory by placing sand into the sea.

GONZALEZ: Singapore dumps all of the sand that it buys onto the edges of the country to make Singapore bigger. Since the 1970s, Singapore has expanded its territory by 20 percent. It has changed its country's borders. You can see this from satellite images.

PEDUZZI: We can see that by satellite in what used to be water is now territory with buildings on it. The water, in some areas, has been replaced by buildings, and those buildings were built on sand.

GONZALEZ: Singapore used to get all of its sand from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, but then Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia started shrinking. They were literally selling their countries to Singapore. The U.N. says around 24 Indonesian islands disappeared. They no longer exist because all of their sand went to Singapore.

DUFFIN: Now, Pascal, he did eventually leave Jamaica, but Michael, he would be on the trail of the missing sand for years. After the break, we go back to Jamaica.

GONZALEZ: OK. So Michael has suspects - beachfront resorts.

DUFFIN: Two all-inclusive, luxury resorts are accused of buying the stolen sand.

GONZALEZ: And now, no one thinks that these hotels actually went to the beach and took off with all the sand. The hotels say we bought this sand legally from a sand mining company. But Michael - Michael is like, you guys should have known that this was stolen property. You were reckless. And so you should have to pay for the damage.

DUFFIN: But first, Michael needs to prove that the white sand grains they saw from the helicopter and snuck off with came from his beach.

GONZALEZ: He hires sedimentologists and marine geologists to run forensics on these tiny, white sand grains. But it gets complicated because these hotels are raking the sand in the middle of the night.

They rake the sand?

HYLTON: If you go out there at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., they're raking the sand and every inch of sand on the beach.

GONZALEZ: What does that mean? Like, they just, like, smooth it out so that it doesn't look like people walked on it.

HYLTON: Exactly.

GONZALEZ: Why did they do that?

HYLTON: Apparently, it's what the guests want and they're...

GONZALEZ: Oh, tourists.

Resort hotels also yank out the grass from the bottom of the ocean so that luxury resort feet don't get grazed by sea grass. And these tourists who demand there unwalked-on sand with no grass - they are messing up Michael's forensic work because the old sand and the new sand are all mixing together. Sand forensics is tricky. But luckily for Michael, there are also pebble forensics.

DUFFIN: And while Michael is hanging out with pebble experts, the hotels accused of buying the stolen sand are flying in their own experts to do their own sand forensics.

GONZALEZ: And Jamaican police are also on the sand forensic beach. They're knocking on these hotel doors like, excuse me, we have a warrant to collect some sand samples. There was a whole criminal case.

Who would have brought the criminal case?

HYLTON: The government - the Crown, yes.

GONZALEZ: The Crown.

As in Queen Elizabeth.

HYLTON: Because she's the queen of Jamaica.

GONZALEZ: But is she really...

HYLTON: It's a long story.

GONZALEZ: It's a long story (laughter).

HYLTON: Long story.

DUFFIN: Jamaica is part of the Commonwealth, the old British colonies, and nobody messes with the monarch's sand. So this sand theft is so massive that it becomes of interest not just to Jamaica but also to England.

MARK SHIELDS: Because you don't steal beaches from parts of anybody's country.

GONZALEZ: That's Mark Shields. He was the head of the national police force in Jamaica during this sand heist.

SHIELDS: The fact is that even in the U.S. if you decided to go to the Grand Canyon and take a huge portion of the sand and rock from the Grand Canyon, I think probably the Americans would have something to say about that. You can't do that.

DUFFIN: It was just too much sand to not have been noticed by a lot of people. So Mark is thinking, how many people were involved in this scheme?

GONZALEZ: And how high did this crime go up? There were allegations that police were escorting these dump trucks, helping them make a clean getaway.

SHIELDS: Quite clearly the police would not under normal circumstances be escorting sand from one location to another.

GONZALEZ: Years into this case, the Crown says that their main witness starts getting death threats - real and specific intimidation, they said. The witness no longer wants to testify, and the Crown is forced to drop the charges.

SHIELDS: It was clearly quite a conspiracy, and some of the people that have been involved in this would be quite influential.

DUFFIN: And on the civil side, the judge decided, you know what? This would be a great time to retire. He retires in the middle of the case without giving a verdict. So in the end, the hotels just settled with the beach owners without admitting guilt.

GONZALEZ: Jamaica's great sand heist, so big the evidence could be seen from a helicopter - whoever did it got away with it.

HYLTON: My disappointment in this case is how it ended. There's a part of me that would almost have preferred to have lost a case than to not have gotten a verdict. So it's not my favorite case.

DUFFIN: And since that theft and the U.N. report, the problem has just gotten worse. In India alone, the U.N. is aware of thousands of illegal sand mining sites. And, you know, we can't live in a world without sand. It is too important. So Pascal says we just have to be smarter about how we use sand.

GONZALEZ: He says we could just simply use less of it. We could make our buildings with thinner concrete walls, or we could use different ingredients in concrete like sawdust and ashes. You can actually add chemicals to desert sand to make it sturdy enough to use for construction. These are all real alternatives. It's just a little bit more complicated to build this way.

DUFFIN: But luxury resorts are probably not going to start dumping sawdust and ashes onto their beach. Tourists will continue to demand their powdery, white, perfect sand.

GONZALEZ: When I was in Jamaica, I went to one of the resorts that was accused of buying that stolen sand.

Pools and bars and rum everywhere, catamarans and tiki huts on stilts in the middle of the water and, of course, a big, expansive white sand beach. And everyone I spoke to for this story told me the same thing - wherever this hotel got that white sand from all those years ago, that sand is long gone. I was probably standing on a new batch of white sand that they brought in from some other beach. That's the thing about sand. It comes and goes with the waves. Sand is always on the move.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER'S "FLINGING ABOUT")

DUFFIN: We love to hear what you think of the show. Email us - planetmoney@npr.org - or find us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We are @planetmoney.

GONZALEZ: Our show today was produced by Alissa Escarce and Aviva DeKornfeld. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt, and Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER'S "FLINGING ABOUT")

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