This article appears in the The Earth Died Screaming Issue of VICE Magazine.
Three days a week, workers on Morocco's Larache beach drive bulldozers over the dunes and dig up all the sand they can. Tons of it. Their bosses have permits, but many come here illegally on the weekends, using donkeys and shovels to ravage the land even further.
A critical ingredient in concrete, glass, and microchips, sand is a hot commodity. The international community imports a little over a billion dollars of it a year, and about half of Morocco's sand trade is illegal.
It's a significant problem in Morocco, where illegal sand extraction costs the government $1.1 billion in unpaid taxes. Almost half the sand used in construction in the country comes from the illegal market, and several beaches have entirely disappeared because of it.
When we arrived in Larache, a sand-looting epicenter, we walked onsite without a hassle. All the workers we met came from a nearby village and remembered how nice the beach used to look a few years back, before the looting began. The looting operations are run by a cooperative, and the Moroccan government has recently made an effort to be transparent about who benefits from illegal sand mining.
There are about 700 trucks on the beach every day. Each one makes three journeys, loaded with 3,000 gallons of sand—well over the government quota. The trucks are only allowed to work Monday through Wednesday, so looters ransack the beach the rest of the week.
The typical looter is a young boy, between ten and 17, who earns $5 a day for loading sand onto a donkey. We didn't see any women on the beach. The villagers usually get together to invest in a donkey so they can pay a young boy to go to the beaches and take all the sand he can. Afterward, the adults share the profits of the sale.
Years ago, locals worked in the nearby peanut fields, but the money in sand looting is better and easier to come by, leaving the kids with no incentive to get an education. A young man we met said that the nearest school was a mile and a half away—and he had no vehicle. "If we have to sweat, better we get money out of it," he said.
They don't consider that when the sand is gone, they will have no other way to make a living. And given the inaction of the town and the federal government, that will happen sooner rather than later.