THE KILLERS ROLLED slowly down the narrow alley, three men jammed onto a single motorcycle. It was a little after 11 am on July 31, 2013, the sun beating down on the low, modest residential buildings lining a back street in the Indian farming village of Raipur. Faint smells of cooking spices, dust, and sewage seasoned the air. The men stopped the bike in front of the orange door of a two-story brick-and-plaster house. Two of them dismounted, eased open the unlocked door, and slipped into the darkened bedroom on the other side. White kerchiefs covered their lower faces. One of them carried a pistol.
Inside the bedroom Paleram Chauhan, a 52-year-old farmer, was napping after an early lunch. In the next room, his wife and daughter-in-law were cleaning up while Paleram’s son played with his own 3-year-old boy.
Gunshots thundered through the house. Preeti Chauhan, Paleram’s daughter-in-law, rushed into Paleram’s room, her husband, Ravindra, right behind her. Through the open door, they saw the killers jump back on their bike and roar away.
Paleram lay on his bed, blood bubbling out of his stomach, neck, and head. “He was trying to speak, but he couldn’t,” Preeti says, her voice breaking with tears. Ravindra borrowed a neighbor’s car and rushed his father to a hospital, but it was too late. Paleram was dead on arrival.
Despite the masks, the family had no doubts about who was behind the killing. For 10 years Paleram had been campaigning to get local authorities to shut down a powerful gang of criminals headquartered in Raipur. The “mafia,” as people called them, had for years been robbing the village of a coveted natural resource, one of the most sought-after commodities of the 21st century: sand.
That’s right. Paleram Chauhan was killed over sand. And he wasn’t the first, or the last.
OUR CIVILIZATION IS literally built on sand. People have used it for construction since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. In the 15th century, an Italian artisan figured out how to turn sand into transparent glass, which made possible the microscopes, telescopes, and other technologies that helped drive the Renaissance’s scientific revolution (also, affordable windows). Sand of various kinds is an essential ingredient in detergents, cosmetics, toothpaste, solar panels, silicon chips, and especially buildings; every concrete structure is basically tons of sand glued together with cement.
Sand—small, loose grains of rock and other hard stuff—can be made by glaciers grinding up stones, by oceans degrading seashells, even by volcanic lava chilling and shattering upon contact with air. But nearly 70 percent of all sand grains on Earth are quartz, formed by weathering. Time and the elements eat away at rock, above and below the ground, grinding off grains. Rivers carry countless tons of those grains far and wide, accumulating them in their beds, on their banks, and at the places where they meet the sea.
Apart from water and air, humble sand is the natural resource most consumed by human beings. People use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. There’s so much demand that riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare. (Desert sand generally doesn’t work for construction; shaped by wind rather than water, desert grains are too round to bind together well.) And the amount of sand being mined is increasing exponentially.
Though the supply might seem endless, sand is a finite resource like any other. The worldwide construction boom of recent years—all those mushrooming megacities, from Lagos to Beijing—is devouring unprecedented quantities; extracting it is a $70 billion industry. In Dubai enormous land-reclamation projects and breakneck skyscraper-building have exhausted all the nearby sources. Exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs.
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