STUNG KOMBOT TOL, Cambodia – Their floating village is just a short boat ride away from Siem Reap, home of the legendary Angkor Wat, but Thoun Vuan and his wife Vung Vinh have yet to visit the historic temple complex. Indeed, for the past years, husband and wife have done little else than to fish – yet still have nothing to show as the fruit of their efforts.
[See side bar story: From Foe to Friend]
Married for seven years now, the couple has yet to scrape together enough money to buy a motorised boat, and rely on their old wooden paddleboat to fish.
“We catch fish every day, even during the traditional new year,” says Thoun Vuan. “If we miss (a day of fishing), we will have nothing to eat.” There are times when the catch is insufficient for the growing family, the father of three admits. “Sometimes,” he adds, pointing to his two-week-old infant, “the baby gets hungry and my wife is without breast milk because there is not enough food to eat.”
Thoun Vuan has six siblings who, like him, eke out a living by fishing. All of them live in floating cottages around Stung Kombot Tol, which hosts about 300 households scattered in six villages on the different branches of Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Stung Kombot Tol is actually a stream in the northern tip of Tonle Sap, which sits smack in the middle of the Cambodian central plain.
Tonle Sap Lake provides 75 percent of the country’s inland fish production. Government data also show that fishing and agricultural activities around the waterway support up to three million Cambodians. ‘Support’, however, is relative. While some families who derive incomes from the Tonle Sap have improved their lives, Thoun Vuan and tens of thousands others living in floating villages along and on the lake itself, remain subsistence fishers, unable to rise above their sorry circumstances. And while Prime Minister Hun Sen in early 2012 laid down two new fishing policies for Tonle Sap that are supposed to finally improve the lot of the likes of Thoun Vuan, there are obviously no guarantees of that actually happening.
A hydrological wonder
The colour of watered-down milk coffee at times and mud dappled with sickly yellow during the hotter months, Tonle Sap Lake is not exactly a site that would inspire, say, romance. What it is, though, is a hydrologic wonder that expands and shrinks with the change in seasons. The lake and its namesake river are also vital parts of the Mekong River system, acting, says a 2006 study by a research team led by environment engineer Dr. Saburo Matsui, as “natural flood regulators” for southern Cambodia and the Vietnam Mekong River Delta by “decreasing flood peaks”.
The lake remains relatively small during the dry months, measuring about a metre in depth and covering around 2,700 square kilometres, according to scientific studies. In the dry season, Tonle Sap drains into the main Mekong River, which originates from the Tibetan plateau and flows through six countries including Cambodia before flowing out into the South China Sea.
During the wet season from June to October, Tonle Sap Lake expands to up to 16,000 sq kms with a depth of up to nine metres. This is because the water from the Mekong rises and reverses its flow, forcing Tonle Sap River to push towards the lake, which then swells up and spreads into the surrounding floodplain. This floodplain, in turn, becomes a rich breeding ground for fish and other marine resources.
The Cambodian Fisheries Administration (FIA) says the country’s inland waters have more than 500 aquatic species. The Tonle Sap Lake and floodplain, though, are known to have as much as 149 fish species, including the popular Kampleanh Sre, Real, and Kampleanh Pluk, aside from other marine species such as shrimps and dolphins.
Several studies have shown that the flood pulse has much to do with the volume and variety of fish species in the lake. But Tonle Sap also contributes to the fish stock of Mekong River. Matsui’s research team, for one, says that while the Mekong “brings organic matter and fish into the lake”, fish migration from Tonle Sap into the Mekong River “represents a crucial re-stocking source for the river as far north as Yunnan Province of China”. Whatever happens to the fish stock in the lake, therefore, has an impact to that of the Mekong River, and vice-versa.
Living worse than the fish
More than a million people are estimated to depend on fishing and other aquatic activities in Tonle Sap for food and for their livelihood. Many local fishers in fact change their address according to the season, moving their boats to other floating villages whenever the lake shrinks and the floodplains turn into fertile cropland. For more than a century, however, Tonle Sap’s profitable fishing industry had been cornered by favoured groups that had been granted licences to fishing lots in the lake. Thus, for all the abundance of fish in Tonle Sap, small fishers had been unable to access sizeable parts of the lake. Before the Cambodian premier made his sudden announcement regarding reforms in the fishing policies covering Tonle Sap, there had been 37 commercial fishing lots, which the Fisheries Administration says had an average size of 48 sq kms. Altogether then, they would have spanned some 1,776 sq kms, or about 66 percent of the lake during the dry season.
Unsurprisingly, a 2008 study published by the Sustainable Mekong Research Network points to provinces around Tonle Sap as those having the highest poverty incidence in Cambodia. This was even as the lake’s commercial fishing lots were pouring a total of about $2 million into the national coffers every year.
The life led by Thoun Vuan and his extended family is testament to the hardship of small fishers at Tonle Sap. Their world has largely revolved around their boats and their houses on the lake, which are built no taller than the height of an average Khmer. As a result, their backs are bent and they walk with a pronounced stoop. Many of them have also yet to set foot inside a school, while poor sanitary conditions of lake-living have rendered them constantly ill.
Tran Van Kiem, who is Vietnamese origin, is another fisher trying to keep his head above water. “I borrowed $40 two years ago and until now, I have paid only $15,” he says. “The poor work to serve the rich.”
Then there is Moum Goul from Chong Khneas, a floating village closer to Siem Reap. He says that he has even been forced to fish during the closing (breeding) season from July to October, when fishing is regulated to protect breeding fish and young fry. Confesses the father of five: “Every night, I go fishing for about an hour even though I know it’s illegal.”
But he is hardly the only one breaking rules. Hap Navy, deputy director of the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, a branch of the FIA, says, “Almost all households in fishing villages and about 66 percent of fishing-cum-farming households fish all year round.”
Two new policies for Tonle Sap
Prime Minister Hun Sen would later hint that he had small fishers in mind when he surprised everyone in late February with an announcement before a group of students in Phnom Penh that he was cancelling the licences of all commercial fishing lots around Tonle Sap Lake – 35 immediately, and the remaining two by April this year.
Hun Sen also declared that some of the cancelled lots on the Tonle Sap would be turned into conservation zones. Privately owned lots in other locations would be cancelled in time as well, he said.
According to the Cambodian leader, the fishing lots had not only prevented residents from fishing for their own consumption, but had also led to the destruction of the lake’s fish resources. In another speech he would give a month later, Hun Sen would explain that poverty was pushing desperate small fishers to resort to illegal and destructive fishing methods such as using gill nets and electricity. Apparently, too, the fishing-lot licences issued to the commercial fishers failed to specify any limit on the number, size, and kind of fish that they could harvest, essentially giving the licencees permission to catch whatever they wanted in any volume. All these had resulted in several fish species becoming endangered or no longer able to reach provinces upstream.
Hun Sen, however, had more to say about fishing in Tonle Sap. Last July 1, on the occasion of National Fish Day, he announced that fishery communities along Tonle Sap would henceforth be allowed to manage the fishing lots. Communities would be given responsibility over certain areas with help from the government.
Hun Sen urged the public to report anyone fishing inside the Tonle Sap conservation area. “People have to dare to stand up and speak out against the people, villagers, commune chiefs and district governors who use the lots in the wrong way,” he said at another event in Kroch Chhmar district, in the eastern province of Kampong Cham.
In a perfect world, the announcements would mean that there is now a chance Tran Van Kiem can pay off his loan, and Thoun Vuan and his wife can raise $200 to buy a motorised boat. They might even be able to earn more than enough to allow them to venture out of their floating village and visit the Angkor Wat and other famed tourist spots in Siem Reap. An improvement in the small fishers’ circumstances could also mean an improved Tonle Sap; proper sanitary facilities in the right place, for example, could release the lake from its role as a communal toilet.
The reality, however, has been that opposition politicians and some cynical observers were quick to brand Hun Sen’s decision as a political ploy ahead of local elections — Cambodia held commune-level elections in June, which Hun Sen’s party dominated. Opposition legislator Son Chhay had also commented, “It’s just a correction of the mistakes government officials have done.”
Keeping hopes up
Still, there seems to be some cautious optimism about the changes from other groups. Among those welcoming the reforms, for instance, is the Phnom Penh-based Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), which is made up of 12 local and international NGOS that focus on Tonle Sap.
“Fishermen will benefit a lot from this,” says Huot Sinat, program officer of FACT’s Climate Change and Living Lakes Projects. “They can catch more fish and increase their incomes.”
Huot Sinat says the new policies would help reduce, if not end, end the use of illegal fishing gears in the lake by allowing and encouraging local fisherfolk to jointly manage fish resources within their area rather than letting them compete among themselves.
Dr. Melissa Marschke, an environmental development expert who has spent 15 years studying fisheries and resource governance issues in Cambodia, meanwhile wrote in her blog melissamarschke.wordpress.com in March, “The closure of these fishing lots marks the end of an era of fisheries management that began during French colonial times, whereby prime fishing grounds in the Tonle Sap Lake were parceled off for the exclusive use of elites and industry.”
Marschke explained that large-scale fisheries had made up the most productive parts of the Tonle Sap floodplain for which exclusive concessions were granted for two to four years. In the meantime, medium- and small-scale fisheries were essentially open access licences, allowing fishing gear of a certain size to be used in all areas except in fishing lots.
Yet while Marschke acknowledged that the cancellation of the fishing-lot licences would help fish stocks to recover, she said that assessing the move’s effect on Tonle Sap’s ecosystem would require “careful, consistent monitoring”.
“How this impacts small and medium-scale fishers vis-a-vis food security and poverty alleviation also requires far greater attention,” said her 2 March 2012 blogpost that commented on the Cambodian premier’s February pronouncement regarding the cancellation of fishing-lot licences in Tonle Sap.
A dangerous free-for-all?
As for the move to make Tonle Sap a free zone for all, it seems at the very least to immediately favour the small fishers. Questions, however, have been raised to the sustainability of such a set-up, given current realities such as corruption and the ever-present temptation to overfish. Even FIA’s Hap Navy remarks, “It’s good for local people and there is abundant fish in the short-term. How about the future? We can learn from Bangladesh’s experience, they have not had much fish because there was no control.”
Uncontrolled or overfishing has been cited as a major reason for the decline in fish stocks in Bangladesh, where, like Cambodia, people get most of their protein requirements from fish.
“When the fishery communities have the power, how do we maintain a balance?” asks Professor Lim Puy, vice president of the Tonle Sap Authority. “How can you stop fishing if you want to build a house, buy a boat or motorcycle? It’s not six months or one year, perhaps (it can take) five years or 10 years (for one to earn that much money).”
Hem Chanthou, senior project officer of the Asian Development Bank’s Resident Mission in Cambodia, echoes this sentiment and points to the risk that “poor communities might harvest everything they can”. He observes that it is difficult for the government to monitor such activities. But what the government should and can do, says the ADB officer, is to aim to raise awareness among the poor communities about the dangers of overexploitation of fish resources, while helping build their capacity and skills. He adds that what is needed is for the government and local communities to co-manage community fishery projects.
FIA Deputy Director General Kaing Khim says that following the prime minister’s directives, her office is ready to assist fishery communities. “We have guidelines to help them prepare their management plans, whether three-year, five-year or annual plans,” she says.
The plans, she notes, should indicate specific priorities such as building sanctuary zones, replanting flooded forests, or re-stocking. The community fisheries will decide the place and size of the conservation area, and also decide how much fish is caught, the number and type of fishing gears to be used. They will have to monitor the fishers as well.
On one wall of Kaing Khim’s Phnom Penh office is a big banner that reads, “Fish for all, all for fish.” According to the FIA official, the new system would benefit poor families who rely on fishing and also protect the country’s fish resources. “It’s good for both – poor people and sustainable development – if the community functions well,” she says.
At present, the FIA is working to raise awareness about the new policies and how they are to be implemented among the fishers in the areas around Tonle Sap. “Our technical staff goes down and works with the community fisheries because they cannot work alone,” Kaing Khim says. “They have very limited knowledge and resources.”
“I think they are not ready,” she also says, “and will not be ready in two or three years more.”
FACT, however, begs to differ with this view. In the last several years, the coalition has been trying to put together a grassroots institution made up of Tonle Sap fishing communities. It believes communities are equipped to take on responsibilities and should be empowered to exercise their rights over the resources in their villages. “We do not agree with FIA that the capacity of fisheries community is low,” says Huot Sinat.
FACT has run projects in 186 villages in 27 communes in several provinces around Tonle Sap — Battambang, Pursat, Siem Reap, Kampang Thom, Banteay Meanchey, and Kampong Chhnang — working with nongovernment organisations involved in fisheries issues involving the lake. In its view, more than half of the fishing communities around the lake are capable of organising themselves and managing projects.
The environmental NGO supports the setting up of a network of fishers and developing their capacities in order to build a strong grassroots institution or an ‘Assembly of Cambodian Fishers’ that will work towards sustainable fisheries management and representing themselves at a national policy level.
Huot Sinat says, though, that what these fishing communities lack at the moment is the power to confront those involved in illegal fishing. “They cannot intervene when they see illegal fishing,” he says. “Communities can only report the problem to FIA and then cooperate with government officers to fix it.”
Corruption is a problem, he also says, alleging that some people within FIA collude with illegal fishing groups. Some fishers, moreover, have said that there are policemen who take money from illegal fishers in exchange for looking the other way.
Still waiting for good news
Several months after Hun Sen announced the indefinite closure of the fishing lots in Tonle Sap, the government has yet to report on developments around the lake as a result of the reforms. There could well be a repeat of what happened in 2000, when, as Marschke wrote in her 2 March blogpost, small fishers continued to live hardluck lives even after nearly 60 percent of the Tonle Sap fishing lots at the time were released to the public. These days, there are indications that Huot Sinat’s observation about one major drawback of fishing communities is all too true; some news reports say that illegal fishing on the expansive lake has yet to let up, despite an initial crackdown by authorities.
Marschke herself has been unable to offer better news. An associate professor at the University of Ottawa, she had actually conducted a few interviews and focus-group discussions in some lakeside villages weeks after Hun Sen made his first announcement regarding fishing in Tonle Sap. According to Marschke, because the fishing lots remained closed to the public, small and medium-scale fishers had yet to benefit from the cancellation of the fishing-lot licences. Moreover, she said, medium-scale fishers now had no fingerlings supply since these used to come from the fishing lots. Marschke wrote as well, “Fish migration patterns appear to be shifting with the closure of the fishing lots, with reports of far more fish being found downstream of the Tonle Sap (river) rather than in the Tonle Sap lake area.”
She said, though, that “poorer households with limited fishing gear may be benefitting (a little is what was suggested to me)”.
“In sum,” said Marschke, “this is a reform that may not lead to enhancing local people’s lives (although we would all like it if it did) or enhancing the resource base. Time will tell.”
[Tran Thi Thuy Binh is an editor of the Climate Change section of the Hanoi Radio and Television website.]