Published by Asian Water Wire (IPS) 2007
Residents of this floating village at the northern end of Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonle Sap, life based on the water levels of the lake is filled with hardships and vulnerability, not only from water but also from corrupt government officials and commercial fisheries.
With a total population of over 5000 living in 700 households most of which are wooden houses on stills or floating homes, their livelihood is dependent on fishing. Recognising this, since 1999, the Cambodian governments has allocated thousands of hectares in the lake for community fisheries, where community management units made up of local villagers and stakeholders manage fisheries activities in the waters.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2003 gave a grant of $ 997,000 to development these fisheries activities and environmental condition, yet, all these are being undermined by commercial fisheries which use illegal fishing methods and bribe corrupt fisheries and law enforcement officials, claims local community leaders.
“(Commercial fishing) use electric nets or use boats to chase fish from one or two kilometres away towards their nets. We lobby fisheries department officials to catch these people, (but) we have no power to stop them giving money to officials” a community fisherwoman told IPS. She added that as a result of inaction by officials some of the community people go and cut their nets and that creates conflict in the community.
“We have no money to pay officials. Because commercial fishermen have money they pay officials and get away by illegally fishing in our waters” she complained.
Bangkok’s Asian Institute of Technology researcher Bernadette Resurreccion found in a study done last year that there is a strong interconnection between livelihood and management of water resources in the community, and local community people have been threatened or shot at – when they approached commercial fishing activity areas – by guards (employed to protect the commercial lots) or by para-military personnel. “These guards also threaten illegal poachers and guarded lots even when lot owners had illegally extended their boundaries” she noted in a report published in the Water Resources Development journal recently.
Though the living conditions here are far from hygienic, especially during the wet season when the whole community lives on water, with no sewage facilities or pipe-born water, yet, even though the provincial Governor has offered them land on the mountains overlooking the lake, locals are not willing to move.
“This is the place of my birth. We don’t know how to change” said Poeu-Sareon a community fisherman in his 50s during a community discussion with IPS. “We don’t want to move, we like to fish”.
But added, Chim Tek another senior member of the community: “(There is) not enough fish to make a living now. So people change to construction and go and work in construction (sites in Siep Reap city 12 kilometers away) or work in ships (transporting goods to Phnom Penh and back)”.
Though they live on water during the wet season, under a decree issued by the Governor, if they have lived there before 1979 they own the land underneath their houses and if the government want to take it for development they need to be financially compensated.
“(Because of ) increased population in the village, fish has got less and this leads to illegal fishing. So people want to change jobs” says Mao Sophea, a young fisherwoman who is about to marry a man from the mountains and move over there.
To regenerate fishing stocks there is ban on any fishing in the lake from August to October, but, this is ignored by commercial fishermen, who bribe officials to turn a blind eye, says Minh Bunly, field coordinator for the local NGO ‘Fishereies Action Coalition Team (FACT).
Chong Kneas is the closest Tonle Sap lake community to Siem Reap city which is facing a tourism boom due to its proximity to the world famous Angkor Wat Buddhist monuments. This community surrounds the ferry terminal, which is the major landing point for cargo, passengers and fuel bound for Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. Thus, its easy access to Siem Reap has resulted in many tour companies running boat cruises through the waters of the community for foreign tourist.
Locals complain that they have become subjects for photography (for foreign tourists) and they are not gaining anything from these tours because they have no capacity to provide any services or goods to the tourists.
“We sit and watch all these people with money going around” laments senior community member Sok Hour. “We can’t build big boats to take them, no money (for it), and we don’t make souvenirs”.
“We would like to set up a small business (to serve the tourists) but the banks will not give us money ” complains Doueng Tha, a young woman with an ambition to become a businesswoman. “They want to fist come and see your job and if you have license for land. They want us to put that in the bank to get small credit”.
Bunly believes that NGOs should play a role in helping the community build up livelihoods and raise awareness within the community of big businesses who come here to take over the resources, not to help the community.
“While there is a local fisheries management committee, it is the fisheries department officials who have the power to make decisions not the community” he added. “We see the answer to reducing poverty in giving more power to the local management committees .. and equip them with skills to better lobby the Governor’s and Fisheries Departments (to protect their resources)”.