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Sao Theang, head of Chumpu Khmao Community Fishery.
Sao Theang, head of Chumpu Khmao Community Fishery. Photo supplied

Why fishermen are planting trees

By Nick Beresford, country director at United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia.

Sao Theang steers his boat through the waters in and around the mangrove forest of Preynub, close to Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast. It’s beautiful scenery and Theang tells us he hopes tourist numbers will start to pick up. As the head of Chumpu Khmao Community Fishery, he and his community already make a good living from shrimp, fish, mussels and other plentiful aquaculture.

But now the community is actively engaged in growing and protecting their own mangrove trees. Why are these fisher folk planting trees? Using tidal water flows and square blocks of natural mangrove, maximises the yields of valuable shrimp, fish and mussels. The mangrove forest adds to the beauty of the area: a plus for tourism.

The community works closely with the Department of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery, Ministry of Environment and the local commune, fostering a thriving business for the community, and effective environmental protection of a valuable forest.

Last week, the Ministry of Environment continued consultations on new legislation: the Environmental Codes. In a sign of how seriously these codes are being taken by the government, the consultations were led by Environment Minister Say Samal himself.

A remarkable feature of the Environmental Codes is the degree to which local government is empowered. For instance, in the section on biodiversity corridors and protected areas, local authorities have powers to expand protected areas. They are responsible for carrying out patrols, issuing licences and inspecting permits.

The codes extend these responsibilities to local communities, as well as indigenous groups. This marks an important step forward in solidifying the rights of these people, recognising their unique relationship to the environment and their ability to offer sustainable management and protection. The Environmental Codes contain a key concept of “collaborative management” to describe how the national government,

local communes and community groups can come together to forcibly and effectively manage natural resources. The codes contain principles such as “citizen’s access to information and to effective remedies” and “effective and full participation of all relevant stakeholders” in environmental decisions which may concern them.

The work of Sao Theang, his community, and their government partners is “collaborative management” in action. Not only have they been successful in business, but the Preynub communities were able to successfully push back against a land grab.

With some help from the Department of Fisheries and local authorities, the community was able to claim back their land. They are now replanting it with mangrove trees. Collaborative management is a smart and effective method and it’s deeply embedded in the new Environmental Codes.

With the added powers come new responsibilities. As the codes make clear, there is a need for staff with the right qualifications, training and experience at the local level.

This implies a major training exercise to strengthen local institutions and to coach their staff. This is a subject of great importance to Minister Say Samal and his colleagues. UNDP, USAID and the government of Japan, who have been working with the ministry on developing the codes, should be thinking of how they might help see it through with some support for skills and training.

The codes shift substantial government power down from the national ministries level to communes and other local authorities. Often this is politically difficult to do as unsurprisingly some powerful ministries can object.

The Ministry of Environment is making a strong case in the codes for decentralisation and leading by example. This is a great way to approach the subject and in the process make the government more effective and more accountable.

The politics and economy of environmental protection is complex and progress is rarely linear or easy. Learning from people such as Sao Theang and his community, and embedding the success of collaborative management in the new Environmental Codes marks an important step forward to better protection of the environment in Cambodia.

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