Fishing is a family affair at Boeng Chhon Len fishing community, Kandal Province.
hen the villagers of ChrouiMetrei returned home after 1979 they found the center
of their social, cultural and economic life - their mosque - was destroyed.
As Cham Muslims, one of Cambodia's minority cultures, they had suffered particularly
harsh treatment under the Khmer Rouge.
The village rebuilt the mosque in 1983, but it has taken more than 20 years for the
village to re-populate.
"We have 520 families now," said village leader, 38 year old Tou Las Lee,
"which is the same as before 1975."
"We could have even more if we stopped the birth spacing," he added to
the laughter of the dozen men from his 'core group' gathered on the porch of the
village mosque to discuss the formation of a fisheries community.
The 'fisheries community' has been organized as part of a project by the Fisheries
Department with technical assistance from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in an
attempt to lift the fortunes of Chroui Metrei and other subsistence fishing villages
Overfishing and illegal fishing has decimated fish stocks and species in Cambodia's
rivers and lakes; different villages disagree about who was at fault.
The villagers of Chroui Metrei blame Vietnamese commercial fishing boats operating
in their waters under police escorts for their ever decreasing catch.
As individuals the villagers had been powerless to stop the illegal practices, but
with a properly constituted community behind them they feel confident that they can
reclaim their waters for sustainable fishing.
"Our Cham people do not practice any illegal fishing - our nets comply with
the fisheries law. We know that the river and lake are our place of business for
the long term," said Las Lee.
Other villages in nearby areas accuse the Chams of depleting fish stocks by fishing
all year round.
With the community development projects, the Fisheries Department hopes to better
manage fishing environments and to manage the often covert conflict that goes on
between fishing villages, according to MRC Technical Advisor Verse Logarta.
But the program has come under criticism from Hun Sen for being too slow.
"I could form 40 communities in one afternoon," the Prime Minister told
a crowd in Kompong Chhnang in June.
Phan Sok, the newly elected head of Boeng Chhon Len fishing community, scoffed
at the suggestion that forming even one fishing community in a day would be possible.
"Most people don't understand the meaning of community or how it will benefit
them," he said, adding that it took several months of house to house visits
to convince people of the benefits of working cooperatively.
A Cham girl prepares food at thriving Chroui Metrei village.
Forming the fishing community has already brought benefits to the villagers of Boeng
"Now our community will study and find out which species have disappeared, then
we can buy those fish and release them back into our lake," said Phan Sok.
For the first time the community will be able to bind its members to by-laws that
will ban the fishing of endangered or spawning fish.
They will also be able to form a delegation to negotiate with the Chams of Chroui
Metrei over the alleged overfishing.
Ly Vuthy, head of the Fisheries Department's Fisheries Community Office, told the
Post that in the period to early July about 90 fisheries communities had been established
in the country, despite the long delays in passing the Fisheries Community sub-decree.
"We can not wait for the sub-decree to be passed - we have Hun Sen's letter
in our hand telling us to establish communities without waiting for the sub-decree
to be adopted by the Council of Ministers," he said.
Nao Thouk, director of the Fisheries Department, said that even though the fisheries
communities have been established without the law in place, they are still expected
to comply with the draft sub-decree.
"We still hope that the sub-decree will pass soon, but we don't know how soon
that might be," he said.
But the department is not waiting. With or without the sub-decree, Thouk is particularly
keen to have the communities in place before the October 30 opening of the fishing