A year after the launch of Cambodia's community fisheries project, 50-year-old
fisherman Kout Chi is skeptical about the touted benefits. From what he has seen
the exercise is less about helping the poor, more about the rich helping
A fisherman casts his net over a channel of the Tonle Sap at Kampong Chhnang.
At a recent conference on community fisheries, Chi, the
representative of a community fishery in Battambang, says his local authority
has not done enough to help establish effective fisheries.
Fishing is a
key component of many peoples' livelihoods in Cambodia, and fish a crucial part
of most villagers' diets. Some experts believe that fish comprise up to
three-quarters of the animal protein in the diet of rural Cambodians, who
constitute 85 percent of the population.
Fishing is also "a significant
source of rural income and employment", says a recent Oxfam-GB report. Most of
the country's fish come from the Tonle Sap, which is the most productive
freshwater fishing ground in the world.
Given the importance of fish to
most Cambodians, the government felt it wise to hand over control of local
fishing grounds to village-level communities. They, more than anyone, have the
incentive to manage the resource properly.
The meeting in Kampong
Chhnang, which was organized by an umbrella body of NGOs called the Fisheries
Action Coalition Team (FACT), was called to discuss progress over the past year.
The results of the meeting show that the concept has not worked as planned for
many community fisheries.
FACT ascertained that some areas that were
meant to have been handed over to communities are still being managed by local
authorities and fishing lot owners.
Some of these, complained fishermen,
had been sold to local businessmen by local officials. Chi says that in his
area, 57 stretches of water were meant to be handed over to villagers. Almost
half disappeared when the local authorities sold them on.
Other fishermen allege that local authorities allow illegal fishing in
community fisheries areas in exchange for bribes. Theft of fish stocks, say
others, is often not properly investigated.
Yim Lam, director of the Poor People's Development Organization which is
based in Kampong Thom, says that some fishing zones which were handed over to
villagers under the community fisheries scheme have since been seized by local
authorities and former fishing lot owners. He says villagers were told they were
not capable of taking care of them.
Other complaints came from Kampong Chhnang. Eng Son, head of the Plong
Sencahy fisheries community in that province, said local people were initially
pleased after the government handed over two lots on opposite banks of the
river. However, the owner of the fishing lot on the river destroyed the traps in
the community lots, allowing him to catch their fish.
"It makes no sense
at all," says Son. "We conserved our fish and the zone they were in." He says
the fact that the businessman has installed new traps downstream means that
villagers living there are now unable to fish.
Touch Seng Tana, a member
of the economic, social and cultural observation unit at the Council of
Ministers (CoM), agrees with the assessment of problems.
"Now that the
open fishing season is here, former fishing lot owners are invading and grabbing
villagers' fishing spaces," he says. "The situation is chaotic. The government
as well as the fisheries department should clarify the boundaries between
villagers and owners."
Um Meng, a villager from Neang Sav and temporary
head of the Pat Sandai fisheries community in Kampong Thom province, says that
illegal fishing over the past year has meant most of the fishing stock has been
He claims that in October Vietnamese fishermen illegally
caught young fish near his community. He reported the problem to the Department
of Fisheries (DoF) to stop them, only to be accused by the department of
damaging staff jobs.
"When I reported it to the DoF, I met a high-ranking
official who put pressure on me saying that my report could destroy the jobs of
the two men the DoF had sent to investigate the original claim."
staff, explained Meng, had filed a report understating the problem.
official then said he would re-examine the case provided Meng could guarantee
his safety, which Meng was unable to do. The official then suggested Meng pay
for the travel expenses of a team to come down and crack down on the illegal
"It's unbelievable," Meng says, shaking his head. "He told me
that he could go, but would need to take guards for his safety: ten policemen,
ten military police, ten soldiers, and his fisheries officials. He said they all
drink Tiger Beer and smoke 555 cigarettes and it would cost me around $700. He
asked whether I would like to pay their expenses."
Discouraged by the
blatant corruption involved, Meng told the official that he had only come by to
report the problem. He did not have the money to pay for a team to
As director of the DoF, Nao Thouk is the most senior figure
directly involved in managing community fisheries. He admits there are some
problems, but rejects Meng's allegations, claiming the villager is interfering
in the duties of fisheries officials for political gain.
Thouk says that
in one instance Meng complained that some 200 boats were catching undersized
fish. On inspection, he says the department found only ten boats.
thank him for coming to report problems, because I don't trust my staff to do
their job properly, but I have to check before making any decisions," he
The CoM's Tana says illegal fishing is a constant, no matter what
time of the year. He blames businessmen and provincial fisheries officials
operating their fiefdoms with a blind eye to wrongdoing. Although changing some
of the local staff would improve the efficiency of the project, he says the DoF
might have problems doing so.
"It is hard for the department to implement
their policy because some provinces have different policies in this regard, as
do some provincial officials," he says.
DoF's Thouk claims that 165
fisheries communities have been created so far. However, setting up the
community is not that easy, he says: support from the local authorities is
sometimes lacking, as is cash. Most, he claims, are poorly run.
authorities often don't want fisheries communities in their areas, because the
authorities know they will have trouble selling the fishing spots if there is a
strong community," he says. All money spent on fisheries so far, he says, has
been given by NGOs, not government.
CoM's Tana agrees. "As far as I know,
the DoF has not yet received money from the Ministry of Economy and Finance,
even though this project is a policy of Prime Minister Hun Sen," he says. Tana
believes that it will take another five years of proper reform before the
concept will work effectively.
He says that the DoF should create at
least ten groups of facilitators to help the process and should receive a
separate budget for fisheries reform.
FACT says that a lack of
cooperation between local fisheries officials and the DoF has hampered setting
up community fisheries, while not all areas allocated by the government are
suitable for the project.
Ngin Navirak, program officer at Oxfam-GB, says
that when the government finally adopts the sub-decree on community fisheries,
most problems associated with the lack of assistance by local authorities should
be more easily resolved. Until then, problems look set to continue for the
"We have lost hope," says Chi. "If some official
comes to my village and says he wants to reduce poverty, I will tell them to
stop talking immediately. I hate that phrase now: it just means taking from the
poor and giving to the rich."