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Community fisheries 'great on paper'

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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

themselves.

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

destroyed.

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."

The

staff, explained Meng, had filed a report understating the problem.

The

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

fishing.

"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

investigate.

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.

"I

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

says.

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.

"Local

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

frustrated fishermen.

"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."

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