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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election bait for Koh Kong fisheries

Election bait for Koh Kong fisheries

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Fishing boats lined up at a village in Chi Khor Khrum commune ... safe from the big trawlers for now, but will protection continue once the election has passed?

Ho Pros used to turn his boat around when he spotted huge fishing trawlers patrolling

the waters off Koh Kong province. He had heard too many stories of big boats sinking

small fishing skiffs like his, with the fishermen still in the boat. The trawler

crews often used violence to stop the small boats, in a bid to stop them 'thieving'

from the waters.

But there have not been many trawlers in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Thailand

since June 29, when the provincial government recognized the community fisheries

project in Chi Khor Khrum commune, a group of four villages that lie west of Sre

Ambel.

"Now there are no problems because of this cooperation," says Pros, the

chief of the community fishery in Chi Eth village.

Some feel it is simply a coincidence that the government recognized the community

fisheries just four days after the start of the election campaign. But skeptics says

it is a ploy by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to win villagers' votes.

After all, there are more fishermen in the villages than there are trawlers.

"This good cooperation has to do with the national election," says one

person close to the community fisheries. "They want to get good voting numbers.

Some fisheries officials say that after July 27, they will move on."

The fishermen's problems began in 1989, when trawlers from across the region began

to drag their nets along the Cambodian coast. Most came from Sihanoukville with Cambodian

crews, but there continue to be a number from Thailand and Vietnam.

These commercial fishing vessels continually violated the country's 1987 Fisheries

Law, which states that trawlers may not fish in waters less than 20 meters deep,

as those areas are reserved for villagers.

As the trawlers moved in, local fishermen fought back. Between 1989 and 2002, trawler

crews killed 22 fishermen in the area. Most were shot as they tried to take fish

from the trawler nets, says Thorng Kakada of the American Friends Services Committee

(AFSC), an NGO working in the area. An unknown number drowned when their boats were

sunk. No one was ever brought to trial for the murders, and few boats were confiscated.

AFSC came to Sre Ambel in 2001 with an ambitious plan to organize villages into community

fisheries. Four villages have already joined, and a fifth may do so next year. The

'small fry' fishermen are finally getting a voice.

"We have the law and the community, so we have more strength," says Nour

Chay, treasurer of the Chi Eth fishery. "That is why the government has come

to help."

Officials from the Department of Fisheries (DoF) are stationed in each of the four

villages. In Chi Eth, a green communal building overlooking the piers serves as the

community fishery center and its cooperation area with the DoF. Rows of small boats,

many without motors, are lined up along the rickety wooden piers.

When a trawler is spotted inside the 20-meter depth range-a distance of 10 kilometers

from shore-a DoF boat is sent out.

Saing Sorn, the DoF official based in Chi Eth, says 35 trawlers have been caught

since the department began joint patrols with villagers from Chi Khor Khrum on June

29. All were given a brief lecture on the Fisheries Law, and there have been no repeat

offenders.

The department's legal director in Phnom Penh, Long Korn, says only 20 trawlers were

intercepted off the Cambodian coast between January and June 2003. The maximum penalty

under the law is three to five years in prison.

Korn says that despite the 1987 Fisheries Law, his department was powerless to fight

the big trawler companies.

And he doubts the DoF will be able to do more even once the National Assembly passes

the new fisheries law. The draft is set to go to the Council of Ministers in late

July, but it is unclear when it will reach the Assembly. But there is one problem

a new law will not be able to fix: "Our boats are too slow," he says.

Fisherman Ho Pros disagrees with Korn's assessment of the department's lack of ability.

He does not believe that the government cannot crack down on the trawlers.

"They say they cannot appropriately arrest those big boats, but they are the

government," he says.

And without continued help in fending off the trawlers, saltwater fishing communities,

like the four villages of Chi Khor Khrum, are in danger.

Eighty percent of the villagers in Chi Eth village and those around it make their

living through fishing, says Chan Rotha, fisheries field officer in Sre Ambel for

the AFSC's Integrated Sustainable Livelihoods Program. He says the trawlers overfish,

and their driftnets destroy the seabed.

"If these resources are destroyed, they won't even be able to sustain their

livelihoods," he says.

Trawlers are also driving down the price of fish. Ho Pros says a small fisherman

can catch perhaps two kilograms of shrimp or crab a day, but a trawler can take fifty

times that. Also, villagers are in debt to middlemen from whom they buy their gear,

and the fishing season is almost over.

On the back of these local issues, the election machinery of the big three parties

has swept in. CPP signs dominate the commune, but Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party

have also held rallies. Poverty reduction is a common theme, but none has spoken

about combating the trawlers.

"I don't know how they can reduce poverty," says Pros. "We are all

still poor."

And that, despite the rhetoric, is unlikely to change until the battle against the

trawlers is won. CPP member and commune chief, Kum Sum, says the government's recent

efforts in the area are due to a genuine desire to help the poor. Votes, he insists,

are not the issue.

"Only the CPP can be trusted. I'm sure the government will continue to help

the fishing community after the election," he says.

Treasurer Nour Chay is less optimistic: "I am not sure if after the election

they will still cooperate with the community. Maybe they will be gone."

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