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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Finger points at Government for ruin of fishers

Finger points at Government for ruin of fishers

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In the past few years villagers have been threatened and have had their fishing gear destroyed, even when they put their nets in water next to their homes. Some villagers have been arrested by lot guards and forced to work as slave laborers till their parents paid for their release.

  • A vital food source for rural Cambodians is threatened by irresponsible Government management, say experts.

  • NGOs say donors must attach conditions to future loans in an effort to achieve reforms in the fishery sector.

  • Lot owners' illegal and environmentally dangerous fishing techniques are seriously damaging fish stocks.

  • Police and military units cooperate with lot owners to prevent local people using their traditional fishing areas and working their farms during the dry season.

EXPERTS warn that Government mismanagement of fisheries will lead to civil unrest and the destruction of the resource unless reforms are quickly implemented.

Cambodia's freshwater fisheries - the fourth most productive in the world - are vitally important to the health and livelihoods of most rural Cambodians.

This year hundreds of protesters, representing fishing villages from across Cambodia, have descended on the National Assembly seeking help from Cambodia's lawmakers.

The villagers say powerful fishing lot owners, with the support of the Department of Fisheries (DoF) and other local authorities, do not allow them access to fishing grounds on which they depend for food.

Health and nutritional surveys show that fish provide at least 75 percent of the animal protein consumed by Cambodia's rural people and this food source is now jeopardized.

A Cambodia fisheries expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Post the industry is grossly mismanaged and he believes it imperative that donors focus more attention on the Government's handling of this sector of the economy.

"There is a complete breakdown in the system for the same reasons the Asian Development Bank (ADB) gave for forestry - greed, corruption and incompetence.

"The difference is that if the forests are destroyed people aren't going to starve. If the fishery resources are destroyed, or access to them denied, then the people are going to start starving," he said.

"The Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) and the Department of Fisheries (DoF) are responsible for managing forestry and fisheries on behalf of the people of Cambodia. They are not there to manage it for their own benefit.

"They are not managing these resources sustainably, transparently; nor are they managing [them] for state revenue either," said the expert.

Both the DoF and the DFW are under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Though estimates vary, the value of Cambodia's freshwater fisheries catch is perhaps as high as $200 million. But the Department of Fisheries officially collects no more than about 1 percent of that amount in royalties - about $2 million a year.

Sources with knowledge of the DoF's revenue collecting system told the Post they believe unofficial payments for lot leases are far higher.

Not only is Cambodia's treasury not benefiting sufficiently from fisheries, but people who have traditionally depended on fishing to feed themselves are being denied access to this natural resource.

"It is getting to the point where people are desperate. It is a human rights issue in the end. Looked at from an economic rights point of view these people are being denied everything."

He said any progress Cambodia has made with land and forestry reform is due to performance conditions being placed on international loans.

"[Fishery] reforms won't happen unless the donor community starts adding real conditionality on their loans and this is an issue for the World Bank, ADB and IMF," he said.

He described the existing fishery law as "archaic". "It would be hard to find a law as bad - but the basics are there. The law can work, but it is not being applied."

The current law - drafted in 1987 under the Vietnamese-backed Government - gives few rights to local people and has few provisions for the enforcement of those rights.

He said any attempts by provincial fishery officials to enforce the existing laws are hampered by a combination of poor training and a lack of resources. "But it is not because there is absolutely no money. It's because the money is disappearing."

As with forestry and land, a new law for fisheries is needed, but what is more important now is institutional reform - ridding the system of the corruption and incompetence which characterizes it now, he said.

Patrick Alley, the Director of the environmental watchdog organization Global Witness, said the Government's mismanagement of fisheries is all too similar to that of the forestry sector.

"The allocation of fishing lots without a transparent and fair bidding process raises the spectre of the selloff of the forests in the mid-1990s, which has ultimately cost Cambodia a fortune and damaged its international reputation," he said.

"The RGC and the international donors need to apply the same effort to fishery reform that they apply to forestry reform.

"We're talking about the source of the bulk of Cambodia's protein. As far as we know a lot of corrupt deals behind closed doors are excluding and endangering local people just so a few rich guys can export fish to Thailand."

The Director of the Fisheries Department, Ly Kim Han, is aware of the criticisms about fisheries management, but he believes the problems have been exaggerated.

Han recognizes there is a need for better management of the fisheries and said the department is working in partnership with the Mekong River Commission to develop a future management plan.

He said there are concerns about the present sustainability of the fisheries stock and his department plans to extend the leases on fishing lots so the owners will manage them more carefully.

Han said any corruption within his department is minor. "The fisheries department has not lost any income for the state budget," he said.

"We have no corruption because the bidding for the lots is done in public. We still face some small illegal fishing. But we put the guilty people in front of the courts," he said.

He said the recent influx of villagers living around the lake is the main cause of conflict between them and the lot owners.

At the heart of fisheries management in Cambodia is the lot system. This system was first established during the time of the French Protectorate in 1929. It was reintroduced by the Government in 1988 and covers the most productive fisheries in Cambodia.

The report, Taken for Granted: Conflicts over Cambodia's Freshwater Fish Resources, written for this year's International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP) conference, says the lot system was reintroduced to allow Government officials to substitute political capital for economic capital.

"Even though in principle civil servants are not allowed to participate in the bidding, actual practices are an open secret. The auction process itself is not openly contested under transparent rules, but rather controlled and pre-negotiated by the very administration [DoF] charged to implement it," says the IASCP report.

Lots are obtained for a two-year period through these auctions and the winning bidder is granted exclusive rights to fish in prescribed areas. There are 279 lots scattered across 8,529 square kilometers of the Tonle Sap and Cambodia's river systems. Many of these lots include flood plains and forest areas which are important for fish breeding, but also used by farmers during the dry season.

Each lot comes with its own "burden book" which sets its boundaries, fishing seasons, and other management rules. Most lots have areas set aside for use by local people.

The IASCP report says: "The central concern of the current management system is revenue generation rather than sustainable resource exploitation and equitable rural development."

This is in spite of the fact that small-scale subsistence fishing produces a higher catch than the commercial lots and is a critical component of Cambodia's food security.

"It would be fair to say that the freshwater capture fisheries' contribution to national food security and the economy is higher in Cambodia than in any other country," says the IASCP report.

But conflicts between subsistence fishermen who simply need food to feed their families and the lot owners determined to extract the maximum profit from their two-year leases are on the rise across Cambodia.

Department of Fisheries figures show a steady increase in complaints lodged over the past few years, though the report notes that any official complaints are likely to be only a tiny portion of the real number of grievances.

A March 2000 NGO Forum report, Fishing Conflict in Battambang, detailed the growing conflict between lot owners and the villagers of Battambang, but the situation is similar throughout Cambodia.

The Forum report says lot owners insist on control of all lakes and bodies of water that fall within their lot boundaries, regardless of whether they are listed in the lot's burden book. This is illegal.

Lot owners refuse to allow local people to travel across the lots during the wet season, or require payment from people who want to cross, though current law allows local people to travel or transport goods across the lots as long as they do not disrupt the fishing.

And by not allowing people to dig ponds on their own land for dry season irrigation, lot owners are violating Article 11 A2 in the standard burden book, which allows people to use water for family and agricultural needs, as long as it does not affect fishing.

But lot owners are not simply debating the fine points of the law with the villagers, they are backing up their claims with force.

Both the NGO Forum and the IASCP reports note that armed guards, including police and military personnel cooperating closely with the lot owners, intimidate and threaten village fishermen across Cambodia.

The Forum report notes several recent disputes between villagers and lot owners in Battambang in which villagers have been arrested, threatened with death, and even shot.

"The local people are subjected to violations from the rich and powerful, and are extremely vulnerable," says the report.

The Fisheries Department Director, Han, said he is worried about the amount of weapons the lot guards carry, but his department is trying to educate lot owners to be "polite and gentle to the people".

It is the environmentally destructive fishing practices of the lot owners which might have the most severe long-term impact on Cambodia.

According to the Forum report, the most common illegal fishing practice of lot owners is pumping water out of the lakes to catch fish with the use of small mesh filter nets.

"No fish can escape. After pumping, the area dries up and the fish remaining in the mud, including the baby fish, all die. In some areas, after pumping, they allow the water to flow back. In these cases, the water becomes polluted and the ecology of the water disturbed."

The report says lot owners use pumping to maximize their catch to generate enough revenue for payment to the Government.

"Lot owners are more concerned about their payment to the Government than about sustainability of the catch."

Legal loopholes and a lack of enforcement allow lot owners to continue using pumping, electric shock and other illegal techniques.

"Instead, those who are poor and powerless and fish with traditional methods and equipment, are blamed for the mass destruction of fishery resources," says the Forum report.

Most fish caught in the Battambang lots are exported through Poipet to Thailand, says the report. Only large and medium-size fish have any export value, so small, or juvenile fish are simply discarded.

"As a result, the villagers do not have enough food. As the rice yield per hectare, per family is getting smaller and the population increasing, the extent of the food shortage is becoming greater.

"The people's reliance on fishing activities for food security has increased, but the fishing lot owners do not allow them to fish for meeting their needs," says the report.

Touch Seang Tana, an ADB consultant for critical wetlands management, said there has been a dramatic decrease in freshwater fish stocks over the past two decades - especially for larger, commercially valuable species.

He said not enough research has been conducted to give precise statistics on fishstocks, but extensive interviews with fishermen across Cambodia leave Tana in no doubt that fish are in great decline. He said urgent action is required if the resource is to be managed sustainably and equitably in the future.

Tana said Government figures for the size of the commercial catch are perhaps one third of the true figure. And Government figures for the amount of fish exported to Thailand are likely to be less than one tenth of what actually crosses the border. "People try to manipulate things. If they export 10 fish, they record one," said Tana.

Tana said till now donors have focused little attention on the fisheries sector, as the catch is perceived to be only for local consumption and not a big export earner.

He said the Fisheries staff charged with monitoring activities on the lots are so poorly trained and underpaid that they have no choice but to do the bidding of the powerful lot owners.

Tana said legal and structural reforms for fisheries are required now and he believes the international donors should push for these reforms.

He said the system is in such a state of anarchy, it is hard to place blame for its failings.

Tana characterized the fisheries sector as being weak and open to abuse. "It's like a fruit that is too ripe and it is vulnerable to all insects."

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