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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fisheries reform seems all talk, no action

Fisheries reform seems all talk, no action

ONE-legged fisherman Kong Hean, 48, jumps out of his boat and hops across the

broken bamboo floor of his hut, a broad smile transforming his weather-beaten

face into a sea of deep wrinkles.

"We've waited for these words from

[Prime Minister Hun Sen] for a long time," Hean, a long-time resident of Kanleng

Pe fishing village in Kampong Chhnang, said of his upbeat demeanor.

The

words that Hean and the two million other Cambodians who depend on fishing as

their primary source of sustenance and income have been waiting for was carried

in a trio of strongly worded speeches made by Hun Sen on October 24 and November

4.

In those speeches, Hun Sen apologized to the country for abuses by

fisheries officers and fishing lot owners for colluding in illegally

appropriating public fishing areas and confiscation and destruction of fishing

nets, lines and traps.

"Fisheries officers are leeches that suck the

people's blood and they are the dogs that guard the fishing concessions," Hun

Sen said in Siem Reap on October 24, in the first of three speeches carried

nationwide on television and radio.

Hun Sen's vilification of "corrupt

fisheries officers" and resulting apologies continued in Kampong Thom on October

4.

"I've been Prime Minister for 15 years, [so I] must be blamed for

this," Hun Sen declared. "If the people demand that I resign [for fisheries

abuses] I may, but they still need me to [increase the size of] their fishing

areas," he said.

Hun Sen's verbal broadside resulted in the dismissal on

October 25 of Fisheries Department Director Ly Kim Hean and three Siem Reap

provincial fisheries officials.

But in spite of the firings and Hun Sen's

promises to reform the country's anarchic and increasingly violence-prone

fishing lots system, Hean and his fellow villagers say they still live in fear

of fisheries officials in the pay of fishing lot owners who on October 22 went

on a rampage of confiscation and destruction of their nets, lines and fish

traps.

"This is my new [gill net]," Hean says, pointing to a blue plastic

bag hanging near a bag of rice donated by Hun Sen in October. "I'm afraid they

will take it again."

For Hean and his neighbors, being able to fish means

the difference between food and hunger. A landless 1992 returnee from the Site K

border camp, Heang and the other 120 families of Kanleng Pe eke out a precarious

existence from a combination of fishing and dry-season rice

plantations.

"I've heard and read his words with my own ears and eyes,

but I'm still waiting to see the result," Kanleng Pe fisheries activist Chem

Chhoeun said of the impact of Hun Sen's speech on his village. "We tried to

record Hun Sen's speech and we will play it back again and again to convince

fishing lot owners to change their ways."

Passing by Chhoeun's hut in a

small boat, Ou Choeun, 40, shouts out one of the village's most commonly-asked

questions.

"Brother, can we fish today?" she asked.

Chhoeun is

well aware of the potentially tragic consequences of fishing in public areas now

claimed by fishing lot owners.

In 1997, her husband was killed by a fish

trap that had been booby-trapped with a grenade. On October 22, Choeun herself

came under fire from armed fishing-lot guards while fishing in what she insists

has long been recognized as a public fishing area.

That same evening,

Kanleng Pe village chief Them Phon and three other villagers were seriously

beaten by guards and police allegedly in the pay of the owner of Kampong Chhnang

fishing lot 13.

Kao Thay, Chief of Kampong Chhnang's Fisheries Office

told the Post discussions were under way to turn over certain areas currently

monopolized by private fishing lots to public use.

In Prey Veng Province,

recent events suggest that such discussions prompted by Hun Sen's promises of

fishing lot reform remain far off.

Peeam Ror and Bapang commune

authorities, who asked not to be named, told the Post on November 17 that Prey

Veng provincial fisheries officers arrested about 30 villagers for fishing in

public fishing areas on the Tonle Touch river.

Peamros commune officials

said the fisheries officers also confiscated costly fishing equipment including

hooks and gill nets.

Touch Seng Tana, an ADB fisheries consultant at the

Fisheries Department in Phnom Penh, applauded Hun Sen's announced intention of

reforming Cambodia's fisheries sector.

But Tana said Hun Sen's actual

plans with regard to the fisheries sector remain a mystery to both himself and

concerned citizens and NGOs.

Meanwhile, Tana said fisheries officials

reap the benefits of a corrupt fishing lot bidding and payment system that

enriches officials but robs the national treasury of desperately needed

funds.

According to Tana, in Siem Reap alone people interested in buying

fishing lots must pay up to 10 times the average 12 million riels official list

price for a fishing lot in "tea money" that goes into the pockets of corrupt

fisheries officials.

"I think that if the bidding process was done

properly the Government would get five to ten times more contributions to the

national budget from the fisheries sector," he said.

Meanwhile, the

opposition Sam Rainsy Party has capitalized on the popular discontent by

initiating a pilot "buy-back" project designed to redistribute fishing lot areas

to needy families.

On December 1 SRP legislators purchased a section of a

fishing lot in Kandal's Prek Tunloab commune which they distributed to 370

fishing families for $4.59 each.

SRP legislator Yim Sovann said that by

abolishing fishing lots in favor of a system in which the Government collects

annual fishing fees of $10 to $20 a family, the Government could increase its

annual fishing revenues from a current $2.5 million to between $10 million and

$20 million annually.

Prime Minister Hun Sen responded furiously to the

SRP actions during a radio address on December 2, calling it

"demagoguery".

Indications from the Fisheries Department suggest that

neither the lessons of the SRP pilot project nor the concerns of Tana and the

two million Cambodians dependent on fishing are a priority.

When

contacted by the Post, newly installed Fisheries Department Director Nao Thouk

said he knew little about Cambodia's fisheries sector yet and the urgent calls

for reform.

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