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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Great Lake: fish, guns, money and fences

The Great Lake: fish, guns, money and fences

Heng Sinith


Lot No. 3: in the foreground is the narrow harvesting channel, extending into deeper water of the lake, boiling with fish. The lot branches out, encompassing a huge area of water right to - and beyond - the flooded forests over the horizon.

TONLE SAP - The young man piloting his wooden boat on the Great Lake eased his engine

to idle and looked about worriedly. He eyed a tree branch sticking out of the water,

then glanced over his shoulder, then back to the branch.

He simply just knew that he was in trouble.

The tree branch was the outermost boundary of fishing Lot No. 3, and the pilot's

boat was on its shoreward side. He had driven into one of the Tonle Sap's 53 commercial

fishing lots and he knew he could be shot at, arrested and fined by armed militia

that patrol each lot for poachers and trespassers.

He didn't need to be reminded of the "fishing militia's" power. They are

autonomous and recognized in law. Their weapons - AK-47s mainly, but also machine-guns

and B-40 rocket-launchers - are registered and licensed.

They kill people, on occassion; two each year on average, locals reckon, though this

season no-one has yet been desperate or unlucky enough to encroach on a fishing lot

and get caught.

So Marng, a 51-year-old former lot owner but now a "simple" fisherman,

says: "Guns are all over the lake. If we don't have guns we would all be threatened

for money. People don't know who is who or what ministry anyone is working for...

We already pay every tax to the government but they still demand more money from

us...We got angry with them so we take guns with us. We are not going to shoot and

kill them," he laughs. "We just shoot over their heads to frighten them


It's not only the militia that make the Tonle Sap a wild place to fish. Army units

set up and protect their own clandestine fishing lots. Fisheries' officers are armed,

so is the navy, so are all manner of police patrols, and so therefore are many of

the fishermen the others might all try to extort money from.

"I never fish near someone's lot because I realize that I would be shot or fined

with big money," says one 73-year-old fisherman.

Heng Sinith


Tang Chenda, deputy chief of the Siem Reap Fishery Dept., shows (in red) the extent of the Tonle Sap's commercial lots.

But today someone is smiling on the young pilot idling his boat on the Tonle Sap.

Recovering his bearings and gunning his engine, he speeds out of the lot before anyone

spots him.

The Tonle Sap is not some vast,

rich, open and free fish-basket, where anyone and everyone with a boat and a net

can simply wander in and catch a feed and a salary.

Rather, it is controlled by "one of the most developed and extended systems

of fisheries regulation in the world," according to local and foreign fishery

experts. Most of the Tonle Sap's shoreline - starting from deep inside the fish-rich

flooded forests, down many of its tributary streams and their watersheds, and extending

for kilometers into the lake itself - is publicly off-limits.

At its rainy season peak, the lake covers about 20,000 sq kms. It supports 53 commercial

fishing lot owners from Siem Reap (7), Battambang (12), Kampong Thom (7), Kampong

Chhnang (20) and Pursat (7) - in all, they take nearly 4,000 sq kms between them.

They are the ones rich enough to buy two-year rights to commercial fishing lots.

It is a management system that sits at or near the top of a pyramid of entrenched

patronage, tangled rules, warm guns and complex webs of pay-offs.

But, at the same time, they support thousands of people either directly or in spin-off

industries, and current thinking is that maybe the closed and jealously-guarded lots

are, or could be with some legal tinkering, more socially and environmentally friendly

than if Cambodia's waters were opened up in a fishing free-for-all.

However, those who are dependent on fish to live, and who aren't allowed into the

fishing lots, don't quite see it that way.

There is now the beginnings of a debate as to whether the commercial fishing lots

are a good thing or not. The answer is, unsurp-risingly, neither black nor white.

Centrally-controlled fishing lots have probably been around since Angkor, if not

before. In the mid- to late-1800s, Cambodian royalty taxed fisheries, creating a

privileged group of mainly Chinese investors who bought the lots and leased them

out to locals, who in turned sub-leased them, then sub-sub-leased them, down the


The French rewrote the fishing laws around this system because they wanted to better

tax it. But they didn't much change it.

Barring the collectivized madness of 1975-79, and subtler changes under the PRK,

the Tonle Sap is managed now almost like it was 100 years ago.

So Marng was 14-years-old when he began working on Lot No. 4, south of Siem Reap,

in 1962. The lot owner was ethnic Chinese and the price of bidding for the lot was

between 20,000 and 30,000 riel. The fishing business was good.

Heng Sinith


The boundary of Fishing Lot No. 3

"At that time, Lot No. 1 was given to the villagers for public fishing and Lot

No. 7 belonged to Pursat province... In Pot Pot's regime I was a fishing expert for

the KR unit on the Tonle Sap. In 1984 I became a lot owner of Lot No. 4. Every lot

was organized as belonging to the community. There were 15 families in my village

who all wanted to make this business and I was named lot owner.

"In the first year, I collected 1,000 tons of fish and paid 20 tons to the state.

At that time we paid the state in fish, not money, like nowdays. There was a lot

of fish."

But in 1987 the water turned "sour" and he forfeit his business. But he

might try bidding next year to become a lot owner again. "You have to have around

$250,000," he says, which he would raise by borrowing and forming a local cooperative.

The figure tallies roughly with official figures seen by the Post. In one lot, the

official bidding fee was 160m riel ($46,000), plus another $18,000 for "lobbying

the auction committee" - all for the one season. Then there's operational costs

on top of that (nets, boats, security, workers, bamboo and sapling fences) and a

host of other palms to grease.

Marng says fishing lot owners never tell the truth about how much fish they take

from their lots. "Some of the lot owners borrow a lot of money to do their business,

so they have to keep that money to repay the lenders.

"Lot No. 2 is good," he says. "It has always helped its owners. The

previous owners always complained to the government that they lost. But, in fact,

they kept the money they made from the lot to repay their loans."

The Fisheries Dept. estimates that the commercial lots catch up to 60,000 tons of

fish a year, compared to the similarly-auctioned "bag lots" (a bag net

anchored to one spot in the river), 20,000 tons; middle-scale fisheries, 75,000 tons;

family fisheries, 125,000 tons; and rice-field fisheries, 100,000 tons. The total

- 380,000 tons of fish a year - is probably still an understatement yet represents

around six times more than what has long officially been accepted as Cambodia's fish


Fisheries officials in the provincial capitals and in Phnom Penh have copies of the

"burden books" that commercial lot owners are obliged to run, as they have

for decades. The books detail exactly where their lots are, how much fish is pulled

out from them, what parts of their lots have been leased and sub-leased, and to whom,

and much more information besides.

However, there doesn't seem much point publicizing who "owns" the 279 lots

that dot the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. Many owners represent others who have borrowed

money to win the two-yearly "secret" auctions. At least one current owner

represents a partner who was previously ban-ned from again managing a fishing lot.

Even local fisheries officials cannot swear to know 100% who really controls the

commercial fishing lots of the Tonle Sap.

Pay-offs are just part of the equation. To quote one official report: "creatively

arranged specific agreements [are made with] police, militaries, fisheries officers,

inspectors, fishing patrols, navigation police, district authorities, fisher groups

[and] individual fishers."

Everyone has to make enough then to repay their debts, or ideally turn a profit.

Therefore, the lots are protected with such a heavy militia presence from poachers,

and operators strive to catch most every fish in their lot.

Heng Sinith


Lot owners are being accused of over-extending their lawful boundaries. "Everywhere

you turn there are more [boundary] poles," says Marng. "The lot owners

extend over much territory and bribe authorities to shut their mouths when the poor

fishermen complain that their public fishing areas become narrower."

"The government always abuses the villagers for destroying the fish," says

Oeun, a fisherman in Prek Tal village. "But in fact, the lot owners destroy

the fish." They use electricity to stun the fish in their pens, he says, and

block the rivers, pumping out water to catch all the fish. All this, if true, is


At least some of the fishing lots should be dismantled and controlled by the local

villagers, say many people in Prek Tal.

However, the experts have found that the collectivization forced on villagers by

the KR and Heng Samrin regimes are not experiments they want to re-live. But they

accept too that life is getting harder for the poorer fishers who all say they want,

to quote one expert, "to regain a balanced relationship with their environment".

The fish and inundated forests would be cared for much better than "only seven

people [the Siem Reap lot owners] could", said one villager. "They only

care about their benefits. Can seven people take care of the fish and the environment

of the lake more honestly than hundreds and thousands of people who rely for their

lives on fishing? The lake is our farm. I don't think the villagers can destroy their

own property."

The villagers are afraid to talk about the problem because they think the authorities

support the lot owners. "If we complain or react we might be accused of being

masterminds, or traitors or whatever they want to," says one fisherman. "I

think if the government leaves the area of fishing lots for the local people to control,

rich fisheries will be back in just two years."

On close inspection (boats are not normally allowed within 6 meters or so of the

lots), the sheer scale of the lots is impressive.

Hundreds of thousands of young sapling trees are cut every two years from upland

districts. The trees are carted down and sold to lot owners to build a fence that

extends, for example, in the lake's biggest lot, for 500 square kilometers. The pens

are completed, from January to April, with thousands of bamboo "blankets",

tightly woven together, anchored into the lake and overlapped onto the poles. Bar

a disastrous storm, or deliberate mischief, it is impossible for fish to escape these

massive enclosures after spawning from the shoreline forests.

All this is hugely labor intensive. One bamboo "blanket" may cost 38,000

riel, and thousands of them are used in the lake. People are paid to cut the wood,

others (often women) to make the blankets, others to install them, and others still

to check them.

The fish, instinctively migrating from the receding waters of the flooded forests,

are trapped in deeper-water "harvesting lanes" and caught, usually with

fine seine nets. The fish are traded as far afield as Thailand and Vietnam, though

much is sold in-country.

However, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) says that lot owners do not do all they

can to maximize their catch. And they protect the flooded forests as well, because

it is in their interest to do so.

The MRC experts agree with local anecdotal evidence that Cambodia's fisheries are

under heavy threat. But there isn't enough information yet on which to base decisions

as to how the necessary improvements should best occur, they say. That's why so much

work is now being done to collect more data, almost from scratch.

The way the commercial lots operate is damaging say the experts - but no more so

than in the open areas of the Tonle Sap, especially when unlicensed fishing gear

is used. Abolishing the lots, they say, could do more harm than good.

Heng Sinith


Fishermen interviewed by the Post almost all agreed the problem of their declining

catches lay with the commercial lots. "We are the lowest people," said

one, adding that he would be happy if the government was "kind enough [to] ask

the lot owners to just give us back the public places they have occupied...".

He said that he had no confidence anyone would listen.

But, explain the fisheries experts, the lot owners have been doing it their way,

barely unchanged, for 100 years. The real concern is that thousands more people are

fishing now, and that swathes of flooded forest are being destroyed for wood and

to make room for more paddy. For this the commercial fisheries can't blamed.

It is neither desirable nor possible to abolish lot fishing, experts say, any more

than it is possible to somehow abolish the complex patron-client relationship on

which the practise is based.

The challenge is to change the way Cambodia's entire fishing industry - including

the commercial fisheries - is managed to ensure more equitable access to healthy

fish stocks for everyone.

And all of that is more easily said than done.



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