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A Cambodian fisherwoman works on her boat near her house in Kompong Phluk, one of the floating villages at Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap. Chandan Khanna/AFP
A Cambodian fisherwoman works on her boat near her house in Kompong Phluk, one of the floating villages at Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap. Chandan Khanna/AFP

Idea to move floating villages floated at meet

A recent meeting of an inter-ministerial committee on combating illegal fishing in the Tonle Sap Lake included a sweeping, if vague, proposal to move residents of the lake’s floating villages to the mainland.

The March 7 meeting – which brought together representatives from the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Justice, and vice governors from Pursat, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang and Kandal provinces – included a report by Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing Undersecretary of State Sao Vannsereyveuth, who sees moving villagers out of the floating villages and onto the mainland as one solution to overfishing.

“If the Tonle Sap is the biggest lake in Southeast Asia, it has major cultural and socioeconomic importance,” Vannsereyveuth said yesterday. “Sixty percent of the freshwater fish Cambodian people eat comes from the Tonle Sap; this is cultural.”

Now, he continued, “more and more people come to the Tonle Sap for their livelihood and mostly, they fish”, leading to overfishing.

“Day by day there is degradation,” Vannsereyveuth said, adding that with more people on the lake comes pollution, including “oil from machines”, which leaks into the water.

But Vannsereyveuth insisted he “just propose[d] the idea to the committee for the long term”, noting that his ministry would need other government bodies’ support.

According to Nao Thuok, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Department, the government should “create jobs to move people out of the lake”. These jobs, he said, can include “planting and processing cassava and sugarcane; those jobs should earn more money than fishing . . . so that people will not fish,” he said.

Thuok said several ministries could cooperate to this end, “like the Ministry of Land [Management], to build social land concessions and the Ministry of Industry to build processing plants . . . [for] crops”.

Still, there is no guarantee this strategy will alter entrenched norms in floating villages, where many residents’ marginalisation based on their ethnicity had effectively forced them onto the water in the first place.

“Most of the families who live in the floating houses are Vietnamese minorities, Cham minorities and some Cambodians,” said Chhou Chandoeun, Kampong Chhnang’s provincial governor.

“They are fishing families, so when they move onto the land, they want to live close to the river and the lake so that it is easy to [go] fishing or raise fish.”

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