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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kampong Som fishing villagers embrace the law in bid for survival

Kampong Som fishing villagers embrace the law in bid for survival

Some of the fishing boats of Koh Kchong village

F

aced with the imminent collapse of their livelihood, the fisherfolk of Ream National

Park have renounced illegal fishing practices and are trying to ensure others do

so too, as Stephen O'Connell and Bou Saroeun report

THE fishing communities of Kampong Som's Preah Sihanouk "Ream" National

Park have banded together to protect their environment and fisheries from the ravages

of illegal activity and mismanagement.

A Fisheries official in Kampong Som, who said he did not dare to be named, told the

Post that Cambodia's coastal fisheries have been brought to the brink of collapse

by a combination of over-fishing and the use of illegal equipment and techniques.

No one knows this better than the local fishermen who have seen their catches drop

to a point where making a living has become almost impossible.

Last year the villagers of Ream took the opportunity to reverse their slide into

destitution by participating in a fisheries management project which has shown early

signs of success.

The Cambodia Demonstration Project (CDP), launched in June 1999, was the Cambodia

component of the Asian Development Bank's Coastal and Marine Environmental Management

in the South China Sea, Phase Two project.

An advisor to the CDP, Wayne Gum, said the objective was to develop strategies and

a working model to demonstrate how to manage environmental resources in the coastal

zone sustainably and with local community participation in the decision-making process.

Gum said the villagers were initially reluctant to stop illegal and destructive fishing

practices as long as they saw others continuing.

So Gum and the two officers from the Ministry of Environment (MoE) who constituted

the CDP field team began an intense round of negotiations and education for the villagers.

"Communities will organize around issues they really perceive as big problems,

and fisheries is one of them," said Gum.

In the end they were able to enlist the support of 750 families from eight villages

who were divided into 49 fishing groups. These villagers signed or thumbprinted documents

stating they would suspend their illegal fishing at the same time.

"The idea was to organize people using neutral facilitators who they could trust,"

said Gum.

He said early results of the project have been so promising that he believes it imperative

that the same community management strategies be trialed on Cambodia's beleaguered

freshwater fisheries of Lake Tonle Sap and rivers (See Phnom Penh Post August 4).

Gum said the only real difference is that the freshwater fisheries are divided into

lots controlled by business people.

"You still have authorities which are not implementing the laws, and you still

have factors like low salaries, low training, and interference from the military,"

he said.

Once organized, the fishing groups of Ream began regular patrols accompanied by park

officers to stop illegal fishing practices in local waters.

"Clearly by simply preventing illegal fishing - just following the law - the

livelihoods of the poorest people [in Ream] are increasing dramatically," said

Gum.

For example, illegal motorized dredges can catch 200 to 300 kilograms of cockles

a night. Stopping the activities of just one of these dredges can allow up to 20

families who fish by hand to make a living.

Ly Mon, a 40-year-old widowed grandmother who supports her family by fishing, leads

one of the new fishing groups in Ream's Boeung Ta Srey village.

It was the serious fall in catches and incomes in recent years that led Mom and the

other villagers to experiment with a new approach to community organization.

"The drop was caused by illegal fishermen who can do what they liked because

they had money and connections," she said.

Mother and children mend the nets

She said the villagers traditionally caught cockles and crabs by hand, but then fishermen

began using illegal motorized trawlers and push-net boats which devastated the species

villagers depended on for their livelihoods.

"If we only catch by hand, cockles and other species will not be threatened,"

she said. "Our ancestors were able to fish like this for many generations."

Mom said after learning about the long-term benefits of proper resource management,

she and the other villagers agreed to set up the groups with the support of the CDP,

and officials from the Park and Fisheries office.

Mom estimates that since the creation of the groups, illegal fishing has been reduced

by 30 per cent - enough to allow some stocks to rebound and provide most fishermen

an adequate income.

She said villagers now catch, on average, seven to eight kilograms of cockles a day

(worth about $5), and her shrimp catch has increased from two to seven kilograms

a day.

At first villagers were skeptical about the supposed benefits of creating the groups.

Mom said the villagers did not really understand the concept and they were reluctant

to take a day off from fishing to attend organizational meetings.

But with education came a change of attitude and a willingness to work together as

a community in partnership with local officials.

Mom said there is a newfound commitment among the local fishermen to follow the law.

"If you do not commit to the right way of fishing then you must go somewhere

else and leave these waters for the people who respect the rules," she said.

Villagers who break the rules of the fisheries group will be arrested by park officers,

or fined between 25,000 and 50,000 riel ($6.50 to $13). If caught fishing illegally

a second time the fines are doubled. Third time offenders have their fishing tools

confiscated and are sent to court.

Mom said the fishing groups realize that NGOs will not be able to support their program

for ever, so they have formed financing committees to control the money from fines,

much of which is put towards further enforcement activity within the park.

At recent meetings, Mom and other trainers are now educating people on the vital

importance of protecting the mangrove forests -breeding grounds for many marine species.

"I think whatever we have lost will come back to us while we work together to

preserve nature," said Mom.

Teb Mom, 47, head of Koh Kchong village's fishing group, said it took about six months

to gain the villagers trust in the new program. But when they understood that if

illegal fishing continued unchecked and the next generation would not have a livelihood,

304 families agreed to set up a group.

"We do not blame only the foreign boats which fish in Cambodian waters, but

Cambodians are also fishing illegally," said Teb Mom.

Boys of Koh Kchong fishing village skylarking

Koh Kchong has long been the scene of intensive illegal fishing, but after the community

was established the illegal fishing dropped dramatically, he said.

Teb Mom said it is the community's duty to report illegal fishing activity to either

Fisheries or National Park officers, as well as to stop fishing during breeding seasons.

"If we did not set up the community our poor families will starve. And we cannot

protect nature if we don't work hand in hand," he said.

Teb Mom said if this generation fails to preserve the forests and fisheries, both

will fall into the hands of businessmen and the poor will only become poorer.

But Teb Mom takes a long term view and expects it might take three or four years

for some species to regenerate. "Now we don't just think only about tomorrow,"

he said.

In the May 2000 Cambodia Demonstration Project Report, Gum states the clearest result

of community participation in the management of resources in the park is that the

number of illegal fishing boats captured per patrol has nearly doubled.

But all is not well. Ouk Sithan, 42, has been fishing for six years. He said his

daily catch is still in decline. He said it is boats from Vietnam's Phu Quoc island

which are responsible for the devastation of the fisheries off Ream's coast.

Sithan said some local fishermen have recently abandoned their boats and fled their

debts while others struggle just to earn enough for food.

Another fisher, who asked not to be named, said at the same time last year he was

catching between 30 to 40 kilograms of shrimp a day, but this year he feels lucky

to catch just one kilogram. It was, he believed, only the cockle fishers who seemed

to be benefiting from the project.

He said the group patrols have little real power to protect the fisheries when officials

still accept bribes to ignore those breaking the law.

"The pockets of the Government officers are still up and open. They are still

corrupt. If they were not still involved with illegal activities, would foreign boats

be allowed to fish in our place?"

Nevertheless, progress is clearly being made - at least in the minds of many of the

villagers, who believe there has been a change for the better.

"The important thing is to look at the perception of the people. There is no

harm in managing on perception. If you wait for the scientists to find the right

information the fishery may be gone by the time they come up with the concrete answers,"

said Gum.

Gum said the potential for organizing community fishing groups for Cambodia's freshwater

fisheries is tremendous. He believes the Government and international donors must

look at the Ream project as an example of what could be accomplished throughout Cambodia's

fishing communities.

He said many of the conflicts encountered at the fisheries can be alleviated with

minimal funding if NGOs can help facilitate relations between fishermen, Government

officials, and lot owners.

"We need to go carefully, choose certain provinces and areas to start with,

then expand the project," Gum said. "Already the Prime Minister has indicated

his support for addressing illegal fishing and provided the legal framework and mechanism

to accomplish this."

Gum said now is the right time to begin a pilot project on the Tonle Sap, modeled

on the one in Ream, before the lot auctions are held in June next year.

He believes if the existing fishery laws were simply followed and enforced, all stakeholders

would see a benefit-particularly the Government, which might have to deal with tens

of thousands of villagers who can no longer make a living.

As for the coastal and marine fisheries, there are still significant problems to

be addressed.

Mangroves, which are critically important as breeding grounds for many marine species,

are still being destroyed to make way for prawn farms controlled largely by the military.

This is despite the fact that 94 percent of the prawn farms established in Koh Kong

have already collapsed.

And fishermen have told the Post that illegal fishing offshore continues unabated.

Apart from the Cambodian boats using illegal gear and methods, fishermen report seeing

Cambodian Navy vessels providing escort and protection to Thai fleets plundering

Cambodian waters for its bounty.

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