SEVEN years ago, 30-year-old Hai Nakri came to live on the island of Koh Rong Samleom, where she set up a business selling fishing tools and little styrofoam paddle-boats to local fishermen.
The island is two hours by boat from the tourist town of Sihanoukville, but aside from the occasional day-tripper, almost no tourists came to Hai Nakri’s village during her first five years there.
This began to change after the arrival of volunteer-funded ecotourism project Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), which was founded in early 2008.
As the number of foreign visitors to the village suddenly began to increase thanks to the project, Hai Nakri, who is originally from Battambang, was among the first to recognise a business opportunity.
She set up a kiosk with a pretty, thatched-roof seating area on the beach, and now sells drinks and snacks to passers-by. She has more than doubled her income since opening the kiosk, making around US$20 – and sometimes as much as US$50 – per day, instead of the $7 to $10 she used to earn.
MCC was founded by British diving instructor Paul Ferber, who had been working at a Sihanoukville dive centre. He became increasingly alarmed as the rich marine life off Koh Rong Samleom, which he had fallen in love with, began to disappear before his eyes.
Ferber had championed the area as one of the best dive spots in Southeast Asia and one of the premier places in the world to see seahorses – images of which he has tattooed on his upper body.
“When I first dived here three years ago, I could go for a dive and see 40 or 50 seahorses … then they just started to disappear,” Ferber said.
“It got down to a point where sometimes I’d go diving in an area where you used to see them and there was nothing – no habitat, no seahorses.”
He said the destruction was largely caused by weighted net trawling, a fishing technique that scoops up everything in its path along the ocean floor. He said this kind of bottom trawling is not only destructive but also wasteful, as up to 90 percent of the catch is discarded by fishermen. It is, he said, a common but illegal practice in the shallow waters surrounding the island.
Preserving marine life
Ferber’s original goal was to protect the seahorses, but the project has since branched out into other marine and terrestrial conservation efforts, as well as community-based initiatives.
Daily activities now include picking up rubbish washed up on the beach, teaching English to local children, building a new school, carrying out research dives and documenting orchids in the jungle.
“It started because of the seahorses – which is pretty crazy – I just wanted to protect the habitat. Then everything came from there,” Ferber said.
“The first thing that struck me, and really struck me, was that we couldn’t do it without the community’s help.”
One of MCC’s first acts was to help local villagers apply for a Community Fishery Order, which was granted by the Fisheries Administration in September last year and entitles local residents to sole fishing rights in approximately a 3 kilometre radius of the island. Anyone else who wants to fish within this area has to ask permission from the commune chief.
The Fisheries Administration has also designated two protected areas, seahorse breeding grounds, which cannot be fished at all. Locals have been granted the right to patrol the area to enforce these rules.
MCC continues to support the protection orders by paying local fishermen to run patrols. It is also in the process of creating a five-year management plan, which is required in conjunction with the protection order.
This is being spearheaded by 24-year-old French graduate student Marine Skopal, who is working on the plan as part of a six-month internship on the island.
Skopal began the management project by surveying local residents to learn how and what people fish, and what their experience of fishing has been since arriving on the island, which was more or less uninhabited until 1998.
So far she has counted 38 families, or a total of 166 people, but says there may be more people living in the community. She stressed the centrality of community involvement in the management plan.
“You can’t do something without community approval; they are really part of the project,” she said.
The surveys reveal how illegal trawling has impacted the lives of local fishermen, most of whom reported dwindling numbers of fish, crab and squid after the area was intensely trawled a few years ago. A slight increase in marine life has been seen since trawling was reduced, thanks to the community patrols, Skopal said.
Ferber said that, despite recognising the impact trawling was having, locals were not in a position to think about sustainable fishing and future resources when the project was launched.
“Everybody in this community – and most of the other places around here – had no interest in conservation because it’s not something you would be interested in if every day you’re trying to scrape together enough food to feed your family, trying to have enough money to bring yourself out of pretty dire poverty,” he said.
“So that’s when it started to become about community. If we took away their need to struggle and gave everybody a little bit better standard of living, and take away all of those things you have to worry about, [it] gives you a bit of time to think about other things, like the environment.”
MCC now employees around 15 full-time staff members from the village, and funnels money into the community in a variety of other ways, including hiring boats from villagers for diving trips or runs to the mainland.
There are a few nominally paid foreign staff with skills that could not be sourced from the village – such as diving, medical and scientific expertise – but most foreigners work for food and board, or are paying volunteers; a staffing policy that Ferber says is very deliberate.
“I won’t pay any Western staff more than my highest-paid Khmer staff. I refuse to have the wage division that most places have,” he said. “I find it repulsive and disgusting. If you’re willing to pay a Westerner $500 or $1,000 or $5,000 a month, and you’re willing to pay a Khmer person $100 or $200 a month to do exactly the same job – it’s basically racism and it’s wrong.”
Ferber said he includes himself in this policy. “I refuse to take out of the business any more than my highest-paid Khmer staff, and my highest paid Khmer staff gets $300 a month,” he said.
Ferber said he believes most foreign businesses and NGOs know they can get away with paying Khmer staff less than Western staff because it is usually still more than the average Cambodian wage.
“It actually makes me really angry when I see companies do it – how can you pay somebody less money just because they’re from [a different country]?” he asked. “Especially NGOs; it’s very, very wrong.”
Not a typical NGO
He was also careful to stress that MCC is not an NGO. “We publicise ourselves as a non-profit organisation – I’m not a registered NGO, I’m actually a registered business. So we’re technically a commercial business, like any other commercial business, I just choose to run it in the way of an NGO,” he said. “We were originally thinking about either going NGO or going charity; in the end I decided I didn’t want to. I mean NGOs, as much as there’s a lot of good work they do, a lot of the time in Cambodia when you mention the word ‘NGO’, people are sort of in two minds about the work they do. They have a bit of a connotation.”
Ferber said he also didn’t want to approach local villagers as a charity.
“It was never about giving people money or giving them things,” he said. “It was always about creating an opportunity for them to choose to make their life different.”
And this is exactly what has happened.
Recently, the project has grown rapidly from having four or five volunteers in previous months, to suddenly having around 20 on the island for the last two months running.
More businesses are also being built. Two identical enterprises have sprung up right next to Hai Nakri’s kiosk within the last few months, but she said she is not concerned about the competition. As the number of visitors to the island continues to grow, she is optimistic about the future employment opportunities for her children.
“I am very happy when foreigners come here. I have three children and now they can speak English a little bit. Before they did not know what English was,” she said.
Commune chief Lay Thai said that practically everyone on the island had been fishermen before the arrival of MCC, but that around 10 percent of the villagers now work in conservation or tourism-related jobs, and that the organisation has brought positive growth to the village.
“Nowadays the village is changing for the better, and some residents have a job, so they are very pleased to have this project on the island,” he said.
“I expect that in two or three years, this village will change even more than this – change culture, change environment and education system – with the project’s support,” he said. “I am the commune chief and on behalf of the people, I am very happy because my village is developing its lifestyle, culture and education.”