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Royal Academy president Sok Touch on his Tonle Sap wetlands investigation

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Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) president Sok Touch during an interview with The Post on March 11. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Royal Academy president Sok Touch on his Tonle Sap wetlands investigation

In 2021, at the behest of the government, Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) president Sok Touch studied and investigated the challenges facing the Tonle Sap Lake, which covers an area of 640,000ha.

During the field visit, he found numerous instances of encroachment on state land and illegal fishing around the area by individuals as well as powerful conglomerates.

Touch documented them in a report submitted to the government requesting legal action to reclaim the state land and further measures to ban such practices.

A meeting of an inter-ministerial working group was held on March 10 to review the results of the implementation of measures to crack down on encroachment in the flooded forests of the Tonle Sap Lake region and determine the 2022 agenda for six provinces around the lake.

Touch sat down with The Post to discuss the findings of his research.

Why did you study water and the forests in Tonle Sap Lake?

The water is home to many types of fish and is part of the habitat of land animals, while the forested area supplies the food of these animals. Last week I went to the Tonle Sap Lake and noticed that the water was very shallow and the fish were scarce. The scarcity was due to illegal fishing, and includes all-season fishing, trawling and electrocution of fish.

The encroachment on flooded forest land along the Tonle Sap Lake for farming purposes affects freshwater fish habitats. Freshwater fish with scales eat plants as food, so when people encroach on the land next to the Tonle Sap Lake to farm, they use chemicals which affect the fishes’ food, causing them to die out.

This is the key problem leading us to call for a stop to illegal fishing, and for that I believe many locals are angry with me right now. But I hope they will keep in mind the fact that we all have a part to play to defend nature. Cambodia has not yet declared a shortage of farmland for anyone to have to use any part of the 640,000ha in the Tonle Sap Lake for such purposes.

We have an estimated population of 18 million and have more land than South Korea, which has a population of 52 million - yet compared to us, they preserve their natural resources.

What are some of the key findings from your research on the Tonle Sap Lake?

We studied the documents provided by relevant institutions as well as historical ones. Then we began to cross-reference the documents with actual measurements collected from the Tonle Sap Lake.

According to the documents, the Tonle Sap Lake covered an area of up to 640,000ha almost equally across the six provinces. However, when we went there, we noticed there was very different coverage of the provinces. For instance, only one point of the lake was in Banteay Meanchey - the river flowing from the lake.

Another thing we discovered was the amount of illegal activity happening in the area. We went to the conservation area early on in our research and saw immediately that we needed to inspect the area thoroughly and study it further.

During our field visit, we observed that when illegal loggers cut down the forests, they also take land to farm. When the lake dries out, the loggers clear the trees. We told the government that if we leave it as is, the forested area will be destroyed.

What is the nature of encroachment on state land along the Tonle Sap Lake?

The reason people encroached upon the land surrounding Tonle Sap Lake was that the land is a good type of wetland for farming, and didn’t have occupiers yet. We noticed that while individuals encroached on small portions of the land, the powerful and connected had encroached on large parts.

We informed the government of these cases and they set up the inter-ministerial working group in cooperation with authorities around the Tonle Sap Lake to investigate and reclaim the land as state land, which seems to have been successful, particularly in Zone 3.

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Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) president Sok Touch addresses a forum in 2021. Hong Menea

What did you observe about the water levels in the Tonle Sap Lake?

During the rainy season, the Tonle Sap Lake rises to 5.5m in Siem Reap, Battambang and Pursat provinces. In canals, the water levels can rise to 7m. In the Chhnuk Trou area, the water level goes up to 13m, and in front of the Royal Palace, the water level is 23m. But now, the water levels in the five locations are much lower than that - only 5.5m.

However, this is not the final water level, because the water will usually be at its most shallow in April. We will resume our inspection again at that time.

Why is the water level in Tonle Sap Lake low?

The water level is low firstly due to irregular rainfall. Secondly, it has been impacted by the dams around the area, and thirdly, because Cambodians in general do not know how to conserve water.

The retention of water from dams or conservation has multiple benefits. Loggers cannot reach flooded forests. Farmers can also continue farming because with the dam, the water level in the lake will become even. When that happens, the water in the rivers connected to the lake can remain there, and can be used for agricultural purposes.

What are the benefits and effects of building a dam?

When building this dam, we must ask what happens if we retain the water. When the rainy season arrives, there is no difficulty. We simply open all the sluice gates because we no longer need water as it would flow in from the Mekong River. Then, while waiting for the dry months to come, we close the water gates.

If we make the dam, when we want the water in the Tonle Sap during the dry season to be 3m, we can raise the dam to that level. If the authorities can make hydropower, they should be able to build a dam, and that is something we should consider.

In the case of non-migratory fish, if the fish cannot migrate, we have the Tonle Chhma, spanning more than 11,000ha. We take it as a spawning ground for fish which we release into the Tonle Sap Lake.

Another point to consider is that we have to strictly enforce fisheries law. At this point during the spawning season, people are strictly forbidden from fishing, with harsh penalties if caught. But if we permit fishing, how much show we allow for? For instance, we could allow them to put bamboo cages up to 600m, but not hundreds of kilometers.

When we enforce fisheries laws, they say it’s poor people who are disproportionately affected. They say authorities racially discriminate, but that’s not true. If you go to Korea, if you do something illegal, you will be imprisoned. Same with Thailand, Vietnam - if we do something illegal, they will put us in jail immediately. A country has laws, and when we are in the country, we have to respect its laws.

This is the concern of the whole nation. These illegal fishermen are not considering the effects of their actions on future generations. The law prohibiting fishing protects the fish stocks in the lake for their children - our children. Same with the law on bamboo cages.

What do you think are the main causes of fishing offences and how can we prevent them?

There are many types of fishing offences happening in the Tonle Sap Lake, and in fact, almost all offences recorded are related to fishing. The perpetrators are both local and foreign fishermen. Most of them are minor offences, according to the fishing gear we found.

We do not blame the fisheries administration for this. Before the power was decentralised to the sub-national level, provinces did not have a lot of power. But now they do, and I want to see governors do something. I won’t name provinces, but when it comes to Tonle Sap Lake, if they cannot deal with it, I would suggest that they resign, and not just move from one province to another.

They are not ashamed at all. We do our part to help society because the country belongs to us all. We have to have the courage to stand up for it.

What are your recommendations for preserving the natural resources of the Tonle Sap Lake?

We have to explain this point to Cambodians for them to understand so that they can participate. When they don’t understand, it is very difficult - as if we are trying to catch crabs.

At this point, we have to ask: we can put up billboards advertising beer, so why can’t we put one up explaining these simple concepts to our people? So, firstly, we have to explain to the people, and secondly, we have to implement the law.

Another point is that we have to restore endangered species of fish and we should ensure they are conserved and developed. We must ensure there is no overfishing and that the law must be enforced. We must try our best for future generations, because then we can say at least we tried.

Doing this work, the risk to my life is high and I’m disliked by many. But I do it because the government has entrusted this responsibility to me and it’s not something to indulge in, whether for power or glamour or wealth, but to complete the task assigned to me by a public office.

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