A TONLE SAP FISH RANCH
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.
RED IS OFF-LIMITS
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
VILLAGE FISHING MARKET
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.