G ood relations between Laos and Cambodia may be undermined by the continuing use
of explosives by Cambodian fishermen on the Mekong river.
depleting fish stocks, there is the making of a major environmental controversy
as the grenades and mines are also killing the rare Irrawaddy
The practice is proving disastrous for the livelihood of fishing
communities on the Lao side of the border. It is illegal in both countries but
the laws, strictly enforced in Laos, are ignored in Cambodia.
observers think it has the potential to become a serious bilateral problem and
the issue is thought to have been discussed when Lao Prime Minister Khamtay
Siphondone visited Cambodia last November.
The only remaining dolphins in
Indochina live primarily in the Mekong between Stung Treng province and
Champassak province in Laos.
Although a concern of local Lao communities
for many years dolphins have only recently received regional
As one NGO worker worker in Vientiane put it: "The Irrawaddy
dolphin is an 'indicator species', they are a good measure of the health of the
water ways that they inhabit.
"The fact that they face possible
extinction, says something about the state of the Mekong and its tributaries,
and that is a problem that will affect millions of people throughout the
The problem was acknowledged last April by the Lao
government press. A front-page article in the newspaper Pasason Van Arthit said
dolphins were "not as they should be because the Cambodians are throwing bombs
into the river and selling the fish that they catch."
Thousands of kilos
of fish had been caught this way.
Reliable NGO sources in Laos said local
people had confirmed fish stocks going down 20 percent over the last 3-4 years
and in some areas as much as 50 percent.
Lao fisherfolk place their
survival on fish from the Mekong and its tributaries but their traditional
fishing methods are losing out to a more forceful Cambodian
Explosives are readily available under the counter in markets
throughout Stung Treng province, in northeast Cambodia.
is for dynamite and grenades, although salvaged mines placed inside soft drink
cans are often used.
In a report on the Mekong released last year one
Lao fishermen said: "If this dynamite fishing continues, then I will have to dig
ponds and breed fish.
"There is still enough fish for everybody in the
river, but for every one we catch, the Cambodians catch over 500."
Mekong Currency devoted several chapters to the impact of explosives fishing on
the river between Laos and Cambodia.
The report was compiled by the
Bangkok-based, Project For Ecological Recovery and discussed the state of the
Mekong in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
In addition to declining
catches, the report said local Lao people are also against explosive fishing
because of its detrimental effects on the river's dolphin
Although sightings of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong and
its tributaries in Vietnam and Cambodia go back to the fifties, its existence
was only verified by foreign organizations in 1991.
Several studies of
the dolphin in Indochina were disrupted by war, which for a long time rendered
the entire area off-limits to research.
Another NGO, Earth Island
Institute (EII), is also concerned about dolphins and the general impact of
In a letter to the Phnom Penh Post last August EII's
regional director requested the personal intervention of King Sihanouk. Ian
Baird said explosives fishing had been used increasingly over the past ten
"Between January and May 1993, I personally heard 10-20 'bombs'
going off a day in the Mekong river along the border," said Baird in his
"I have also seen the 'bombing' with my own eyes on numerous
occasions. It indiscriminately kills both juveniles and mature fish, and only a
small proportion of the fish that die can be retrieved when this wasteful method
Sometimes the victims can be the "bombers" themselves-often
young children specially recruited for the task.
Baird's claims about the
prevalence of explosives fishing matched those already made by UNTAC naval
patrols in Stung Treng.
In Laos, several tourists and other foreigners,
who visited the most southern area of Champassak near the Cambodian border over
the last year, said the same thing.
The history of explosives fishing
dates back to the Vietnam war, according to the Project for Ecological
As both Lao and Cambodian fishing people ran out of nets they
took advantage of the abundance of military hardware.
stopped in 1975 only to be reintroduced after the Vietnamese invasion in 1978.
Some NGO officials believe the situation worsened after the signing of
the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 which freed up large amounts of military
King Sihanouk has spoken out about the problem and issued a
directive last August to the provisional overnment saying this fishing method
should be stopped.
He asked the government "to take concrete measures to
stop fishermen from using explosives in the Mekong river in Stung Treng
But any such measures would be difficult to enforce. Stung
Treng is one of the most isolated and least populated provinces in Cambodia, and
the presence of large number of bandits, Khmer Rouge forces, and land mines
makes it one of the most dangerous.
More seriously, Lao communities have
reported that those doing explosives fishing are Khmer police and military
Unpublished EII reports have claimed that in the past
soldiers from the Cambodian People's Armed Forces had promoted explosives
fishing and sold explosives to those who wanted to do it.
suspect that the provincial government in Stung Treng is loathe to crack down on
the activity because of the taxes they make on large fish
Efforts by the provincial government in Champassak to solve the
problem have been unsuccessful.
Sources in Vientiane claim Laos is now
seeking a bilateral diplomatic solution but are concerned not to let it damage
wider Lao-Khmer relations, especially Cambodia's offer to give its land-locked
neighbor access to the sea.
In the meantime, the problem joins the
growing list of threats to the Mekong's fragile ecology, including increasing
pollution, tourist development and dam construction.