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Villagers explain grievances against lot-owners

Villagers explain grievances against lot-owners


FISHERMEN of Kampong Chhnang's Plong village, located beside the Tonle Sap River,

say fishing lot owners are colluding with Government officials to rob them of their

livelihood.

A fisherman making a bamboo fishing pot ... but lot-owners are using electric shock, pumping, and fine-mesh nets

The village head, Chhem Chon, 60, said he is not allowed to fish in the ponds and

river just meters from his house.

"The lot owners say 'Wherever there is water - it belongs to us,'" said

Chon.

The villagers can grow only a small amount of rice, and depend on fishing to feed

themselves and for trade. Chon said that now in a typical year a fisherman can earn

between 100,000 and 200,000 riel from fishing, which is below subsistence level.

He said in 1998 the villagers had their first major confrontation when a fishing

lot owner pumped dry Ta Prou Ta Pror lake to catch fish. Plong villagers tried to

assert their legal claim to the fish, but were forced away by concession guards armed

with AK-47s and B-40 rockets.

Since then the situation has become steadily worse.

Chon told the Post that the villagers cannot afford to wait for the Government to

find a solution. He said the Department of Fisheries (DoF) has promised many times

to address their problems, but so far they have done nothing.

"[The lot owners] have robbed us so we must take our fishing areas back. We

need rights so we and our children can survive," said Chon.

In the past few years villagers have been threatened and have had their fishing gear

destroyed, even when they put their nets in water next to their homes. Some villagers

have been arrested by lot guards and forced to work as slave laborers till their

parents paid for their release.

In neighboring Kanleng Pe village the people face the same problems.

Tem Ry, 75, has spent nearly her entire life in the village. But rather than enjoying

a well-earned rest, Ry has become an activist for her peoples' right to fish.

"I am old and will not live much longer, but what I demand now is that the next

generation will have fish to eat," she said.

Chhem Choeun, Ry's neighbor, said, "I will struggle till my last breath to get

back what we used to have before - even if they jail or threaten to kill me."

Villagers say fish stocks are steadily declining. They said fisheries officers blame

them for the decline, claiming they clear flood forest to plant rice.

Chon's aged mother, who lives her last years in ever-poorer conditions

But villagers said the illegal practices of the fishing lot owners are the real culprit

- pumping, the use of electric shock, and fine-mesh nets which capture or kill everything.

"If there are no more big fish, how will babies be produced for the next generation?

All the fish get killed when they pump or use electric shocks," said Chon.

He believes it is possible for the villagers to co-exist with the lot owners, but

only if the villagers are given clear boundaries for where they are entitled to fish,

and authorities respect their legal rights.

Eang Son, a resident of Plong, said the fishing law is too old and doesn't give enough

rights to villagers.

Son said that in the past there was more land available so people only fished to

eat. But now, with more people and less land the villagers need to sell fish to buy

rice.

He told the Post that since 1997 the fishing lot owners have been breaking down their

dikes in an attempt to catch all the fish living in the villagers' rice paddies.

"We are already the poorest and now they make it even harder for us to live.

We cannot sit and wait to die. We must struggle for our survival," he said.

He attended a workshop held at Kampong Chhnang in mid-July with fisheries officials,

local authorities and some NGOs involved with the fisheries.

"We suggested to the fisheries officers that they ban pumping to catch fish.

The fisheries officers agreed, so we cheered and clapped, but then they said the

villagers would be prevented from pumping the water for their rice," he said.

The fisheries officers already ban villagers from digging ponds for fish culture,

saying that these might adversely affect the fishing lots' ecology.

Son said the fisheries officers and the fishing lot owners work "like they are

one person: the lot owners can do anything they want and the villagers have no chance".

But what worries him most is the potential for violence. "Killing will start

if this problem is not solved properly," said Son, adding that he hopes the

top Government officials will soon realize just how important fishing is to the survival

of the villagers.

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