Fishermen drowning under threats to livelihood

CHONG KHNEAS, Cambodia — The crowd waits on the muddy banks of the lake in a throng of motorbikes, trucks, bicycles and people. When the colorful fishing boats slide onto shore, the fish buyers clamber onto the decks of the boast and scramble to unpack the fish within the hulls.

The importance of the Tonle Sap Lake in the Mekong Basin cannot be overstated. It provides a major source of protein for Cambodians, including the more than 1 million people who live around the lake.

Fishing is also the sole source of income for most lake residents, though a number of small business enterprises have also sprouted up — including vegetable gardens, fruit and flower tree plantations and hydroponic farming. For most, fishing is all they have, and it keeps them poor.

In recent years, things have gotten even worse. A multitude of issues currently affects the Tonle Sap Lake — among them dams upstream, deforestation, pesticides and overfishing.


An economic boom in Cambodia has increased the country's need for electricity, which in turn is bringing foreign investment in dams. Electricity is projected to grow at a rate of 20 percent per year over the next several years. China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand have planned and already begun construction on hydroelectric dams along the Mekong and its tributaries.  Many of these dams are being supported by funds from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The dams will begin to have an impact in one to two years, threatening the lake's ecology. Since China is responsible for many of the dams and is the largest international investor in the country in general, Cambodia is reluctant to challenge its neighbor to the north.

Access to power will likely improve as a result of the dams, but marine life will perish: Eighty-seven percent of fish species in the Mekong migrate annually to feed and breed. Upstream dams are expected to raise water levels that would widen the lake and destroy up to one-third of the flooded forests where fish spawn.


While deforestation has abated in Cambodia, it continues around the lake. People seeking to develop areas of the flooded forests around the lake clear trees en masse and without thought to the environment. David Thomson, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Cambodia repeats an old Khmer proverb: “No forests, no fish, no Cambodia.”


Chong Kneas is located in Siem Reap province, which is home to famed Angkor Wat and draws millions of tourists every year. According to Thomson, there is a demand for local produce among the growing number of foreign tourists in the area, but he says the tourists don't want food grown with pesticides, which most of the farmers use. Local farmers and fishermen have resisted farming without pesticides, mainly due the fact that many think they will suffer a loss in profit.

Illegal fishing

Illegal fishing — often for family consumption rather than commercial profit — is particularly destructive to the lake's ecosystem since it circumvents fishing limits. Illegal techniques include poison and electric fishing gear, which is used to electrocute fish. Some fishermen bribe their way into restricted areas, and encroach upon fishing sanctuaries.

Government efforts

In 2001, the government made radical changes in fishing policies. More than half of the sections, or “lots” of the lake — about 239,000 square miles of fishing grounds — previously controlled by commercial fisheries were released to lakeside communities.

Thomson calls this an exceptional improvement in fishing management.

“It is almost unique in the world” to take domain from commercial entities and relinquish it to local fishermen. “It is tremendously commendable.”

At the same time, “it is also fraught with great difficulties,” such as management and implementation of a new sustainable fishing policy.

“It is not that easy, but it is a tremendous step forward because all over the world ... fishing rights and fishing access are being taken away from small-scale fishers.”

The trend toward consolidating large-scale fishing has been seen in many African nations, such as Senegal, Angola and Mozambique.

Community fisheries

In Cambodia, community fisheries have been established by the FAO with funds from the ADB (Ironically, the community fisheries are under threat from upstream dams which, are also supported by the ADB).  The system of community fisheries works against clearing the flooded forest and pesticides. It also supports community input as well as transparency in the fishing village. The FAO hopes that empowerment will help to reduce corruption and illegal fishing.

A report on this 10-year project of community fisheries is expected to be released within the next few weeks. Local fishermen say they hope progress is notable, but it hasn't been easy to include everyone in the system of community fisheries.

Obstacles to outreach

On his rickety houseboat in the floating village of Chong Khneas, Tan Van Minh, a Vietnamese national living in this Cambodian village, picks at his calloused hands, rough from hours tending his set nets in the Tonle Sap. Tan is one of 2,070 Vietnamese fishermen living in the 6,100-member village.

While he is a resident fisherman, he cannot participate or attend community fisheries meetings because the 2002 Fisheries Sub-Decree includes only Cambodian nationals. Excluding him from the system means he learns less about sustainable fishing. Only the Vietnamese village chief serves as the voice of the Vietnamese during community fishery meetings.

However, many Vietnamese fishers, including Tan, say they know nothing about community fisheries.

Conflict erupts between the Vietnamese and Cambodian fishers at times because of difference in fish catches. Some Vietnamese fishermen are known for staying out on the lake longer and catching more fish as a result. Many also have more money to buy larger nets. The discrepancy in catch between a Cambodian fisherman and a Vietnamese fisherman can fuel ethnic conflict.

In addition, Cambodian inspection officials have been known to target the Vietnamese fishermen. Each year, Tan must put much of his $1-a-day profit toward payment to the fishery inspectors and district inspector. There isn't much left to care for his family.

It is an open secret among fishing villagers in Chong Khneas that rising prices and lack of alternative income has increased illegal fishing. While many of these villagers understand the drawbacks of illegal fishing, daily survival wins out.

As Thomson says, “the problem with the project in early stages is ... it doesn’t put any more rice on the table.”

With the list of threats mounting, the future of the Tonle Sap remains unsure.

Back on shore, the racket of bargaining persists. Crates are filled tight with fish, and men strain under their heavy loads as they carry the boxes to awaiting vehicles. As the last fish is purchased, the noise dies away, and only the carcasses of gutted fish float gently on the surface of the water.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.