Anger Over Fishing Lots Leads to Violence

kbal toal village, Battambang prov­ince – On Dec 15, about 120 fishermen in this floating village on the Tonle Sap river set fire to the boat housing the village fisheries office. The incident,they claim, was because private guards had fired bullets into the water to frighten fishermen away. No one was injured.

Ham Pengly, 46, said the villagers didn’t want to burn down the boat, but they had run out of patience.

“We are very hungry because we have been waiting for a solution for a long time,” he said.

Four fishermen have been charged in connection with the fire, and local authorities say they are searching for four more suspects.

Chea Thaun, deputy judicial police chief for Battambang province, said police arrested Sok Sambo, 41, Pom Noem, 45, Long Toan, 45, and Sorn Heang, 33. Another four fishermen are suspected of involvement and are still at large, Chea Thaun said. Battambang court Prosecutor Yann Yet said the four have been charged with arson and dama­ging property.

In this and other floating villages, fishermen say new fishing grounds granted to them by the government a year ago were supposed to improve their lives. Instead, the allocations have only made their lives worse.

In Kbal Toal, villagers were given almost 500 hectares of new fishing grounds, but the area is 15 km from the village. To get there, villagers have to pass through a private fishing lot whose guards charge them 80,000 to 100,000 riel (about $21 to $26), the villagers claim.

The new grounds aren’t good for fishing anyway because they are dense with aquatic vegetation, the fisherman say. And if they move to the new area permanently, their children will not be able to go to school.

There are 520 families in Kbal Taol floating village in the Ek Phnom district of Battambang, and at least 60 percent are poor. On a recent visit, about 30 villagers gathered around reporters and officials from the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, a group of NGOs, to relate their stories.

An order by Prime Minister Hun Sen in late 2000 made public the rights to more than 500,000 hectares of fishing waters that had been privately leased. The conversion was intended to ease tensions between private lot operators and poor fishermen, who said they were being forced off their traditional fishing grounds.

Local fishermen welcomed the change, but now say it has not been implemented effectively. Instead of returning the fishing grounds to local control, they claim the order actually made it easier for large commercial fishing concerns to drive out local subsistence fishermen.

Villagers in kbal taol village, a two-hour boat ride from Kbal Taol, claim local authorities allow large commercial fishermen to break fishing laws while cracking down on subsistence fishermen.

Commercial fishermen can afford to bribe local authorities to let them use illegal gear, villagers say. The hundreds of meters of barricades erected by the commercial concerns leave no room in the supposedly public fishing areas for the villagers, who use a traditional “kneas”—a small wooden hut they sit on while holding a spear, waiting for fish to wander in—to fish.

In Anlong Ta’our village, 21 fishermen returned two weeks ago to find their kneas destroyed. They suspect the commercial fishermen were responsible, said Kuy Ann, deputy director of the village’s fishermen’s committee.

Morn Sout, 33, was one of the fishermen to lose his kneas.

“I wanted to cry,” he said grimly, displaying the two fish he had caught all day. He said he usually catches four or five large fish per day.

Nearby, a maze of bamboo barricades stood, and workers for commercial fishing concerns could be seen scooping handfuls of fish into a big basket.

The fishermen’s committee doesn’t have enough clout to effectively oppose the commercial fishermen, Kuy Ann said. The group often reports illegal activities to local fisheries officials, but the officials take no measures against the offenders, the fishermen claim.

Since the government created nearly 1,000 hectares of public grounds near Prek Toal and Anlong Ta’our, illegal fishing has only increased, the fishermen say.

Kbal Taol villagers say they have complained to officials three times but received no reply.

Village chief Kwan Thiya, 48, agreed with the fishermen’s complaints about the government-allocated fishing grounds.

“We have a lot of people, so this piece of fishing area is not adequate for our people to live on,” he said.

The chief called on the government to consider granting better fishing grounds closer to the village.

“We would like the government to grant us proper fishing areas because in the past we were not satisfied,” he said.

Some villagers say soldiers demand money to let them pass. Bun Seng, Region 5 military commander, denied that his soldiers were demanding bribes from local fishermen. He said the soldiers who formerly guarded water areas in Pursat, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces had been reassigned to their local headquarters in early 2001.

Bun Seng acknowledged that there could be some bad soldiers looking for extra money. He also said local fisheries authorities could be involved. “Sometimes local authorities themselves connive to earn money” without reporting to higher-ups, he said.

As for the villagers’ complaints that they should be granted different fishing grounds, Nao Thuok, director of the fisheries department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said they should have spoken up when the decisions were being made.

Three meetings were held in Prek Toal village in November 2000, and no one opposed the fishing areas. The fishermen agreed to the allocation in December 2000, Nao Thuok said.



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