Private Lots Leave B’bang Fishing Nets Empty

ek phnom district, Battambang province – Fish are plentiful in the private fishing lots around the floating village of Kbal Taol, a bounty that locals here can only stare at with envy.

For nearly a decade now, the subsistence fishermen here have only been allowed to fish in a narrow strip of water in the middle of the Kbal Taol river during the sev­en-month fishing season from Nov­ember to May, while most of the fish school in the commercial fishing lots nearby.

The situation is so bad that villagers prefer to travel some 15 km to one of the few other places on the Kbal Taol that is still available to them. However, the allotted spot is a mud­dy swamp densely packed with aquatic plants that does not draw many fish either.

“There is a fishing lot on the left and another on the right, and the fishermen do not know where to go,” said Kvan Thiya, a former village chief who is now a Koh Chi­vaing commune councilor.

“Our livelihoods have not improved,” said Sou Rany, a 41-year-old fisherman. “In the past we faced difficulties, but now I think the situation is worse,” he said, noting that some residents of the floating village have moved nearer to the far-off fishing ground where they can fish, which means their children can no longer attend school.

But even with the loss of these migrants, the overall size of the village, which contains some 560 families, continues to grow, putting even more strain on the dwindling resources that the river has to offer.

“We have more people, but our fishing grounds are less, fishing lot operators have encroached our waters,” villager Hong Siv Hour said.

“We’d like to ask for bigger fishing grounds.”

Just as the government has awarded land concessions to agriculture companies and villagers have been forced to move from their farmland, the country’s main rivers and fishing grounds have also fallen into private hands at the expense of local communities, said Chan Soveth, chief monitor for rights group Adhoc.

“The people who live in the village [can] find only one job in the water,” Mr Soveth said.

In Kbal Taol, tensions between the residents of the fishing village and the private lot owners reached a boiling point in 2001, according to Mr Thiya, the commune councilor.

In one incident that year, a group of more than 100 local fishermen, irked by the limits placed on where they could cast their nets, set fire to a fisheries administration office, after, they claimed, private security guards fired bullets into the water to keep them away from an area they had fished for years. Four villagers arrested in the case served several months in prison.

The arrests scared many of the fishermen and put a stop to their more vigorous protests, Mr Thiya said.

Back then, he said, the fishermen were more confident that they could fight an injustice wrought by the privatization of the river’s best fishing spots for commercial aquaculture.

“Now we are like a piece of sugarcane whose juice is exhausted,” Mr Thiya said.

In recent years, the fishing lot operators have even begun to encroach on the swamp where Kbal Taol fisherman now eke out a living, Mr Thiya added.

Nao Thuok, chief of the government’s fisheries administration body, said he had received a complaint from Kbal Taol villagers and assigned his officials to investigate.

Still, Nao Thuok cautioned, problems with the complaint have already arisen as some of the names on the petition letter were apparently falsified.

Mr Thiya denied that claim, saying that some 500 fishermen had put their names to the letter voluntarily, calling on the government to give the community greater access to the river.

Though the government has created legislation and sub-decrees to allocate fisheries for use by subsistence fishermen, “they may not be sufficient to ensure that fisheries resources are managed economically, equitably and environmentally,” Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said in a speech in 2007.

“The most concerning are reports that implementation of these laws continue to favor commercial fishers, at the expense of small-scale fishers,” he said.


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