Cambodian fishers work to protect floating villages

By Andrea Perera

Just a short drive from the ancient temples and Vegas-style hotels of Siem Riep, a community of fishers live as they have for generations, floating atop the Tonle Sap Lake.

Some live along the lakeshore in small shacks built on stilts. Others live on the water in moored houseboats, rafts, and barges. From these simple homes, the fishers hurl out their lines and pull up their baskets, hoping to catch enough to feed their families and satisfy the middlemen in the fish trade.

According to the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), an Oxfam-funded partner organization in Cambodia, the fishers help support about 1.5 million people.

"The Tonle Sap is very, very important, not only for the people who live on and around the lake, but for all of Cambodia," said Pen Raingsey, project officer at FACT.

Threatened waters

Each year, monsoon rains and melting snows from the Himalayas feed the Mekong River, swelling the Tonle Sap Lake. This yearly pattern nourishes a diverse underwater world of flooded forests and more than 100 species of fish.

But because the Tonle Sap is not only a source of food, but also a route for transportation and commerce, it faces increasing risks. Neighboring countries, corporations, and regional finance institutions want to blast rapids, develop hydropower dams, and build harbors on the Tonle Sap and its connecting waterways.

For fishers accustomed to picking up and moving with the changing tides, it's a difficult process to learn about these threats, let alone do anything about them. Water nomads as they are, fishers don't always meet up with their neighbors, or feel comfortable voicing their opposition to the government.

Creating a network of local leaders

That's where the Fisheries Action Coalition Team comes in. The group navigates the Tonle Sap, networking with fishers and bringing them to shore to meet, exchange information, and tell decision-makers what effect their developments will have. Then FACT compiles the research into a database and uses it to refute claims that certain developments would have no negative impacts.

Because of this work, fishers on the Tonle Sap say they feel empowered to protect their way of life.

Sitting on a small motorboat in the middle of the muddy waters of the Tonle Sap, Ly Saloeun, 53, said FACT trained him to write reports, and work with his neighbors to advocate for change.

He is one of many key fishers, each learning how to protect their community.

"We want to encourage the local community to raise their concerns to the decision makers," Raingsey said. "Before, people had no time or rights. Now, when a problem occurs, they can find a way to resolve that problem."

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