A hydropower dam on the Sesan River in northern Cambodia threatens indigenous communities
In the rainy season, shrubs and small trees are submerged in the Sesan River. The Sesan runs from east to west from Vietnam’s central highlands across the northern Ratanakiri region of Cambodia where it flows into the great Mekong River.
For the indigenous Prov community, summer is high time for catching fish and making prahok, a fermented fish paste. Cambodian families use the pungent condiment all year ‘round.
But this community in Cambodia’s northern Ratanakiri province is now facing a major challenge. Their fish catch is declining drastically, which they attribute to illegal fishing and the Lower Sesan 2 dam, Cambodia's largest hydropower project being constructed downstream and slated to go online late this year.
“I think we’ve lost 80 percent of our catch,” says Ping Chamroeun, 28, an indigenous Prov mother of one son and a coordinator of the communiy fisheries partrol team in Ratanakiri’s Taveng district.
“Before the construction of the dam, at this time of the year we used to go out fishing and return with our boats full of fish. Now we catch barely enough to feed our families,” she says.
The Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam is an $816 million joint venture between Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese companies, designed to provide much-needed electricity to support Cambodia’s burgening growth. But development of this dam does not come without criticism. Environmental advocates have warned that the project could lead to a food security crisis in the Lower Mekong region, affecting tens of thousands of people in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. A few communities have already reported to have suffered the impact, saying the dam blocks the natural flow of the river, and fish can no longer migrate upstream to fishing communities like the one here in Taveng district.
And because of the drop in fish stocks, this community started to see an increase in illegal fishing activities, including the use of powerful batteries to electrocute fish, and fishing in restricted zones designed to protect spawning fish. Like the other 500 community fisheries across Cambodia, ethnic Prov people in the Taveng district are now fighting back to safeguard their fish stocks and restore their way of life.
Registered with the government as a community fishery since 2013, the community reviewed their fishing regulations, management plans, and maps of their community fishing areas with the support from Oxfam’s partner Save Cambodia’s Wildlife.
“This is a community fishery. So, we want all our members to benefit from it, long into the future. That’s why we need to safeguard our fish stocks and prevent anything that would put our river, our fish, and thus our lives at risk,” says Muong Huong, 57, chief of a village in Taveng district and an indigenous Prov person, in a recent community meeting.
On a small, engine-powered boat, Chamroeun and four community members she calls citizen guards are patrolling their community fishing zone, an area that stretches about five miles along the river.
Their equipment includes a camera phone, a flashlight, and a document file which includes their attendance sheet, a template report for recording any offences, their community fishery by-laws, and a stamp pad for offender(s) to fingerprint on their offence report when caught.
It’s late in the afternoon. The sun is still up, yet sunshowers soon follow.
Once in a while another boat passes by transporting goods and passengers including their motorbikes. When the engine sounds from these boats collide, it’s hard to hear anything at all.
About three miles down the river, Chamroeun points to a tin-roofed shack, saying it’s the community guard post they recently built, so their members can watch over the community fish conservation zone, a restricted deep water area where fish spawn and rear their young.
“We ban all kinds of fishing in this zone. Not even one fish hook is allowed here,” she says, pointing to the bounderies of an area about 500 meters (about one-third of a mile) long.
On the way back, just a few hundred meters past the guard post, three young men are drifting in a boat in the middle of the stream. The citizen guards say the boat is in the no-fishing zone.
One man is rowing the boat slightly against the current to let the others cast the net into the river. As the patrol team speads up their boat to approach them, they are pulling out the net in an effort to escape. They look scared.
“Do you know that this is our community fish conservation zone? It’s a restricted area and you cannot fish here,” Chamroeun starts asking them.
“We are sorry, we didn’t know, and we will stop now,” one of them responds frantically.
Trying to educate them and make sure they never fish in the area again, Chamroeun talk with the fishers for a while. They leave after pulling all their nets from the water. The citizen guards say they don’t take any serious action against the fishers because they are members of the community fishery and they have been warned.
Since the establishment of the community fishery, citizen guards have confiscated illegal fishing gear which they have turned in to authorities. Three of their members were sued for stealing property by a Lao fisherman after he was found fishing illegally in the community area and the fishery patrol confiscated his fishing equipment in 2015.
Demand to release fish
During a village meeting, a woman is selling fish on a motorbike. The villagers say she purchases it from the district town and resells here. This is quite a new phenomenon for the indigenous Prov community. They used to catch sufficient fish just a few years ago.
“Before we catch fish in the river. Now, we catch fish on the road,” Chamroeun chuckles.
She says hydropower development at the Lower Sesan 2 River is causing irreversible changes to the river’s eco-system, especially the loss of fish habitats.
“The company knows clearly about this. That’s why it has promised to release fish in our river and to set up a fish breeding facility to increase fish population and restore food security for our community. So far, they have not released a single fish. Nor have they set up any facility yet,” she says.
“Our plan is to advocate for the company and government to deliver on their promise. Now with the dam, conservation alone is not enough to manage our fishery resources more sustainably.”
Oxfam is supporting Save Cambodia’s Wildlife to organize 14 indigenous communities in Ratanakiri province into community fisheries and train them about their rights to self-manage fishery resources and protect fish habitats and spawning areas.
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