Saving money, protecting fish in the Mekong

By Chris Hufstader
Srey Pheak (with headlamp) leads a twilight fishing patrol on the Mekong near his village Samphin. The fishing patrol enforces fishery regulations in Samphin’s registered fishing lot. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

What can a small Cambodian community on the Mekong do to take care of its most important resource? Create an official fishing ground, and protect it.

Van Chea is a powerful man. When he heaves his heavy fishing net into the Mekong River, it explodes into a ragged circle before it splashes down and into the sparkling water. He demonstrates his technique several times, but when he hauls the net back in, it contains no fish.

This is troubling. Chea says he used to be able to put a pot of water on the fire, walk down to the river, and “catch a kilo or two of fish” for soup before the water boiled.

“Now it is very hard to catch fish,” he says. Not only are there more people fishing, they sometimes use destructive methods like fine-mesh nets and explosives. In addition, clearing forests for logs and agriculture is also affecting the environment and fish population.

And the situation could get worse. Villagers hear rumors of a proposed hydro­electric dam for an area near Chea’s village of Samphin. Its construction could have a direct impact on both the fish population and fishing families.

Van Chea fishes casts his net near his home in Samphin, on Rogniev island in the Mekong River. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

Registering their resource

Fishermen in Samphin have recently taken steps to protect the source of their livelihoods. Oxfam has been working with an organization called Northeastern Rural Development (NRD) to help the village, and others like it, learn how to better manage natural resources. NRD collaborates with the Provincial Fishery Office to teach communities about fishery law, and how to register as a community fishery. This designation allows villages to set aside exclusive fishing areas they can use and manage. Samphin has filed for its registration. In the meantime, citizens have set up a committee to patrol their designated area, keeping outsiders away while enforcing regulations that prohibit illegal fishing methods.

Saving and organizing

But creating change doesn’t happen overnight. Villages seeking a community fishery registration have to be organized: It takes a lot of commitment, patience, and time to deal with government bureaucracy in Cambodia, and not all small villages can sustain such a time-consuming process.

NRD is helping communities meet this challenge using an approach Oxfam has introduced to hundreds of thousands of people around the world: Saving for Change groups. The groups not only help people save money and learn how to invest it and earn more, they also convene people to talk about important village matters.

In Samphin, which sits on the 40-kilometer-long Rogniev island in the middle of the Mekong, fishing is the focus of a great deal of discussion among savings group members. And as it becomes even harder to make a living from the Mekong, participation in the groups also helps people make ends meet. Typically, members in the Samphin group save between one and six dollars a month. They can then borrow money to invest in fishing equipment, livestock, or growing rice. Most families in Samphin do all three.

Tep Srey Neang is the secretary of the Saving for Change group in Samphin village. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

Raising their voices

Savings groups are also giving people a voice. “NRD creates and trains the groups, and trains members on SRI [System of Rice Intensification] and gender, fishery laws, and other policies related to fisheries,” says Sovann Sam, director of NRD. “We train young people in public speaking and how to influence public officials on fishery matters.”

When NRD hosts special district and province-wide meetings open to all Samphin villagers, members of the savings groups are well-prepared to discuss fishery issues with government representatives. That deeper understanding and the confidence to speak out may be particularly useful in the future, especially if the hydroelectric dam is built.

“Dams can make costly changes in currents, and change the depth, degree of sedimentation, and affect fish habitat and spawning areas,” says Seam Kin, director of the Provincial Fishery Office. He says a dam could displace 5,000 families.

Hom Sokorn collects fish catch data as part of a monitoring study. Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

Hom Sokorn, 34, has been fishing in Samphin most of his life, as his parents did before him. He volunteered to help gather data for a fishery research project, because he wants to do what he can to help understand the state of fish stocks. Each day at the same time he heads out onto a small area of the river where he casts his net and then documents the catch. On this day he yields a half dozen small fish, which he measures and records.

He says the registration of Samphin as a fishery community was an essential step for the village. “Registration helps us prevent illegal fishing in this area. It gives us the authority to protect our fishing lot,” he says.

Tep Srey Neang, secretary of Samphin’s Saving for Change group, is hopeful the fishery patrol and the savings group together will improve life in Samphin.

“I want more money to be saved for members to borrow, and I hope my family will have a better life and the fish [population] will increase,” she says.

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