For Cambodia's 'Great Lake' and the millions who depend on it, a new lease on life
FAO project helps government revolutionize natural resource management
21 September 2005, Rome/Bangkok - When Patrick Evans first arrived at Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake eight years ago, there were days when it seemed more like a militarized zone than one of the world's most productive freshwater fishing grounds.
"You might see boats full of guys carrying automatic weapons, patrolling their fishing grounds. At times, the lake could look like an armed camp," the FAO development specialist recalls.
Long the main source of sustenance and survival for the millions of people that live around its shores -- and even on its waters -- the rich resources of the Tonle Sap were being poorly managed.
Fish, and timber from surrounding forests, were harvested unsustainably, and a 100-year-old system of commercial fishing concessions, inherited from colonial times, was troubled by problems of unfair access, corruption and, occasionally, violent disputes.
"Under that system, after fishing rights were leased initially they were often sub-leased, and then sub-leased again, so people holding rights were under pressure to defend their piece of the pie," Evans explains.
Overfishing and illegal fishing were taking their toll on fish stocks, also. "People were using small-mesh mosquito nets to capture fish, taking too many small juveniles, or carrying out electro-shock fishing with car batteries," says Evans. Catch amounts, as well as the size of fish, were declining -- which meant that there was less food to go around.
FAO project helps government turn things around
In light of these mounting problems, Cambodian authorities teamed up with FAO to establish a natural resource management programme in one of the lake's poorest provinces, Siem Reap.
The programme, entitled Participatory natural resource management in the Tonle Sap region, began operations in early 1995, thanks to financial support from the Government of Belgium.
Working closely with staffers from Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), FAO conducted studies on the flora and fauna of the Great Lake while reaching out to communities to identify problems and prioritize needs.
The FAO/MAFF team also assessed the way that natural resources were used and began to draw up plans for strengthening resource management capacity in the lake communities.
Communities take on leading role
Beyond overfishing, another key issue that became evident immediately was excessive clearing of the forested land that surrounds the lake.
"That forest is essential to productive fisheries on the lake," says Evans. "Every year when the lake rises by some 7 to 9 metres in depth, hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest are flooded, which provides nutrients, food and habitat for the fish, upon which millions of people depend. Deforestation was affecting the productivity of the lake's fisheries."
The primary cause of forest loss was land clearing for agriculture, as the floodlands bordering the lake are highly fertile. A secondary cause was a high demand for fuelwood to support an expanding brick-making industry.
Fortunately, says Evans, there was already widespread awareness among Siem Reap's lake communities that forest clearing was hurting fishing.
In 1997, the project team began to help the villagers organize themselves into local resource management organizations, and by 2000 community-led planned management - integrating people's livelihoods with forestry and fishery sustainability concerns - was occurring on around 10 000 ha. of land.
The improved management, combined with a 1997 government ban on brick kilns in the region, stemmed excessive timber harvesting and today much of the cleared flood forest is growing back, says Evans.
These developments so impressed Belgian aid authorities that they extended aid for the project until 2005. According to Evans, this kind of sustained donor support is crucial if projects like that on the Tonle Sap are to bring about real change.
A revolution in management
With community-led sustainable resource management taking root in the province, in 2000 came an added opportunity to change the way the lake was being managed, and on an even wider scale, thanks to a reform initiative spearheaded by Cambodian authorities.
During a visit by Prime Minister Hun Sen to Siem Reap following a series of devastating floods, local officials and fisherfolk involved in the FAO project vividly described to him the growing intensity of conflicts between fishing communities and commercial fishers.
What he heard led the prime minister to support the creation of a fact-finding commission, which held open meetings in fishing villages first in Siem Reap and then around the entire lake.
What the people wanted was clear: a complete makeover of the way the lake's fisheries were managed. "Fisheries reform became the mantra of the day," recalls Evans.
Calls for reform soared, and in early 2001 the government released 56 percent of the area previously controlled by commercial interests under the old colonial-era system for managing fisheries, over 500 000 ha., for public access.
Community management organizations home-grown, but sophisticated
The intention of these reforms was that the newly opened areas would be managed by fishing communities under the auspices of Cambodia's Department of Fisheries (DOF).
The communities where FAO had been working were well positioned to take on management of the new public fishing grounds. By the project's end in April 2005 some 15 different community-based natural resource organizations were established in 116 villages in Siem Reap and actively managing 108 000 hectares on and around the lake.
These organizations make decisions via democratic processes, with clear by-laws for their transparent and effective operation, and manage the resources under their control according to detailed and forward-looking five-year plans.
However, many Tonle Sap communities do not have the level of capacity that the FAO project helped establish in Siem Reap, and are struggling to effectively manage the resources in their local areas.
Government now working to spread project benefits across entire lake
Gradually that situation should improve, since the government has incorporated the concept of community-led development planning and resource management into its development planning programmes and national legislation.
Already, Cambodian officials report that some 320 community fisheries organizations have been established countrywide.
And though the original Tonle Sap project supported by FAO has come to an end, its work continues under MAFF's leadership, thanks to a US$10 million Asian Development Bank programme in support of sustainable development in the lake region.
FAO remains closely involved and is working together with MAFF on one component of that programme, a US$3.8 million project aimed at building the capacity of lake communities to sustainably manage the natural resources on which they depend.
e-mail this article