A Picture of Peam Bang: Challenges and Opportunities
Before the loud grinding of engine motors punctuates the sunrise, Long Srey Mom prepares breakfast for her family. She goes out to fish for a few hours and then returns home to pin laundry on a clothesline hanging over the water, sweep away remnants of dirt before they can be ground into the wood floor, and purchase fresh vegetables from a seller passing by on her boat. Then, she collects the day’s fish and paddles around her village to sell it, weighing out each kilogram with fairness and diligence. After that, Long Srey settles into the grass to repair fishing nets and prepare for the following day.
Long Srey Mom lives in the Peam Bang village, where houses can be moved to make way for a narrow boat to make its way through a formerly tight passage. The houses float on bamboo and giant barrels and people visit their neighbors and travel to work by the same form of transportation: ‘ba la’ fishing boats. Equipped with long rudders and sharp propellers, boats slice, bounce, and wander. Resilient and creative people create wealth out of challenging material circumstances as their lives and homes rise and fall with the seasons. However, despite the strength and adaptivity of the people of Peam Bang, their livelihoods are highly vulnerable to habitat degradation and overfishing.
Decline of fishery stocks due to illegal fishing is the biggest challenge for Long Srey’s family. Fishing is central to their livelihoods, and with fishery stocks threatened, the future seems unclear. Through a combination of illegal commercial fishing, illegal local fishing, population growth, and in-migration, the fisheries stocks of the Tonle Sap are being depleted. As villagers have grown up and people have migrated to Peam Bang, twenty families have become two-hundred in the last ten years. Though commercial fishing was banned in the Tonle Sap in 2012, fishermen still come with bottom-trawling nets, razing the ecosystem and threatening the possibility of survival not just of the fish but of the people who depend on them. Though it has been reduced significantly, illegal local fishing also remains a problem: some members of the Peam Bang community use illegal fishing equipment that damages the ecosystem and long-term fish stocks. The stakes are high: if the fishery stocks do not heal, then the people of Peam Bang commune will have to pack up their houses, leave behind their boats, and move to an uncertain future in Phnom Penh or elsewhere.
The protection of fisheries resources is vital for Long Srey Mom, her family, her community, and the broader ecosystem, which is why the Learning Institute partnered with the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund to implement a ‘Sustainable Fisheries Conservation Management through a Collaborative Approach.’ The Learning Institute’s goal is to strengthen existing conservation structures to allow for the sustainability of ecosystems.
Recently, The Learning Institute brought together a multi-stakeholder group including village leaders, fishery leaders, policemen, and fishermen to map out conservation zones that will limit fishing in those areas and allow fish stocks to recover. Large sheets of white paper with hand-drawn maps were rolled out and thick markers distributed. Fisherfolk crowded cross-legged around the paper, eager to discuss. As the discussion continued, people spoke and listened respectfully, while occasionally, someone would raise their voice to make an especially important or contentious point. Further nuance was revealed as villagers sought to navigate unclear village boundaries and create conservation zones that respected the sovereignty and fishing rights of each village.
Successful community-based conservation management poses many challenges. Just at this meeting, challenges appeared. Convening a group of relevant people is difficult; the invasive species water hyacinth has proliferated throughout the Tonle Sap, requiring a superhuman patience and a sharp knife to navigate the tangled vines. It takes time, energy, and a day away from work to make it to a CFi meeting, and the benefits of conservation are difficult to see in the short term. Developing relationships and understanding within a community takes dedicated effort over a long period of time, and effective facilitation requires that all voices be elevated and guided creatively.
Long Srey Mom expressed hope that illegal fishing stops so that she can continue to strengthen her community from within. As the community fishery is strengthened and supported, it will build capacity to plan proactively and protect fishery resources. A meeting is in place with the fisheries administration to address illegal commercial fishing, and plans are in the works to create more effective benefit-sharing mechanisms to incentivize more sustainable fishing. Though the future remains uncertain and difficult progress lies ahead, the fisherfolk of Peam Bang move forward confidently, ready to determine their future together.