Life On The Tonle Sap: Effects Of The Changing Environment


Supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the Learning Institute is currently implementing a project in two Community Fisheries in the Tonle Sap region: Peam Bang Senchey and Doun Sdueng Senchey, located in Peam Bang Commune, Stung District, Kampong Thom Province. Peam Bang is a floating commune located in the Tonle Sap area, the largest freshwater lake in Cambodia where fishing is the main source of income for the people. But the biosphere here is rapidly changing, leaving many individuals and families in a dilemma. Fishing has been always been a way of life for as long as those living in the community can remember and for most of them, it is the only thing they know how to do. 

Through our Sustainable Fisheries Conservation Management Through Collaborative Approach Project, we have been working hand in hand with the communities to create conservation zones within the lake, combat illegal fishing activities and encourage alternative means of livelihood. Many of the communities around the Tonle Sap are reliant on fishing and remain determined to continue to do so while others have made the choice to migrate to land to seek other ways of making a living. 


Mean Chuern, 64, fisherman

Doung Steng commune

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Mean Chuern's story is an unfortunate truth that echoes life on the Tonle Sap. Fishing is the main source of livelihood in the floating communities around the lake and for most, it is the only trade they have ever known. However, with environmental changes taking place, the number of fish within this biosphere has been greatly depleted resulting in many families, like Mean Chuern's, left struggling and without alternatives means of earning a livelihood.

There are changes taking place in the Tonle Sap and Chuern can feel them. Four to five years ago, he could catch 50-70 kilograms of fish per day but today, even a mere five kilograms is hard to come by. There is an unmistakable decrease in the number of fish but he has also noticed that the water seems to have changed. It has become sour and salty and the fish often turn up dead. The possible causes? Pollution and using illegal methods of fishing such as explosives and poison.

Borrowing money through middle men or lenders has become a common practice in these floating villages. With the decrease of fish catch, it has become more difficult to pay back the loans on time. Lenders though, are aware of the plight within their community, making them sympathetic towards those in dire need. Chuern says that no matter how long it may take, both the lender and the borrower know that the debt will be paid off eventually.

The community doesn’t borrow money from the lender, though. The lender provides them with the materials or items they require. Chuern and his family for example, have been borrowing necessities like gas, fishing nets and/or worms. The payback is then made in cash.  While it is never easy to repay the amount owed, the dry season (when there are less fish) is especially difficult. Chuern himself confessed to having taken up to six months to repay a lender.

Nevertheless, the lenders continue to lend because it is ultimately a good business for them.

On the upside, there have been no incidents of backlash and/or violence from the part of the lenders when people have not been able to repay their debt. Chuern said that he still has several debts, recent and from previous years, left to pay off.

Chuern's wife also mentioned another form of payment: payback in the form of fish. She recently needed more fishing nets and while she is yet to pay off the debt, the amount will be paid off when she catches fish that equals the amount borrowed (cost of the net, gas, etc. as valued by the lender). As to how she keeps a track of this, "I note them down in a book. When I have caught the amount of fish that is owed, I strike down the item that I have borrowed for such items as gas and worms".

This year was a particularly bad season for the fishermen in the community. "Everyone cried" Chuern said. This has led to seasonal migration among the villagers during fishing season to areas where they think there will be more fish. But with the situation almost similar in all the communities around the lake, all they can do is compete and hope.

Chuern and his wife don't go fishing as often as they used to. It is mostly their son who fishes these days, catching between four to ten kilograms. The common varieties of fish in the area are the Chhlat, Andeng, Rosh and Kranh. The Chhlat fish is worth 1,000 riel per kilogram and there are days when they catch just five kilograms of this kind. With having to repay their lenders as well as the family expenses to consider, they are ultimately left with little to no money by the end of the day.

As a means of sustenance, the family is also trying to rear their own fish (fish farming) although this has proven to be equally expensive. It takes six to seven months for the fish to grow depending on the forage being fed. Taking care of them (i.e. buying the forage) costs money and when money is tight even for their day-to-day expenses, their only option is to go back to the lenders. So while they may be able to grow and sell the fish, in the end there is no profit for them.

This grim economic cycle in the Tonle Sap is further exacerbated by the pricing of the fish in the local markets. Constantly fluctuating, the prices are seemingly dictated by the buyers (it's important to highlight that these 'buyers' are mostly made up of the money lenders and the middlemen in the communities). Chuern heard once from a buyer that the price fluctuates in other markets too, indicating that this is a wide-spread problem. A solution that can perhaps increase the price of the fish is exporting them to the neighboring countries. But as of now, the fish in the region are all processed and sold within Cambodia.

While illegal fishing has always been a problem in the Tonle Sap, the low yield has made it more apparent. This has led to Community Fishery (CFi) members creating an awareness campaign in their village. Chuern and his wife said that they do not resort to using any illegal equipment for fishing but this hasn't stopped many families who are in similar situations to do so. Considering the future, protecting the biosphere and the natural habitat seems unimportant to them when the reality is not having enough money to feed themselves for the day.

If the recent trends in the Tonle Sap are anything to go by, there is a fear that this biosphere will soon disappear bringing an end to the floating communities once and for all. If this were to happen, Chuern is unsure about the future and his family. He had heard about a government plan to provide land for the people but he can't be sure if these are just rumors or the truth. "I don't know how to make a living anymore" said Chuern, who has known fishing as his only means of livelihood.

Mott, 40, Fishing net repairwoman/Fisherwoman

Peam Bang commune

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Mott has taken steps to find other means of livelihood other than just fishing to support her family because although the family is still very much reliant on fishing as their main source of income, they are experiencing the reality of the situation and know that fishing cannot be the only thing they are dependent upon. 

Mott took on this work not out of passion or choice but for the sheer need to sustain the family. She is determined to continue the job if she gets more customers in days to come.  We spoke to her in her boathouse while she was repairing her first fishing net.

It had only been three days since Mott had commenced the task of fixing fishing nets in the community when we paid her a visit. Prior to this, she would accompany her husband and son for fishing and placing nets in the lake. But just as it was with everyone we had spoken to in the community, the catch was just not enough to earn a living. 

Mott says that it has become harder to find places to fish or more specifically, it has become difficult to find (and catch enough) fish. What they do catch is just enough for their own consumption but not enough to sell to the middleman.

The reason for this is simple: over-fishing. The fish are too few to sustainably renew the population. The tipping point has been reached. There are also other ecological reasons contributing to the decrease such as up-stream dams and pollution but none compare with the mass over-fishing that takes place.

These days, Mott usually stays home and attends to the household chores while her husband takes responsibility for fishing - placing the nets to catch the fish and later, to sell the catch. He is occasionally accompanied to the market by their son. Also, Mott has started to fix fishing nets as an alternative means of livelihood.

She charges 20, 000 riel per day and the number of hours or days is dependent on the size of the net: "It depends on Sach bo (the net). If the tear and damage is large, it will take longer to fix it". Mot doesn't enjoy fixing the nets "but I must do it because I have no money"

If she had a choice and had enough money to invest in something, her first choice would still be a fishing-related occupation.  However perhaps rearing pigs would be a viable option too, she said. But this would require her to invest 3,000,000 riel; money that she doesn't have.

Mott may have started a little sideline business to help sustain herself and her family but she says that if the family cannot earn enough through their own endeavors borrowing from people such as the money lenders in the community is the last choice she has. Borrowing money has become the fall back plan and a means of survival on the Tonle Sap. "I will borrow from others if our family cannot earn and we will pay back when we have money" she says.

As part of our CEPF-funded, Sustainable Fisheries Conservation Management Through Collaborative Approach Project, gender equity has been a striking feature of the activities within the program and since the start, the organization has been looking for ways to engage and include the women in the Peam Bang Commune so that they can have a stronger voice in decision-making, join the community fishery (CFi) committee and volunteer for activities such as patrolling or recording and monitoring the fish stock data.

We proposed the idea of a savings group to Mott as this could allow her to invest for the pig rearing idea that she had mentioned. She told us that she had joined a previous savings group but that had failed due to a lack of leadership and guidance. If we (The Learning Institute) are looking to get involved and form a new one in the community though, Mott says she will join. Mot thinks that if the organization can appointment someone responsible and trustworthy in the community to lead the group and come once a month to oversee the management of the money, the women's saving group in the community will be a success.

There are several women like Mott in these communities who are trying, to the best of their capabilities, to help their family financially while also multitasking with household chores or childcare. Although the men are the wage earners and decision-makers in both the family and the community, it should not be mistaken for inequity as the women are the ones in charge of the all financial aspect.

Women make up half the population in any community and their voices must be heard. The aim of these activities are to impart the understanding, to both men and women, young and old, that women play an important role in any community and it is vital for them to feel a sense of self-worth and the need to be able to contribute to the society and the community that they live in. 

With gender equity being a key value to The Learning Institute, we are examining and studying various ways in which we can educate the rural communities about the importance of gender equity and supporting women activities. Forming the women's savings group could help the women of Peam Bang find other areas of earning income.

The Learning Institute remains fully committed to supporting women to take a more active role in effectively managing the fishery areas, including the Conservation Areas, resulting in increased productivity and biodiversity of fisheries resources and thus, sustainable livelihoods for all.



Recorded interviews with Mean Chuern and Mott were translation from Khmer to English by Kong Phidor and Otdam Hor