“We had failed several times before, and many people thought it wasn’t worth trying anymore, but we decided we had to,” says Om Meng, the leader of a community fishery in the floating village of Phat Sanday on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. “Our livelihoods depend on having a place to fish.”
The Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world. Fish from the Tonle Sap provide an essential source of protein and micronutrients critical to the health of families in a country still plagued by high rates of childhood malnutrition.
It is also a place of intense competition. Local leaders like Om Meng have long advocated improving community rights to access and manage local fishing grounds and complained of unfair treatment by operators of the large-scale commercial fishing lots on the lake.
For years, he had organized nearby villagers to petition the government for a change in regulation.
In October 2010, this advocacy effort achieved an unexpected success, winning the release of ‘Fishing Lot Number 1’, the first instance of such a change in a decade. This gave fishing families access to an additional 2,684 hectares with annual production estimated at over 500 tons.
The achievement boosted civil society networks around the lake, helping launch a broader campaign for reform.
Within ten months, the Prime Minister publicly acknowledged widespread corruption in the administration of the commercial lot system, and announced the suspension of all remaining fishing lots on the lake.
Organizers credit these changes to the partnership with WorldFish. The Strengthening Aquatic Resource Governance project created dialogue about the roots of resource competition and built capacity among civil society actors to address challenges in collaboration with government.
In 2009-2010, the Coalition of Cambodian Fishers, the Fisheries Administration, and the Cambodian Development Resource Institute jointly implemented a series of dialogue workshops around the Tonle Sap Lake, first at village and provincial levels, then at national level.
The dialogue process helped create new connections that allowed civil society groups to access support from national-level agencies and provided a basis for resolving local resource disputes, including a boundary dispute involving community fishery organizations in neighboring provinces.
Perhaps most importantly, the dialog process led to a fundamental shift in strategy by the main national grassroots network representing fishing communities, emphasizing constructive links with government and the formal NGO sector.
By joining competing stakeholders to build capacity for collaboration, the initiative has contributed to strengthening resilience in local livelihoods, while reducing the risk of broader social conflict.