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Building Resilient Community Fisheries in the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Chief summarizes action plan
A village chief summarizes the local action plan
during a dialogue event in Siem Reap province.
Photo by WorldFish
“We had failed several times before, and many people thought it wasn’t worth trying more, 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 an 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.

What enabled this change?  Organizers credit a partnership with WorldFish for creating dialogue about the roots of resource competition and building capacity among civil society actors to address these challenges in collaboration with government.  In 2009-2010, the Coalition of Cambodian Fishers (a grassroots network), the Fisheries Administration (the key national authority), and the Cambodian Development Resource Institute (the leading domestic policy research institute) jointly implemented a series of dialogue workshops around the Tonle Sap Lake, first at village and provincial levels, then at national level.

Not only did the dialogue process help create new linkages that allowed civil society groups to access support from national-level agencies, it also provided a basis for resolving local resource disputes, including a boundary dispute involving community fishery organizations in neighboring provinces.  Perhaps most importantly, it 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.
This experience demonstrates the value of action research to improve natural resource governance, even amidst ongoing resource conflict.  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.  And it’s done so at remarkably low cost, relying on the energy of local commitments and the power of social accountability rather than conventional—and costly—structures of project management.

Contact: Blake Ratner, Ph.D. Program Leader, Governance, WorldFish. Email: b.ratner@cgiar.org.

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