Local participation in fishery management among ethnic groups in Laos and Cambodia of the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB)

by Serey Sok and Somkhit Boulidam


The Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) is diverse; more than 70 ethnic groups speak different languages and dialects in remote and closed micro-societies. Most of populations are farmer and/or relies on fishing for subsistence livelihood. A 47-year-old Cham fisherfolk residing along the Tonle Sap Lake admitted that his family cannot live without fish, his engagement in fishery management help to ensure sustainable livelihood. By doing so, fisherfolks could interact with the relevant stakeholders for the sake of livelihood development and resource conservation. In the meantime, Mr. Chomthone, a Laoloum fisherfolk, agreed that Xe Bang Fai River, which is a tributary of the Mekong River, have provided supplementary income for the people in the communities. He added that the fisherfolks are gradually aware of their importance for engaging in fishery management in order to mitigate impacts of Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project since 2010.

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Picture 1: A fisherfolk is traveling to catch fish in the Xebang Fai River

An experimental study conducted in Cambodia and Lao among 604 households found that fisherfolks in Laos had more chance to participate in events of fishery management, voluntary work and community fishery. Among the four ethnics, Phouthai shared the highest awareness, participation and satisfaction while the Khmers shared the lowest degree. In comparison, Laoloum had better awareness and higher satisfaction than those whose were the Chams. This study suggests engagements of fisherfolks were associated to their willingness, commitment, and livelihoods attached to fishery resource. A Head of Had Khamheing Village confirmed that various projects of the government agencies and NGOs have implemented since 2010; they included the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Division of Fishery and Animal, Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC), Sustainable Forest Development (SUFORD) project and World Vision. Development projects have implemented to build their capacity and to establish alternative income sources among fisherfolks for reducing impact from Nam Theun 2 hydropower.

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Picture 2: A fisherfolk is cutting fish coughed in the Tonle Sap Lake for dried food

Unfortunately, there were only few NGOs based in Kompong Tralach district, i.e., Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) and Coalition of Cambodian Fishers (CCF). Some NGOs in Phnom Penh came to the communities for organizing events occasionally. The Chair of Kampong Tralach Kraom committee CFi stated that NGOs have played very crucial roles to raise awareness on the importance of natural resource and to build capacity of the communities for advocating and managing fishery by themselves. The increased roles of NGOs in both countries in the 1980s have gradually empowered fisherfolks to participate in management and conservation. But, NGOs are only existed in the communities, i.e., the Xe Bang Fai district where high risks and natural resources were probably exploited by hydropower development.

According to District Governor in Kampong Tralach District, the availability of legal support and community-based services also helped to increase the awareness of and to increase participation of fisherfolks to get involved in community development. Yet, Ms. Sophea, a Khmer fisherfolk in the Tonle Sap Lake raised the concerns and suggested to get intervention from the relevant officers, but there was nothing happened. Instead, fisherfolks were worried about their security because some offenders were backed by them. On the other hand, a Phouthai fisherfolk, Mr. Cheam, told that it was hard to raise the concerns they faced; however negative impacts from Nham Theun 2 on fishery were visibly recovered. They believed that they were not subject to raise concern because their acceptance of compensation from the company.

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Picture 3: A couple is removing fish from nets caught from the Tonle Sap Lake 

In relation to gender, the result of the same study shows when any event was organized, gender of the participants was ensured.

In Cambodia, Commune Councils organized regular meetings to inform and to discuss about community development; female and male participants were equally invited. Similarly, male and female fisherfolks in Laos were similarly balanced during discussion over the impact mitigation from hydropower development project. At fishing grounds in Xe Bang Fai River and in the Tonle Sap Lake, Ms. Bountha, a Phouthai fisherfolk and Mr. Math, a Cham fisherfolk shared similar views that female fisherfolks were not as active in participating fishery-related activities as male fisherfolks because of nature of work, their heavy household responsibilities and their commitment in community work. A 34-year-old Laoloum fisherfolk, Ms. Chanthanome, disclosed that female fisherfolks in Laos still believed that men did better for the work in relation to fishery management. Moreover, Ms. Kanintha, female Khmer fisherfolks did not participate in patrol at night time in the Tonle Sap Lake, struggle with offenders who were fishing illegally and lead the other fisherfolks in facilitating and discussing the fishery-relate activities.