Taken for Granted: Conflicts over Cambodia's Freshwater Fish Resources

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"Cambodia ranks fourth among the world's top freshwater capture fisheries with an annual production of 300,000 400,000 t. Fish is an important part of food security in the country, especially for the rural poor. A household survey (1995/6) representative of 4.2 million people in central Cambodia found an average fish consumption rate of 67 kg/capita/year. "For about a decade, Cambodia has also been undergoing a period of rapid institutional transition from a communist to a capitalist economic regime. The backdrop to this transition is the government's professed ambition to create an equitable rural development. Nevertheless, after a period of 15 years during which access to fishing grounds was governed by collective schemes, an auction system determining exclusive use rights for two years was reintroduced to govern access to the most productive parts of the Cambodian fisheries domain, the fishing lots. Many of these lots consist of large areas of floodplain containing flood forest habitats essential for feeding and breeding of many species. Each lot has a 'burden book' which contains the specific management program indicating timing and spatial arrangements of the fishing operation. "Outside the fishing lots, the so-called open-access areas, are under increasing pressure from people in search of a livelihood. Almost 95% of the people in Cambodia survive from agriculture and fisheries, and population growth outpaces the growth of job-creation outside of the agricultural sector. The elementary needs of a growing rural population in conjunction with the absence of well-functioning regulatory institutions have resulted in falling fish catch rates per unit of effort and increased conflicts over and with fishing rights. "Rural households depending on the fishery for livelihood and subsistence have been losing out at the expense of politically and economically more powerful users (often using weapons to assert their interests). In the long term, a badly managed fishery engaging an increasing number of users that seeks short-term benefits, will negatively affect the recruitment capacity of fish stocks and enhance income and wealth disparities in Cambodia's rural areas. "The strategy being developed to provide solutions to these conflicts and stop the decline in fish catches, aims at environmental sensitization of resource users and broadening participation in the management of fishery habitats. The 'community' in its traditional sense as a spatially small, socially homogeneous, and normative unit seems to be too limited as an institutional framework for addressing fisheries co-management. The 'community of users (co- managers)' comprising strategic actors such as lot concessionaires, national and local authorities, military and militia groups, and small scale fishers, is interacting in a dynamic way frequently bypassing the limitations of formal institutions, and creating de facto new institutions to fulfil their interests. "With these considerations in mind, a process of enhancing transparency and communication oriented towards the needs of protecting critical fishing habitats is proposed to lead to a stronger and more focussed institutional framework allowing for broader participation of local users in protecting habitats and benefiting from its yields."



IASC, co-management, common pool resources, fisheries, institutional change, indigenous institutions, open access