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Building resilient community fisheries in Cambodia

Fish from Tonle Sap provide an essential source of protein and micronutrients (© Lukas Ruettinger)
Fish from Tonle Sap provide an essential source of protein and micronutrients
© Lukas Ruettinger

Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world. Fish from Tonle Sap provide an essential source of protein and micronutrients critical to the health of families in Cambodia, a country still plagued by high rates of childhood malnutrition. But managing water for food and income also means harnessing the full value of these fisheries for local communities.

Achieving this requires addressing the challenge of intense competition for resources around the lake. Local leaders like Oum Meng had long campaigned for improved community rights to access and manage local fishing grounds, and complained of unfair treatment by operators of large-scale commercial fishing lots on the lake. For years, he had organised nearby villagers to petition the government for a change in regulation. "We had failed several times before, and many people thought it wasn't worth trying more, but we decided we had to," says Oum Meng. "Our livelihoods depend on having a place to fish."

In October 2010, this advocacy effort achieved an unexpected success when Fishing Lot 1 (a fishing concession in Kompong Thom Province) was terminated and access granted to local fishers - the first instance in a decade of a lot being released to community control. This gave families access to an additional 2,500 hectares of the lake, with an annual production estimated at over 500 tons, on the condition that no large-scale commercial fishing gear was used.

Local fishing families are expected to benefit from gains in income, food security and nutrition (© Lukas Ruettinger)
Local fishing families are expected to benefit from gains in income, food security and nutrition
© Lukas Ruettinger

The achievement boosted civil society networks around the lake, helping launch a broader campaign for reform of fisheries management. Within ten months, the Prime Minister announced the suspension of all remaining fishing lots on the lake. "This represented a dramatic policy transition that resulted in expanded access for communities and more extensive zones designated for protection, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fisheries industry," explains Dr Blake Ratner from the WorldFish Center. "While too soon to measure the impact of this reform, local fishing families are expected to benefit from gains in income, food security and nutrition, as well as the associated opportunities in processing and trade," he says.

Enabling change

Organisers of the civil society campaign for reform credit partnership with the WorldFish Center for creating dialogue between local civil society actors and the government. In particular this dialogue has improved awareness of the factors that lead to resource competition and the potential roles of different actors in addressing them. In 2009-2010, the Coalition of Cambodian Fishers (CCF) grassroots network, the Fisheries Administration (the key national authority) and the Cambodian Development Resource Institute (a leading policy research institute) jointly implemented a series of dialogue workshops around Tonle Sap at village, provincial and national levels.

Local and provincial consultations occurred in five communities and involved local fishers, traders, village leaders, fisheries officers, environment officers, police and district officials. Local consultations were directly followed by provincial consultations in order for participants to present outcomes and explore solutions with provincial agencies, NGOs, sector department heads and other senior government staff. A national consultation held in 2010 included senior management from the Fisheries Administration (FiA), the Tonle Sap Basin Authority, the Cambodian National Committee, and participants from provincial consultations.

The action research process prompted follow-on actions to resolve local resource disputes (© Lukas Ruettinger)
The action research process prompted follow-on actions to resolve local resource disputes
© Lukas Ruettinger

This action research process prompted follow-on actions to resolve local resource disputes. CCF and FiA, for example, agreed to work together following the national consultations to organise direct negotiations between community fishery organisations in neighbouring provinces. The negotiations resulted in an agreement between the two parties to jointly manage and use the disputed area. "By exploring the implications of various management options on all parties involved, the stakeholders were able to arrive at a solution perceived by all sides as legitimate, which would likely not have occurred in the case of a solution imposed from above," Ratner says.

For other communities around Tonle Sap, this experience demonstrated the possibilities for effective advocacy. The process also helped civil society groups create new linkages and access support from national level agencies, for example to respond to reports of illegal fishing operations. Perhaps most importantly, Ratner adds, the dialogue led to a fundamental shift in strategy by CCF, which represents fishing communities, emphasising 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," Ratner explains. By joining competing stakeholders in a collaborative process, the initiative has strengthened 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 communities and the power of social accountability rather than conventional - and costly - structures of project management.

Continuing reform

To complete the reform process, Ratner advocates a range of measures, including the involvement of local communities in the design of new community-managed fishing areas, repositioning of fish sanctuaries to cover the richest ecological habitats, and improvement in the capacities and incentives of enforcement agencies. Despite the progress made so far, risks to fishery livelihoods remain as competition increases and household catches decrease. Water resource infrastructure and land use changes also threaten to undermine fisheries productivity within the lake.

Local and provincial consultations occurred in five communities (© WorldFish Center)
Local and provincial consultations occurred in five communities
© WorldFish Center

Questions also remain about whether increasing community access will lead to improved conservation, more equitable distribution of resources and more sustainable livelihoods for the most vulnerable. There are also concerns as to whether the agreements for joint management will endure. "This story is still unfolding," Ratner states. "The long-term outcomes in terms of ecosystem functions, productivity, livelihoods, incomes and nutrition are not yet clear."

But despite the uncertainty, Ratner believes that the impact made by fisheries communities surrounding Tonle Sap suggests a strong case for adapting and implementing the approach elsewhere. "As the approach is applied in other domains and contexts, it will be essential to document and compare the lessons that emerge in order to improve the practice of supporting resilience, adaptation and transformation in large social-ecological systems," Ratner concludes.

* To learn more about this work, including how the action research and dialogue approach is being adapted in East Africa, visit the Strengthening Aquatic Resources Governance project site at the Worldfish Center. These efforts are part of a larger initiative, the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems, using action research to build resilience of local livelihoods in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Date published: July 2012

 

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