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Saving Cambodia's Great Lake
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Saving Cambodia's Great Lake
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Seeds of Hope: Cambodia
The Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is among the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world. But the lake is being threatened by deforestation, illegal fishing practices, and pollution, so the local communities who depend on the lake for survival are working together to protect the lake's resources and improve their livelihoods.
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Segment 1

TITLE
Saving Cambodia's Great Lake
TUY RAAN [School Principal, Chong Kneas]
The Tonle Sap Lake was rich in fish when I was young. People went fishing and usually brought back enough fish to support their families. But I've seen that our Tonle Sap has changed. Now the lake is poorer, with fewer fish and less forests.
VOICEOVER
In Cambodia today, there is growing awareness that the Tonle Sap Lake and its remarkable wetland habitat must be protected before it's too late. Flooded forests of tall trees, shrubs, and plants thrive in this magical watery world. The Tonle Sap is the largest and most important freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, covering over 12,000 square kilometers at the height of the flood season. The profusion of vegetation nourishes a rich biological diversity, including over 400 species of fish, as well as reptiles, mammals, and birds. The sanctuary at Prek Toal is the last the last haven in Southeast Asia for large water birds such as pelicans, egrets, darters, cormorants, as well as rare, endangered storks. In 1997, the Tonle Sap was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO to ensure the long-term conservation of its vibrant ecosystem. Throughout the ages, the lake's rich resources have attracted human settlement. On the hilltop of Phnom Krom stands an ancient temple overlooking the lake, a relic of the powerful empire of Angkor that dominated the region for 600 years. The center of the kingdom, the temple city of Angkor, is very close to the lake. In the Bayon temple, stone carvings depict daily life on the Tonle Sap, and the flora and fauna, which sustained early Khmer civilization. Today, the lake continues to nourish the nation, a vital source of food in one of Asia's poorest countries. The Tonle Sap is among the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world. The annual catch provides protein for two out of three Cambodians, whose diet is mostly rice and fish. With the lake yielding such plenty, Cambodians feel that the Tonle Sap is truly the heart of their country.
H.E. NGY CHANPHAL [Ministry of Rural Development]
Without the lake, it would be difficult for Cambodians to survive. 1.2 million live around this lake. It's not a small number. 200,000 to 300,000 tons of fish have been captured every year to supply a major role to us in terms of development, preservation, conservation, and a natural resource for the people.
VOICEOVER
The secret of the lake's riches lies in its unique hydrological cycle of seasonal flooding. From the lowest level in the dry season to the highest point of the flood season, the lake rises by eight or nine meters. During the dry season, water flows out of the lake, down the Tonle Sap River, and into the Mekong, the major river system of the region. However, the Tonle Sap River reverses direction in the rainy season under pressure from the floodwaters of the Mekong. Water flows back into the lake, which swells to five times its dry season size. Arrow-shaped traps lure fish in the floodplain. As water inundates the lake, fish migrate from the Mekong River to spawn and flourish in the vegetation of the wetland. When the water recedes, a layer of silt is deposited on the floodplain, fertilizing fields planted to crops in the dry season. The people who live on the Tonle Sap have long adapted to the annual cycle of flooding. Many live in floating houses. As the lakeshore moves, so do the people. During the dry season, when the water is low and muddy, the floating villages of Chong Kneas cluster on the lake. But during the wet season, villages are relocated along a channel in the floodplain, as the lakeshore moves more than five kilometers to the foot of Phnom Krom. The Cambodian people depend on the lake's resources, but how long can it last? The Tonle Sap has become an environmental hotspot, threatened by human encroachment, and degraded as never before. Cutting and clearing of the flooded forest for farmland and fuelwood are harming fish spawning grounds. It's estimated that the lake's forests once covered 10,000 square kilometers of the floodplain. Today, two-thirds of the forest is gone.
PATRICK EVANS [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN]
Protection of the flood forest ... This is critical habitat for fish production. It's been under lots of pressure from farmers moving down to this area, wanting more land for dry season rice cultivation. But, as the forest goes, so does fishery spawning grounds. Fish productivity is directly linked to this flood forest vegetation. People see the resources disappearing before their eyes.
VOICEOVER
The health of the Tonle Sap is threatened in other ways. After years of civil strife in Cambodia, peace has led to a rapid growth in the number of people settling around the lake to seek a livelihood. Fish stocks are threatened by over-exploitation and illegal fishing practices. Increasing pollution and erosion of soil from the watershed are accelerating the lake's demise.
VOICEOVER
The situation at Chong Kneas on the northwestern shore is a microcosm of the problems occurring on the lake. Chong Kneas is a crowded, chaotic landing for fish, goods, and tourists from the nearby town of Siem Reap. Chong Kneas has been a port and a gateway to the region since Angkorian times. The constant pressure of human settlement has taken a heavy toll on the lake's ecosystem. The floodplain around Chong Kneas has long since been denuded, leaving a dusty landscape of scrub bushes exposed in the dry season. In the flood season, Chong Kneas is transformed. The quaint, colorful life of this floating village, however, masks a deeper reality. Despite the extraordinary riches of the lake, most people in Chong Kneas are very poor, barely surviving on less than a dollar a day. In fact, poverty is worse here than in the nation as a whole. Like most residents of the floating village, Yim Pha and her family depend on fishing for survival.
YIM PHA [Chong Kneas Resident]
Today I only caught 10 kilos of fish. It is not enough to pay for fuel for the boat. Our house is broken, but we have no money for repairs, no money to buy medicine or clothes for the children to wear.
VOICEOVER
The population of Chong Kneas has tripled during the past decade to over 6,000 people. Huts crowd the embankment. Chong Kneas has become a magnet for migrants, mostly destitute families of landless farmers. They eke out a living as petty traders, or as porters unloading the boats. They cast their nets in the channel for the family meal, even in the shallow pools left behind in the dry season. As Chong Kneas grows, so does the pollution. Plastic bags and other garbage from the fish market, as well as human waste, go straight into the channel. The Tonle Sap has become a sewer for the expanding urban centers near the lake like Siem Reap. Waste discharged into the Siem Reap River, which flows through the town, ends up in the lake at Chong Kneas. With Siem Reap now in the midst of a construction boom fueled by tourism, the volume of waste going into the lake is a serious concern. At Chong Kneas, poor families have little choice but to use the polluted water in the channel for cooking and bathing. Inevitably, young children sometimes take a drink, and may get sick as a result. Waterborne diseases are rampant among the children of Chong Kneas. The local health clinic treats four times the number of young children with diarrhea compared to other villages in the district. It's the leading cause of death among children under five.

Segment 2

VOICEOVER
The widespread poverty at Chong Kneas is closely related to the decline of fishing as a viable livelihood of the growing population. To try to get a decent catch, residents must travel an hour or more. Every day in the dry season, Yim Pha and her family head out to fish on the lake. It's the height of the fishing season, and the family hopes the catch will be plentiful. The livelihood from fishing used to be good, but now, she says, it's tough to make ends meet.
YIM PHA
About 20 or 30 years ago there were plenty of fish, but not now. I could catch about 100 kilos, but this year, we're lucky to get 10 to 50 kilos a day. It keeps getting worse, especially with the commercial fishing operators with big nets and small holes, who start fishing in November. They catch all the fish.
VOICEOVER
The family lands a few small fish. Their catch for the day is only 10 kilos for 10 hours' hard work. Yim Pha blames the big commercial operators that control the best fishing grounds on the lake, where crews can pull in one ton in an hour. The commercial lots are exclusive fishing areas auctioned by the government to the highest bidder. These large-scale commercial fishing operations are very effective in exploiting the fishery, harvesting most of the total annual catch from the lake. But they're also a source of conflict with small fishermen. Miles of fencing and nets surround the vast fishing domains to keep fish in and other people fishing out. No one can fish there without the lot owner's permission. It's now November in the flood season. At this time of year, fishing usually takes place at night, using kerosene lamps to attract the tiny fish, which are the scooped up in a net attached to the bow of the boat. At home, on her small floating house in Chong Kneas, Yim Pha plucks last night's catch from the net. The fish caught at this time of year are mostly small varieties, which will serve as feed for fingerlings she is raising in a bamboo cage. Many families have fish cages to earn some income during the lean season.
YIM PHA
We leave here at 5pm before dark. We travel about two kilometers. We return at 3am. We usually catch about 100 kilos of small fish. Then, I leave home again at 5am to sell in the market. When I get home, I do chores like chopping fish, cooking rice, and looking after my grandchild The fish we caught won't even cover the cost of running the boat. When I'm short of money, I just borrow from other people to buy fuel for the next trip.
VOICEOVER
As the livelihood from fishing becomes more and more difficult, Yim Pha worries about the education of her children.
YIM PHA
I would like my children to continue to go to school, but we are poor. I want my daughters to study one more year. I hope they will become tour guides. If they learn English they can be translators. I'm worried about my youngest boy. I worry about accidents because of the motorboats. I dare not let him take the boat alone.
VOICEOVER
Yim Pha has cause to be concerned. The wake from passing boats can easily swamp and sometimes overturn the small skiffs. In fact, drowning is the second leading cause of death among small children in Chong Kneas. School regulations stipulate that children cannot be enrolled until they've learned to swim. It's one reason why half of the children here do not attend school. What does the future hold for Yim Pha's family and the hundreds of other poor families in Chong Kneas who depend on fishing for survival?
EM MANN [Chairman, Chong Kneas Commune]
We are very worried about the future here in our place. Our people are fishermen. What hope is there for our fishermen if there are no fish to catch? How are we going to survive? There is no other work that could replace fishing to provide for our future. This is really our biggest concern right now.
VOICEOVER
If the Tonle Sap Lake is further degraded, Cambodia faces an environmental disaster. However, there are hopeful signs that this can be averted.
IAN FOX [Asian Development Bank]
The lake is under attack on many fronts, but there are some reasons for optimism. The government for the first time is taking concerted action at different levels in a coordinated manner: promoting alternative livelihoods to take pressure off the lake's resources, increasing public awareness, making changes in laws and institutions. The type of community involvement we see around the lake -- people coming together to solve problems affecting their livelihoods -- this is a vital component of an overall management strategy for the lake.
VOICEOVER
Just 20 kilometers from Chong Kneas is Kompong Phluk. Kompong Phluk is a very different world of houses built on stilts: practical in the dry season, with a lower floor for work and storage, yet high enough for the second-floor living area to be above the high waterline in the flood season. Unlike the shifting villages of Chong Kneas, Kompong Phluk is a permanent site located along a river channel not far from the open lake. During the dry season, the water level is too low for boats to reach the village from the lake. Temporary dwellings are built out on the lake and dismantled when the lake rises again and stored for next year. Kompong Phluk is remarkable in other ways. It's surrounded by the largest closed-canopy gallery forest left on the Tonle Sap. This is the community's most valuable resource, and residents are determined to preserve it at all costs. Ng Mi is patrolling the forest, on the lookout for anyone illegally cutting trees.
NG MI [Fishery Management Committee, Kompong Phluk
We have to be on the lookout for people cutting trees to clear land to plant rice in the dry season. And the other problem is cutting firewood. People just don't care how they cut the trees. In the dry season, sometimes they cut the whole tree, which destroys our forest.
VOICEOVER
Ng Mi is a member of the community fishery's management committee of Kompong Phluk. He's responsible for patrolling the forest and the village fishery. Mi explains how the forest has been divided into zones under a plan that allows villagers to cut firewood for cooking and fish processing. Cutting areas are rotated from zone to zone to allow the forest to recover. Each household is allowed to cut seven cubic meters per year. Only the ends of branches can be cut so the trees are preserved.
HEOURING HAK [Kompong Phluk Resident]
We look for the big trees with many branches as big as our wrists, 10 to 20 branches. Then we cut four to five, but we don't cut the big ones, only the small ones. The forest is where fish spawn. When there's a storm from the lake, the forest protects our houses.
VOICEOVER
The community has established a fish sanctuary, and works with the government fisheries officer to intercept boats in the area using illegal nets and other harmful fishing practices. In 2000, the government released to communities half of the private commercial fishing lot areas on the Tonle Sap. A new fisheries law and regulations that reflect this far-reaching change are before the national assembly. Now, with access to half a million hectares of good fishing grounds, poor fishing families have a real opportunity to improve their livelihood, provided the lake's resources are managed well. The village longboat team practices for races to take place during the annual water festival. This important festival celebrates the reversing of the Tonle Sap River and the opening of the fishing season. Taking advantage of the occasion, education officer Nok Nak paddles through the community spreading his message.
NOK NAK [Education Officer]
I've been responsible for education since the beginning of the community fisheries committee. We sensitize people about the importance of the flooded forest as a sanctuary for fish to multiply. We also teach them not to use illegal fishing tools to ensure the sustainable supplies of our fish. We do this so that we will have fish to catch in the future. It's not the fisheries committee who set the rules; it's the people themselves, so they dare not go against what they themselves decided. We all have to stick to our rules and regulations. If someone breaks a regulation, they deserve to be fined. It's fair, because the people themselves made the rules.
VOICEOVER
In Kompong Phluk, the differences with Chong Kneas are clear to see: sturdy houses, a plentiful catch, healthier children. It comes down to safeguarding the resources which provide people's livelihood according to a community leader.
SOK PLONG [Chairman, Community Fisheries]
If you compare fishing here with Chong Kneas, the two places are very different. Here, we have protected the flooded forests, so lots of fish come and live in the forests. But in places that are not protected, there are few fish. If you compare living standards, there are more rich people in Chong Kneas, but there are also a lot of poor people. In Kompong Phluk, it's not like that. There are a few rich people but there are also very few poor families who do not have enough food. Their living standard is in the middle, not high, not low. Everyone at least has enough to survive in our community.
VOICEOVER
Community management of the lake's resources is a new trend. But the experience in Kompong Phluk shows its promise. Pioneered in Siem Reap Province by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this grassroots approach is being extended by the government to villages all around the lake.
H.E. NGY CHANPHAL
The involvement of the community, it's a major change. It's a catalyst for change in terms of preservation, and they understand: not only the older people but the younger generation. This is not for us now, it's for the future.
VOICEOVER
Schoolchildren gather around a pile of firewood for a lesson on the loss of the flooded forest. Creating awareness, especially among children, about the need to protect the Tonle Sap Lake may be the best hope to conserve this wondrous wetland for generations to come.
TITLE
[end credits]