- Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake is surrounded by a conservation area that consists of three zones: Zone 1 and 2, where farming is allowed, and Zone 3, which is closest to the lake and where agriculture and fishing are officially banned.
- The conservation area was enacted in 2011, but farmers and fishers largely had unfettered use of Zone 3 land until 2021, when Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a crackdown on all clearing and agricultural use of flooded forest land.
- The ban opens an opportunity for the government to restore Tonle Sap’s unique forests, and satellite data already show a drop in deforestation activity in 2022.
- However, farmers living around the lake say they’re hard-pressed to survive without the agriculture they’ve depended on for years.
PREK TABAEK, Cambodia — Bat Savoeun claims he has Prime Minister Hun Sen’s signoff to farm his 2 hectares of land in Prek Tabaek village, on the edge of the swelling Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia’s Pursat province.
Sitting at the drink shop next to a disassembled bridge crossing one of the lake’s skinny tributaries in April, Savoeun said he can’t produce a permit, but he claims Pursat province residents had petitioned in Phnom Penh in 2010 to farm the flatlands surrounding Tonle Sap and that Prime Minister Hun Sen had agreed. Regardless of that petition’s claims, the 32-year-old farmer and resident said the area had been rice fields for most of his life.
“It was similar to this,” he said, looking out into the field now covered in a spiny weed that grabs the pantlegs of passing motorbike drivers who get too close. “It already looked like a rice farm, we’ve been doing farming for a long time.”
But Savoeun said he and his family haven’t touched the land since late last year, after the same premier banned all farming in his village.
Cambodia’s great lake is surrounded by a conservation area that consists of three zones: Zone 1 and 2, where farming is allowed, and Zone 3, which is closest to the lake and where agriculture and fishing are officially banned. However, farmers and fishers largely had unfettered use of Zone 3 land until last year, when Hun Sen suddenly ordered a crackdown on all clearing and agricultural use of flooded forest land. The ban opens an opportunity for the government to restore Tonle Sap’s unique forests, but farmers living around the lake say they’re hard-pressed to survive without the agriculture they practiced for years.
The crackdown unfolds
In an audio message posted to his Facebook in November, Hun Sen said he was troubled by the destruction of Tonle Sap’s flooded forests, and ordered officials in the six provinces surrounding the lake to enforce protected area boundaries and stop clearing the land. He accused local government officials of clearing land for profit as well, including a recently transferred governor in Kampong Chhnang province.
Officials told local media they reclaimed about 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) by early this year, and have since launched a crackdown on illegal fishing practices as well.
Tonle Sap Lake is surrounded by almost 650,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) of land across six provinces deemed flooded forest territory important for fisheries conservation and protected by a sub-decree enacted in 2011. The lake swells during the monsoon season to around five times its dry-season area, flooded by water from the Mekong River and causing a reverse flow in the connecting Tonle Sap River. This unique system spawns forests that can spend half the year underwater — and a range of birds and aquatic creatures that rely on these trees — as well as fertile farmland sought by residents.
Most residents interviewed in Battambang and Pursat provinces said they knew they lived in the restricted conservation section, Zone 3. However, they said they were allowed to farm before last year.
Ouk Vibol, director of fisheries conservation at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said the Zone 3 territories in the protected area correspond with some of Tonle Sap’s fish conservation zones, identified as breeding grounds where fishers are not allowed to place nets.
“When we created [fishery] conservation areas, some parts also cover flooded forests because we know there are some canals between one area of the flooded forest to another, there’s connectivity … during the flooding season, there are fish, especially endangered species, that find spaces [in the forest] for spawning, that’s why we don’t allow people to go inside,” he said.
The southern half of Tonle Sap’s protected area is comprised of two primary natural landscapes: flooded forests and grasslands, said Rob Tizard, lead for Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia’s Tonle Sap project. Tizard said both landscapes provide critical habitat for birds, in addition to the forests’ importance for fish. Asian openbill storks (Anastomus oscitans), once in rapid decline, have flourished to the point of spreading from the lakeside Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in Battambang province, the densest stretch of flooded forest on the southern side, as have greater adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius), an endangered stork species that has only been recorded breeding in the Prek Toal area. The grasslands in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces also provide habitat for a critically endangered species of bustard called the Bengal floricans (Houbaropsis bengalensis), where about 75% of the bird’s remaining population resides, Tizard added.
However, much of the rest of Zone 3 has been cleared and sporadically populated by small villages, usually along rivers. The newly banned farms — which residents say were traditionally tended by community members as well as outsiders who bought land-use rights —are now filling with a spiny invasive weed called giant sensitive plant (Mimosa pigra), according to Tizard.
Satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch indicate that tree cover loss in the forest that surrounds the Tonle Sap lake declined significantly after 2012. However, the data also show that tree cover loss has been steadily increasing since dipping to a 20-year low in 2018. While satellite imagery shows the expansion of several large clearings near the lake in 2021 and early 2022, preliminary data for 2022 suggest a much-reduced rate of forest loss so far this year, with around 2,500 high-confidence deforestation alerts detected between January and June compared to more than 7,000 detected during the same period in 2021.
Tizard said the grasslands are more at risk of degradation than the flooded forests, simply because of their accessibility: “If you do go into [the forest], as well as being really thick and difficult to get through, it’s sticky, muddy, so getting through lots of it is not really possible.”
He added: “While yes everyone is chipping away at [flooded forest], like all forest everywhere, but … nobody has taken a big chunk out of it because there’s no obvious moneymaker on that because it still floods.”
Farmers’ claims to the land
Back in the center of Pursat’s Prek Tabaek village, two farmers told reporters they were frustrated by the crackdown.
Though they knew they had no legal claim over the farmland outside Prek Tabaek, farmer Si Chan, 39, said the residents informally claimed certain areas, and bought and sold those territories from each other.
“All of us [residents] got money from the bank or microfinance firms to get things like tractors or other equipment,” he said. “Now it’s just like the government took it all, it’s difficult.”
Chan also took out a loan last year to buy around 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of land in Zone 3 informally, using the land that his house sits on as collateral for the microfinance agency.
Chan’s neighbor, Van Sovin, who stopped by when she heard Chan talking about the moratorium on farming, said farmers liked to work the land near the flooded forests: the mice that eat their crops make their nests in the forests during the dry season instead of around their fields.
Both farmers and longtime residents of the village claimed most of the farmland had been that way for years, not recently cleared as officials said. Sovin said she felt the geography wasn’t suited to the government’s plans.
“At that area, the flooded forest would be important because the area always floods before October, but the area that’s higher, it’s flooded after October, it’s already past the breeding season for the fish,” she said. “It should be allowed for the farmers to grow rice.”
When reporters visited in mid-April, 66-year-old Mak Dot and some of his friends were relaxing on a wooden platform under a stilt house. It was Ramadan, and the Muslim community in Pursat’s Kampong Luong commune said they weren’t supposed to work too much during the month of daylight fasting.
In past years, Dot said, he was able to grow enough rice and vegetables to feed his family from his 1-hectare plot, with additional income from fishing and preparing prahok, a fermented fish paste that’s a staple in Cambodian cooking.
“We cannot bargain or argue because for the government, it’s protected area, so if they say they want to take it back, we have to follow them, otherwise we’ll get arrested if we go to farm in Zone 3,” he said.
The farmer claimed his nephew was caught with a tractor planning to clear land in Zone 2, where citizens are allowed to use the land without owning it. The nephew is in jail awaiting a decision from the Pursat provincial court, Dot said, but he added he felt it was a wrongful arrest because he was in Zone 2.
“He planned to clear [the land] for giving to the villagers to do the farming, not like clearing it for his own benefit, just clearing it for the [other] villagers,” he said.
Replanting over rice fields
Vibol, the fisheries conservation official, said his department is now raising seedlings to replant seven different species of flooded forest trees, and that workers have started planting saplings in a few places, as well as bamboo and palm trees as markers to delineate the different zones.
The ministry reportedly plans to embark on a larger reforestation campaign in May and June, planting trees in areas where they think flooded forest can’t rejuvenate on its own, just before the rainy season begins.
Tizard, from WCS Cambodia, said the act of growing crops, such as chili, on already-cleared land wasn’t directly harming the dense, protected ecosystems like Prek Toal Wildlife Sanctuary. However, he cautioned that his organization has observed canal and road building, as well as other infrastructure projects, leading to encroachment in different areas.
“[The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology] definitely does the canals [for irrigation to unprotected areas], but then people or private sector interests often extend canals illegally, so there are all of the pressures on that natural system that are kind of just driven locally by who’s interested or thinks they can get a bit more land into cultivation,” he said.
Reforestation might be a good plan to gain publicity and raise awareness, and the Tonle Sap flooded forest trees tend to grow back pretty successfully, Tizard added. But he warned that protecting the saplings requires years of monitoring the landscape for human forest encroachment and also buffalo grazing.
“It’s probably going to have to [require] a lot more time in the weeding and ongoing care from the initial excitement of saying ‘we planted some trees,’” he said, adding that all that invasive giant sensitive plant that fills untended fields will need to be removed.
Without any options, some of the farmers said they would consider leaving the floodplain in search of work elsewhere.
Tru Mao, 40, of Pursat’s Kanhchor commune, said she had cleared a few hectares of forested land to gain some farmland, and the loss of its use immediately put her and her family out of income.
“I didn’t have any permission and also didn’t have any warning, I just cleared the forest,” she said, as she bounced her baby boy in a walker.
Mao said her family needed to be able to farm to sustain themselves in the province. Now her husband was contemplating moving to Thailand for factory work, leaving Mao to take care of the family and their stilt house alone.
“I don’t feel anything,” she said, when asked how she felt about losing the farmland. “[The crackdown] happened to everyone in general, but if the government allows me to farm again, I will do it again.”
Mao’s husband isn’t the only one looking for livelihood farther afield.
“After April, everyone will go to Thailand for construction work, other jobs,” said Sath, a 32-year-old man chatting among the group of neighbors gathered along the Sangker River in Battambang’s Bak Prea village.
The group told Mongabay reporters that there’s nothing left to do: they had to let their vegetable gardens go, and they’ve lost a lot of fish this year too. Dou, a 45-year-old fisher, said they used electric fishing gear, which they know is illegal, but the river’s fish are small and hard to catch otherwise, and they can’t compete with wealthier fishers’ big nets.
“For us we get less so we have to use that tactic,” she said.
The neighbors speculated that more people would follow those who have taken jobs in Thailand in the past. But despite the change, Sath said he remained hopeful.
“It’s OK if they shut down illegal fishing and crack down on illegal forest clearance,” he said. “It’s good for us because as the poor families [in this province], we’re happy to see the large-scale illegal fishing crackdown, and we expect to get the bigger fish later.”
Banner image: Woman paddling a boat loaded with fruit to sell. Image by Brian Hoffman via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
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